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The Genius In My Basement

by Alexander Masters

Hardcover, 360 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25 |


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The Genius In My Basement
Alexander Masters

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Book Summary

The author of Stuart: A Life Backwards presents a tragicomic account of a troubled math prodigy who, after contributing to The Atlas of Finite Groups, lost all interest in math as his genius faded.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Simon: The Genius In My Basement


Simon was one year old, playing in the dining room, getting under his mother's stilettos.

He was unusually thoughtful. His brothers at this age pounded the toy blocks on the glass coffee table and jabbed them into the electric sockets.

Simon picked up a pink block from the pile beside his knee and smoothed it against the carpet. Carefully, he positioned a blue brick alongside. He reached across-his mother, on her way to lay the side plates and forks, had to make a sharp swerve-for two more pink bricks, and slid them against the blue. With precision, he extracted another blue brick.

Shuffling across the room on his bottom, Simon found four more pink bricks, fumbled them back and continued the arrangement.

His mother, halfway through folding napkins into bishops' miters, stopped in astonishment. She saw at last what he was doing.

One blue, one pink.

One blue, two pinks.

One blue, three pinks.

One blue, four pinks.

From the disarray of Nature, her baby son was enforcing regularity.

It took our species from the birth of prehistory to the dawn of Babylonian civilization to learn mathematics.

Simon was bumping about its foothills in just over twelve months.

At three years, eleven months and twenty-six days, he toddled into cake layers of long multiplication:

Simon's brother Francis had barely managed to recite the digits from one to ten by the time he was four years old; his brother Michael, a fraction quicker, had understood that if you gave him three banana-flavor milkshakes, and asked him to "count" them, the correct answer was "one" for the first, "two" for the second and "three" for the sticky splosh dribbling down his ear.

Percentages, square numbers, factors, long division, his 81 and 91 times tables, making numbers dance about to itchy tunes:

Simon mastered these when he was five.

Occasionally, his attention wandered:


The reader meets Simon

That's the sound of a once-in-a-generation genius.

Simon Phillips Norton: Phillips, with an "s," as if one Phillip were not enough to contain his brilliance. He lives under my floorboards.

Dhuunk, dhuunk ...

When I first moved here, I had no idea what the noises were. Underground rivers? The next-door neighbors dragging a new pot through to their Tuscan garden? Dhuunk, dhuunk ... But after eight years of interpretation I know that it's the great man's feet, stomping from one end of his room to the other. Every second stomp is heavier.

"Sssschlissh": that's the swipe of his puffa ski jacket against the stalagmites of paperbacks he keeps piled on the furniture.

"Zwaap": the sound of his duffel, as he rotates at the end of the room. He sometimes flings it wide, hitting papers. Simon carries this bag about with him everywhere he goes, clutched in the crook of his arm, even if it's just to his front door to let in the gas man.

... dhuunk, dhuunk, dhuunk, zwaap, dhuunk, dhuunk ...

Simon's bed is ten feet directly beneath mine. My study is on top of his living room. His stomping space extends the full depth of the building, under my floor. My balcony is the roof of his basement extension, which has herded all the pretty garden plants into a six- foot square at the back of our house and stamped them under concrete slabs.

The phone rings. A charge from Simon: Dhuunk! Dhuunk! Dhuunk!

Snorting. The receiver — ... rrinng, clank, clumpump, ping, ping ... — wrenched from its holster. Attempts at speech, grunts, bangs of talk-noise; a strangulated word.

Clunk. Phone back in its holster.


Dhuunk, dhuunk, dhuunk ...

There's another very important sound, which is too difficult to represent typographically: an intermittent, twisted crackle, sharp but thick, with a strong sense of command, resting on a base of plosive disorder. In an exercise book from when he was five there's a squiggle that comes close:

It's the sound of plastic-bag-being-opened-in-a-hurry-and-the-gratification-of-discovering-important-papers-inside. Without understanding this noise, you cannot understand the man.

... ssschliissh, dhuunk, zwaap, zwaap, dhuunk, dhuunk ...

Simon has been pacing down there for twenty-seven years, three months, five days, thirteen hours and eight minutes.


Stop breathing!

Did you catch that?

Still another sort of noise?

A sort of sigh?

That was a thought.

Minus N

Your representation of me as interesting is inaccurate. I feel ashamed by it.


Damn! He's gone!

Simon's refused to enter the book!

He is a Minus Norton.

"Why now?" I demanded, jumping up from the carpet when he stomped into my study from the basement. "The reader has started the story. He's spent the money. He feels conned."

"How do you know it's a he who's reading it? It might be a she, hnnn."

"He or she! Who cares?"

"I presume they do," he said cunningly.

Behind him, a bubble of air floated up the stairs and expanded into my rooms of the house, whiffing of damp and sardines.

Then he barged out of the front door, and, the scuff of his sandals becoming rapidly soft and seaside-ish, disappeared toward the Mathematics Faculty.

A book about Simon that doesn't have Simon in it?

I had thought a life of Simon would be tiptoeing on the edge of the shadow of God. Instead, he crashes about my study as though heel joints had never been invented; makes women shriek when they turn on the light in the corridor and find him standing there like an Easter Island statue; his duffel twists him into animal shapes; he hides behind envelopes.

He shocks me awake with his snores.

Writing biographies of living people, the subject is an irritant. Why is he needed? All he does is insist that whatever you've written is wrong.

In fact, when Simon was part of the book, I had to run away from him.

Wouldn't all biographies be better if they gave up trying to fix the person they're writing about, and confined themselves to his glints and reflections — a biography not of Simon but of the perception of Simon? What is a biography, anyway? A platter of gossip and titbits. It's up to the readers to mix these components together in whatever way they find most entertaining and instructive. The subject's out of it. Once word hits page, he's irrelevant.

I'm glad Simon's gone. Good riddance!

In mathematics, you jump onto the subject of numbers through your experience of reality-two flies multiplied by four sudden pulls gives eight wings; three toads, two frogs and one bathtub equals six screams of fury from your father; four bags of crisps and five of your mum's cigarettes make nine orders of stomachache-that's how the newcomer gets introduced to the subject, via the positive, whole numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 ...

But mathematicians insist that negative numbers are equally real. It's just a matter of which way you happen to look: going ahead is positive, and going behind is negative.

I'll go behind Simon. Allow me to introduce Biographical Minus N:

Now, let's break into his basement.

From Simon: The Genius in My Basement by Alexander Masters. Copyright 2012 by Alexander Masters. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.