Madness and genius make a familiar literary couple whose success with readers, I suspect, depends on a certain amount of gratified vanity: who wouldn't like to imagine that their moods and eccentricities are down to brilliance? Ethan Canin's new novel is about the "the unremitting quarantine" of this type of genius — a genius transmitted from father to son like a curse — and about the fight to reject this dark inheritance. But as the book does not seem to admit the possibility of women having intellectual lives, my critical faculties were happily unimpaired by an inflated ego resulting from identification with the characters. I can remain clear-eyed when I tell you that all of Canin's painfully and beautifully-evoked male struggles were lost on me: I was looking at the women in the background.
Even as a child, Milo Andret is an intuitive topologist. He can map the world around him with unerring precision, but has no emotional or social intuition. Precocious and antisocial, he ends up a young graduate student of mathematics at Berkeley, "a savant from the woods." There, he throws himself into one of the great unsolved mathematical puzzles of the century.
Milo wants "to live so that he could solve a great problem," but as he embarks on his life's work, his mind begins to betray him. It is full of "Elusive bits. Scattering intuitions. The instinctive way-signs eluding him. His ruinous failure outside the window day and night like an assassin." He gains a professorship at Princeton, where his failures compound each other: drinking, disastrous affairs, and academic disappointment. He assaults another professor, whose wife he has been sleeping with, and his life at Princeton comes to a close. At this point, a little less than halfway through the novel, we discover that it is being narrated by Hans, Milo's son, who is just as mathematically talented and just as lonely as his father, but perhaps not quite as doomed.
You befriend, in fiction, hosts of monsters, rapists, and killers. This is the awe and terror of literature: finding kinship where you don't expect or want it. You keep company with Humbert Humbert, and you like it. I have loved worse monsters than Milo Andret, but his genius is unappealing, his charm nonexistant. Milo, we are told but never shown, holds strange appeal. Women in the novel all seem to want to sleep with him: the pretty secretary, the wives of colleagues ("some mild beauty with a colored drink in her hand"), the reporter who has "already been to bed with two Pulitzer Prize winners."
It's not clear why they want to sleep with him, but silence on that point is typical of this book, in which women are always audience, never actors: they are a calming hand, a pretty face. Milo orders for them in restaurants, follows them, ignores them when they say no. Sometimes they "pretend resistance," but then they fall into a familiar sequence: blush, titter, accede, climax, cry. "Stop following other people's rules," one tells him. "you're beyond them."
Bad characters do not make a book bad, and masculine striving and female accommodation are things you find in real life. Canin's women do chafe in their bonds. In one such moment, Hans and his mother sit on a dock by the lake:
"My mother looked up at the cloud of wings and feelers. 'Mayflies,' she said.
'They seem to be committing suicide in pairs.'
'You're right.' She leaned back and let out a sigh. 'They're mating.'"
But we glimpse her sorrow, never her mind. Here she is, acquiescent and sad like T.S. Eliot's "infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing." Even when confined, women's inner lives are just as large as men's — but you would not know it from A Doubter's Almanac.
When women are brilliant, as some of them in this novel are, the brilliance is not epic or complex — it is just noted, never sounded. Paulette, Hans' sister, is as smart as he is, but we never hear about her research. Nor that of one Russian mathematician Milo has an affair with, who talked about "Soviet politics or academic mathematics, the way other women might talk about roses or the house."
But mostly, Canin's women are placid, suffering Madonnas, innocents in thrall to men of genius. Milo's wife, Hans writes, "washed and washed. She tidied and tidied... Apologized and apologized... She was a creature who lived to serve others. If that is the criterion one uses for loveliness, then my mother was the paragon of loveliness." But what a definition for loveliness! Cleaning and apologizing. Because of the author's skill, Canin's women look almost like real ones, but closer examination reveals that they are just furniture: soft, accommodating, stable, and ancillary.
Like a certain topologist who can map the world but not the heart, Canin renders half the world with precision and beauty — but, as for the other half, like Milo, he does not even know what he can't see.
Annalisa Quinn is a freelance journalist and critic covering books and culture.