I think it’s best that I begin with a legend – a mostly true one.
It goes like this: in 1871, a luckless prospector and aesthete named Tip Chandler, lost in the desert, his mules weakening and his canteen two days empty, came to the edge of a tremendous mesa. Seeing that he Could travel no farther, and knowing that no salvation lay behind him, he fell to his knees and resigned himself to death. But at that moment, a spring of fresh water gushed out from the desiccated ground. Chandler threw himself down, pressed his lips to the earth, and drank; and when, at last, bloated and drenched, he allowed himself to lift his head and breathe, he was overtaken by a vision. He saw, he wrote later, “a splendid City , replete with and dedicated to the sundry pursuits of Knowledge, Art, and Faith; a truly second Athens through whose avenues progressed Architects, Mathematicians, Clergyman, Poets, and Scientists of all sorts; and having in it a great College, which stood up on the Cliffside, a Testament to the Power of Reason whose Beacon shined forth unto the savage and uncomprehending Plain!”
We all have those magnificent visions; maybe not of splendid Cities, but of achievement, love, success, having it all. Ellenberg’s book is here to remind us, in a hilarious way, that we often follow the wrong track in our pursuit of happiness. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to realize it in time to start over. And sometimes not.
The first 50 pages or so are – well, I keep wanting to use the word “rollicking”, though that isn’t really my kind of word. It fits, though. Fast-paced, funny, a little weird without being absurd, Part 1 of the three-part novel takes us from the genesis of Chandler University, a place that never rose to anywhere near the heights envisioned by founder Tip Chandler, through the career of Stanley Higgs, founder of the study of Gravinics. If you’ve never heard of Gravinics, don’t worry; it’s a fictional Eastern European culture (presumably based on the very real Gravettian culture that produced so many ancient Venus figures, carvings of women with enormously enlarged breasts and buttocks) that survived from paleolithic times remarkably unsullied by outside influences.
Higg’s career began when, as a Columbia grad student in comparative literature, he discovered a book in a trash bin. Wiping off the mayonnaise, Higgs uncovers the heretofore unknown poetry collection Poems Against the Enemies Both Surrounding and Pervading Us by Henderson (who must have a first name, but I don’t remember and can’t find it) proclaiming sentiments like “the hectoring of the vendors of spoiled fish/is equal in offensiveness to/the/hideous coughing of my mother. /Berlin is dying/of syphilis and I/ am its rotting nose.” More blog entry than Pound’s “old bitch gone in the teeth.” But it’s the very lack of poetic value that seems to attract Higgs.
Henderson, in his hatred for the reader, for the female sex, for his adopted Germany – really, for everyone – had arrived at a sort of perfection of which ordinary and good poets could not be capable. His work was cleansed entirely of affect, wit, and sense. And so, as he read, was Higgs. He had to lean on a wall; he was shell-shocked; he could smell the evenings fog coming in, and the fish. It was like a glimpse of a world where all laws were suspended: not just human laws but natural selection, the relation of energy to mass, gravity.
His academic career soars when he comes to Chandler to found the Gravinics department, marries the Dean’s daughter, and proves to be an eloquent lecturer. The basketball team becomes infatuated with Gravinics for some reason, and, for a possibly unrelated reason, they start winning games. The school sees this scholar of terrible poetry as a cash cow, attracting better quality students, grant money, the Henderson Society now funded by a Japanese electronics giant, basketball championships, and all those things school truly value when knowledge doesn’t pay the bills. But after a brief Golden Age, things start to sour, until Higgs retreats into his home, refusing to speak.
Enter Sam Grapearbor, our first-person narrator who has until now merely recounted history. And, by the way, we’re only on page 47; this rollicking thing keeps us moving along. In fact, on first read, my impression was that the middle of the book sagged, but after a second read I realize that’s more a matter of comparison; it’s more like it settles down into more of a usual reading pace.
It’s kind of an interesting structure for a novel: start with 50 pages of backstory (take that, in media res) and finishes off with 40 pages of denouement, sandwiching ~150 pages of plot progression, ending in a Marx-Brothers-meet-Mel-Brooks climax, in between. The closing scene, a flashback, ends as we began, with gushing water. Having just done some minor research for a BASS story into Moses striking the rock – on two occasions, with very different outcomes – to bring forth water, I have to steer myself away from overinterpretation. By the way, this whole novel would make a really fun movie, between cinematic scenes, awkward romance, and generous helpings of goofiness; someone slip a copy to a movie producer, ok?
My source text was the sentence, “I kicked the dog.” McTaggert’s idea was that I would acquaint myself with the mechanics of Gravinic by producing a complete list of possible translations.. The tally would run into the tens of thousands. One had to know, first of all, what sort of kick was involved – was it a field-goal swing, a sidewise foot-shove, a horizontal sweep involving the entire leg? All these, and more, called for different verbs. Was the kicking of the dog habitual, or a one-time action? Does the speaker mean to imply that the kick is apt to be repeated? And whose dog is it?
My initial interest in the language had by now transmuted itself into something like awe. Gravinic was a perfected vehicle for meaning – exact meaning.
It’s a tightly woven story, all the parts fitting together. In his “Twenty Questions” interview with Rain Taxi, Ellenberg – a child math prodigy who, at the time of publication in 2003, was teaching math at Princeton, and is now a math professor at UW-Madison – said he didn’t originally think the novel was mathematical, then he saw a causal unity driving the characters. I, a mathphobe who’s been taking and retaking high school math for, oh, 40 years now, trying to get the jokes, see it as highly mathematical in the same way Bach is described as mathematical: each element, each detail is part of a network and ties to other elements and details to create a strong but flexible cloth, with no excess or loose threads. Oh, and there are a couple of geometric terms – parallelepiped and frustum, for instance – that I have a feeling Sam never encountered, unless they happen to be hot topics in Gravinic poetry. But it’s the language as a vehicle for “exact meaning” that really tips it off.
Some of the more interesting threads connect Sam and other characters. Henderson’s parents were British ex-pats who settled in Gravine before moving on to Berlin; Sam’s parents ran a restaurant in NYC before moving to Chandler City, partly because they felt the counterculture movement they loved was selling out, and partly because his mother read an article about Tip Chandler: “I think she had some idea that, born in the West, I would grow up steely, level-voiced, inclined to swift action. My mother is a woman of passionate opinion, and has been wrong about many things; but never, I believe, more wrong than in this.” Both Higgs and Sam find the documents that begin their academic careers in trash bins, covered with mayonnaise (a particularly amusing leitmotif loaded with significance). And both meet women who moved from more prestigious institutions of higher learning to Chandler, though for different reasons.
In my travels I ran across a 2015 blog post by one Holden Lee, a PhD student in mathematics at Princeton on his way to an academic career; his post is a great synopsis and analysis. He felt the novel captured the journey through academia perfectly. I never got beyond a BA at a third-rate state school, so I’ll have to take his word for it. But he highlighted a particular passage of the novel that struck me in light of another article I’d read recently.
Behind each rectangle of light there was a chemist, a dramatist, a creative writer, an anthropologist, or something else. Our Babel, this welter of disciplines, our own bituminous tower. Something had gone wrong; the confounding of the tongues had proceeded on schedule but the victims had failed to scatter, as intended, across the span of the earth.
A few weeks before, I’d read an article by Kamil Ahsan mourning the kind of super-specialization his PhD in biology had required. He’d been initially inspired by what today would be called science communicators: scientists who write for the general audience in a way that catches on, in Ahsan’s case, Stephen J. Gould (I myself bought Eight Little Piggies by mistake and was similarly, though not so practically, captivated, so I get this). But his academic career didn’t do the science communicators justice:
…until one day you will realize that every single ambitious colleague with whom you entered graduate school who wanted to be a tenured professor in biology actually swore off academia quite some time ago, and is now unsure about what to do next, and embarrassed about it, because what do you do next when there is nothing you have been trained to do well enough except inspect a single protein or a single gene every day for six years, and then you will finally realize the dark humor in your conundrum, that it wasn’t just this awful, exploitative system of apprenticeship, but also a false reading on your part, a sense of certainty you developed somewhere along the line, and that you do—as a matter of fact—bear some responsibility for this crisis.
We didn’t quite know then that the average length of an apprenticeship in academia—ostensibly to develop the mere ability to study something—has gotten bigger and bigger, just as the prospects become dimmer and dimmer. But we only seem to find out once it’s too late.
I get that, too, though it cost me a lot less in time and money. I spent twelve weeks taking a fantastic MIT mooc on molecular biology which focused on DNA replication and repair, yet declined to take parts II and III on transcription and RNA processing because, not being headed towards true academic study of biology, I had other things I wanted to study over the remainder of the year, and the intensity of the biomoocs would have limited my ability to do that.
But, even at my level, I get what he’s saying about how academia narrows your focus, and does create a kind of Babel with biologists over here, mathematicians over there, and Gravinics in another wing. It’s necessary, to some degree, at this point; the low-hanging fruit has been picked, it’s not a matter of growing peas in your back yard any more. So as Higgs – and Sam, and pretty much everyone else in universities – focus more and more on less and less, there’s great value added to knowledge, yes, but there’s also a loss of cross-pollination. That’s why I appreciate mathematicians who can write really good novels (and, by the way, this wasn’t a casual undertaking; Ellenberg studied fiction with people like Robert Stone and Stephen Dixon at Johns Hopkins). And doctor/poets and engineer/artists and all the other marvellous combinations that are possible.
The other theme that shines through the book is that of relationships. This was mentioned in Ellenberg’s aforementioned Rain Taxi interview, as he alludes to the Great American Nerd Novel in response to a question about the trouble the men in the book have with women. Remembering that this book was published in 2003, I was brought up short by a small scene in which Julia, attending a department function with Sam, sees all these socially awkward men trying to have normal conversations and asks, “Where are the wives?” The question today would be, “Where are the female professors?” but that’s beyond the pale for this time and place; that there are no wives speaks to the woman-blindness pretty dramatically.
Sam’s relationship with Julia is another network thread, mirroring Higg’s relationship with his wife, Ellen. I would imagine Julia sees this as her possible future, and she’s not going to let it go there. Sam is less astute.
She must never have imagined we would stay together so long. I think her idea, conscious or not, was to do something about my awfulness; and that, by now, she had accomplished. But something made her stay. I do not want to exaggerate my charms. It may be that I was still more awful than I thought.
Thinking back now, it seems to me that those dog-kicking weeks were the happiest time I have known.
I do have one criticism (hey, it keeps me honest, the more I like a read, the harder I look for a reason to complain about it): Charlie Hascomb. He’s a minor character who plays a crucial role in the climax based on two qualities. Those qualities seem rather shoehorned in, revealed by bald narration with little context explaining their revelation, rather than by character development. I think this is a product of the book’s streamlined economy; it’s the only place it bothers me.
So how did I come to read a fifteen-year-old, relatively obscure title – by which I mean it’s not likely to be showing up on the Millions’ Year in Reading list (to their detriment)? It started with Ben Orlin’s recent fun-math book, Math with Bad Drawings, which I posted about a few weeks ago. When I ordered it last fall, it occurred to me I could to a little cluster of fun-math books, so I added in Ellenberg’s How Not To be Wrong; I follow him on Twitter as part of my mathphobia-recovery program. Sadly, it was not to be; I lost the thread fairly early on, which is what usually happens with me and fun-math books (I still have hope for Eugenia Cheng’s How to Bake Pi, but it’s going to have to wait ‘til after Pushcart season). I felt so bad at my failure, I checked to see if he’d written anything else, and discovered this novel. A novel about academia, no less, one of my favorite subjects. I was, as I’ve said, hooked by the middle of page 1, and I felt a lot better.
See? Sometimes a wrong start can steer you into the place you were meant to be, all along.