BJ Novak: “A Good Problem to Have” from One Story #187, 12/30/13

When we were in the fourth grade, an old man burst into our classroom one day waving his rumpled little plaid arms and screaming. It might have been adorable if we had been old enough to find older people adorable, and also if it hadn’t been a little bit scary.
“Stop! Is he saying anything about trains? About train times? Stop!”

Ok, he got me. I swore he wouldn’t, but he did.

I’d been hearing about this story for a while before it arrived in my mailbox. B.J. Novak is, after all, one of the Famous People. At least he’s famous for actually doing something: acting, directing, writing tv scripts. I’m one of those people who’s never gotten into The Office, I don’t remember him (or anyone besides Russell Crowe) from Inglorious Basterds, and I haven’t seen Saving Mr. Banks yet (I don’t get out much…), but apparently he’s pretty good at what he does. Still, I have this automatic resistance to anyone famous coming near my beloved short stories, even if they do have an English degree from Harvard.

But he got me.

Part of the appeal is content. I happen to have been peeking over the shoulders of a lot of mathematicians these days, thanks to the MOOCs that have kept me studying instead of watching tv and movies. I wish I could think of a way to get some of them to read this story, since they’d be able to speak to a few issues far better than I. Such as: who does write those math problems, anyway? I can tell you who’s doing the cool stuff now, in the age of the Internet: Fawn Nguyen has a whole website of classroom ideas, Vi Hart puts her insane spin on everything (“eight has a whiff of three”), Mike Lawler is homeschooling his kids about the area of four-dimensional spheres on YouTube (I’ve learned so much from the eight-year-old, and the ten-year-old can math me under the table), James Tanton keeps tweeting out strange problems about arranging numbers, ropes, stairs, all kinds of things, and Numberphile explains things so even I can understand them (sort of). And with all this: we’ve still got kids figuring out when a train from Chicago going 85 mph and a train from NY going 75 mph will meet?

“That’s my problem,” said the old man, sitting back down in the chair. “I wrote it. That was the one thing I did. The one thing. When you’re young, you think everything you do is just the beginning. But when you’re old, no matter who you are, you realize you only did one or two things.”
We were silent. We had never heard anything like this before.
Some of us wondered what the one or two things we would do would be.

The story succeeds, however, because it’s about something else: an old man’s reminiscence of a train ride to meet his wife after a long separation. For tone, we have a room of fourth graders who don’t quite understand what’s going on. For punctuation, we have his occasional whispering of his wife’s name: “June.” That whisper tells us everything we need to know.

Oh, I have a few quibbles. There is such a thing as approximation in math; there’s even a symbol for it (≈). And the guy would have to be at least 85 years old if he fought in WWII (inclusion of the Internet and the noted ubiquity of cell phones restricts the possible time setting), which is certainly possible, but that’s pretty old to be bursting into classrooms with arms waving. As for the core plot of someone inventing a math problem about two trains, I’m going to guess that was invented far, far earlier; that’s one of the things I’d like to ask a mathematician about. And for pete’s sake, tell me math book publishers never really took problem submissions like Reader’s Digest takes anecdotes. And frankly, while I can appreciate a story stripped down to a bare minimum, a technique that lets the reader upholster the frame with fabric of her own choosing, it’s possibly a little too stripped down (calling the narrator “Brainy Ben” at the end feels jammed in out of necessity rather than an organic part of character development, for instance, and there’s a definite two-dimensionality to the scene).

But it still works, because at its heart is a story about love and longing and remembrance, and the ways in which a person makes connections with other people, as unlikely as that possibility may seem. Because we can’t help ourselves, and even time and physics and reality can’t stop us.

In his One Story Q&A, Novak discusses his decision to use a child narrator. I’ve always liked the observer-narrator; it seems to me it allows the writer a great deal of flexibility in the pace of releasing information to the reader. Here, we don’t get many details about what happened to June, or what the man’s life is like now; but in a closing move that subtly and effectively shifts the focus of the forward momentum from the observed to the observer, we do get a good sense of how this day affected Brainy Ben:

I still don’t know what the one or two things that I do will be, but that is definitely one of the one or two things that I saw.

Yeah, he got me. I put a pre-release hold on his upcoming story collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories at my library. I’m third in line. He got a lot of us.