A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin
“Genius is a true degenerative psychosis.” These words, a quote by Cesare Lombroso and spoken by a character in “A Doubters’ Almanac” sums up this book quite efficiently. In this character study by Ethan Canin, we see how the pressures of genius can turn ambition upon itself in self-destructive fury.
As the story begins, we meet young Milo Andret, a bright young man being raised by indifferent parents. Milo skips grades, is socially indifferent, and spends his free time by himself in the woods. As Milo begins high school, he realizes his potential as a mathematician (heretofore unrecognized by himself or his parents). Milo heads to college at no less an institution than UC Berkeley, where he is brought under the tutelage of brilliant mathematician Dr. Borland. Borland is determined to rope Milo into his preferred field of topology. Pressure mounts as Milo’s genius is taken as a given, and we hear the repeated refrain that mathematicians either make their mark early or they fizzle out. Milo decides to focus his intellect on the Malosz Problem, which has baffled the greatest minds in mathematics.
And it is here that we begin to see the self-destructiveness of Milo’s vast intelligence. He becomes obsessed with solving the Malosz Problem, and it becomes the pivotal point of his college career. Milo’s obsession with solving the unsolvable continues to haunt his choices later, when he has achieved a professorship at Princeton University. Throughout the book, we see how the pressures of genius coupled with substance abuse combine to form a toxicity that will damage Milo and his family for decades to come.
This book is certainly not my normal fare. I tend to read things of a more escapist bent. I received this book as part of Powell’s Indiespensable (Vol.58), and this is one of the reasons I value the program so highly: it introduces me to books outside of my comfort zone. This book was well-written, the characters very vivid, and the plot skips backwards, forwards, and sideways in time. And while it’s certainly a far cry from my usual historical-sci-fi-mystery choices, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit. I will say I had to stop midway through and take a break to read a historical-sci-fi-mystery fun book (A Perilous Undertaking if you must know) to keep my spirits up.
The slog through the destruction of a family becomes disheartening at points, but with some well-earned escapism out of the way I can say that I’m quite glad to have read this book.Even the high math references going (way, way, way) over my head didn’t detract from the plot
If you’re generally a fan of soul-searching family and personal drama, or a math nut (which I am not) then you’ll most likely enjoy this book. Ethan Canin is a fine craftsman with words and his story is quite compelling. I definitely recommend this as a heavy read.