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‘A Doubter’s Almanac’ review: Ethan Canin’s complex portrait of a fictional math genius

Ethan Canin, author of "A Doubter's Almanac."

Ethan Canin, author of "A Doubter's Almanac." Credit: Nina Subin

A DOUBTER’S ALMANAC, by Ethan Canin. Random House, 558 pp., $28.

Should we loathe Milo Andret, the doomed math genius who broods and storms his way through Ethan Canin’s new novel, “A Doubter’s Almanac”? Or should we pity him?

Thanks to Canin’s literary brilliance, we feel both things. Though it’s hard to forgive Milo for his emotional savagery toward his family, we, and they, ultimately do. While fated to think big thoughts, the man is incapable of negotiating the everyday world. Logic and certainty he comprehends; the ambiguous protocols of love he finds unfathomable.

Growing up an only child in rural Michigan, Milo likes to wander in the woods, where he discovers his gift for spatial mapping. After a desultory college experience at Michigan State, he flourishes at Berkeley in the field of topology. Next, his solution to the devilishly difficult Malosz conjecture catapults him to Princeton and the Fields Medal, mathematics’ equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Unable to control his alcoholism and beastly behavior toward his colleagues, Milo is eventually forced out, left to flounder in disgrace back in the Midwest.

While in grad school, Cle Wells introduces him to sex and something like love. Student Earl Bietterman immediately emerges as a romantic rival and, ever after, a professional nemesis. It’s not Cle, but Helena Pierce, a secretary at Princeton, who will have to endure Milo’s distance and coldness over the years, as will their children, Hans and Paulette.

The story’s first half is told by an omniscient narrator who turns out to be Hans. The rest he tells in his own rueful voice, even as we fear that he, also a math whiz with addictive tendencies, will go down the same dark road as his father.

Canin, the author of such excellent books as “Emperor of the Air” and “For Kings and Planets,” has here fashioned a tragedy that is remarkably readable. With the horror he makes us feel as we watch Milo’s plunge from the heights, he balances a wise compassion for all his characters. But the book is no apologia for bad behavior, a free pass for genius run amok.

Canin has crafted a believable and indelible portrait of a frustrated master intellectual at work, much the way Richard Powers, in “Orfeo,” gave us a composer of classical music. Mathematical breakthroughs, Canin shows, are not only the product of super intelligence but intuition, broad knowledge and bold conjecture. You need to focus, then take your mind out for a walk in the park. Meantime, rivals working on the same problem across the globe spur you on.

Not mere mind, Milo rages at demons internal and external. The bourbon he regards as his ally we know is his enemy. Hence the scenes that erupt with the explosive power of a Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller.

Yet amid the wreckage, Canin discerns a core of humanity. It’s hard not to feel for the grown man who crawls home to his mother in Michigan, asking, “Do you think I can ever love anyone?” Or the drunken husband who protests, “I’m not drunk, Helena. I’m lost. Help me.”

Notwithstanding these pleas for help, Milo’s curse looms over him forever. “Have you heard about Euclid’s doubt?” he asks Hans. “Have you read about his struggle? . . . The struggle doesn’t matter. What remains is the work, and the work either stands or falls. . . . Nobody cares if you’re close.”

The life of the gentle, humane Albert Einstein, also once at Princeton, reminds us that not all giants of math and science are monsters. What Ethan Canin reminds us is that, despite everything, Milo Andret, isn’t either.

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