The trope of the troubled genius is a fairly common one, and it’s what Ethan Canin is concerned with in his fascinating, immensely readable new novel A Doubter’s Almanac. But what elevates this above the traditional “troubled genius” story is how Canin asks his readers to really parse their own feelings about how to react to a troubled genius, especially when that genius is, to put it bluntly, a spectacular asshole.
But what are the root causes of his assholery? Why does he behave the way he does, treating everyone around him as mere objects to serve his greater good? Does it matter? After all, if empathy is truly walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, and seeing the world through their eyes, that must apply to someone who is gifted, but gauche, just as much as it does to someone who is troubled, but not gifted. Right? You may not completely agree as you find out just how horrible this guy is. You may not want to try to understand him, or much less, forgive him But it’s an interesting exploration.
Our Philip Rothian protago-villain here is a mathematics genius named Milo Andret, who, as an undergraduate earns a modicum of fame by solving a nearly half-century-old topology problem. (One of the highlights of this novel is Canin’s ability to convey just enough information to help his reader understand the basics, but without getting bogged down into byzantine details.) Milo parlays this success into a professorship at Princeton, and turns his attentions and considerable talents to another problem. But he soon gets bogged down with booze, affairs with married women (and one with a sweet but sad unmarried woman), and being generally quarrelsome and cantankerous (even though he’s still in his mid-30s).
Milo, like many geniuses, is constantly disappointed with the world, generally, but also most other people specifically. He’s like a cross between Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces and John Nash from A Beautiful Mind. For Milo, “There is no joy in God’s creation,” Milo’s doctor explains to his son at one point. “No pleasure in sunlight or water. No pleasure in a good meal. There is no pleasure in the company of friends. There is nothing. Nothing that might assuage the maw.” That sounds like a justification for everything bad Milo has done, and at some level, it is. So, do we buy it?
The second part of the novel switches gears to the perspective of Milo’s son, filling in the blanks of Milo’s time descending to rock bottom at Princeton and how he got to be an assistant professor at a small college in Ohio. Milo’s son Hans is just as intriguing a character as Milo. Will the sins of the father be repeated by the son?
This big brick of a novel (550 pages) absolutely flies by. Canin is just a great, smooth storyteller, in the vein of other great storytellers like John Irving and Richard Russo. And this is just a helluva great story — even if it makes you mad at times. Some of these characters are just much better people than I could be when presented with such an axe-wound-sized asshole as Milo. But overall, I loved it — it’s highly recommended!
(This post originally appeared on my book blog, The New Dork Review of Books.)