By Chet Yarbrough
A Doubter’s Almanac: A Novel
Written by: Ethan Canin
Narrated by: David Aaron Baker
“A Doubter’s Almanac” is a 21st century classic. Though some may argue otherwise, Ethan Canin writes about a universal truth; i.e. “women are the sun; men are the moon”. Canin catalyzes one’s doubt and ambivalence about life’s meaning in a story about moral transgression, addiction, guilt, and redemption.
The story begins with details of a person with a superior intellect, and an amoral life. He is Milo Andret, a mathematician blessed with the ability to understand complex spatial relationships, even as they change shape. Milo is never lost in a physical wilderness but is trapped in a space reserved only for himself. In some ways, Milo reminds one of Ivan Karamazov (Dostoevsky’s protagonist in “Brothers Karamazov”), a rationalist that denies God because of the irrationality of faith and the cruelty of life.
Milo, like Ivan, treats others as superficial human beings who only have relevance in respect to what they can do for him. Milo is a self-absorbed genius that begins as a naïve young boy looking for recognition from others for a superiority that he only vaguely sees in himself. Milo is a boy narcissist who matures into a misogynistic adult and dies as a repentant grandfather. Canin reveals the nature of geniuses who exploit their superiority. They will alienate others. Some will lie to win praise. They are awarded for presumed new discoveries that are beyond the reasoning ability of their peers.
Genius is shown to have a short productive life. Canin describes geniuses as God’s spies because they have momentary insight to the laws of nature. However, God designs human brains to deteriorate early in their lives. Once past the age of 30, God’s spies are blinded by mental deterioration. Milo crosses that threshold just before discovering a mathematical proof that has escaped human understanding. Canin’s story suggests Milo fudges the truth of his mathematical proof by purposefully ignoring a false calculation. Milo, like Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, knows he has made a mistake, and punishes himself with alcohol, anti-social behavior, and misogyny.
Consciously, Milo attempts to redeem himself by teaching his son to become a mathematics topologist like himself. His son and daughter have inherited Milo’s ability to understand complex spatial relationships. However, Milo’s son also inherited his father’s addictive behavior. Milo’s son turns to mind altering drugs just as his father turned to alcohol. They choose addiction to escape the pressure of their innate genius. Because of Milo’s misogyny, he discounts the nurturing role of his wife and the innate ability of his daughter.
All who surround Milo are sycophantic because of his mathematics reputation. Milo knows his reputation is founded partly on a lie. He wishes to redeem himself with a new discovery but has lost his cutting edge genius. Milo is plunged deeper into misery by the realization that scientific discovery is an endless creation of new questions. One great mathematics proof only leads to another question and the search for another proof. Milo drinks himself to death, and his son is heading in the same direction.
Milo’s son abandons his mathematics career to become a financial Quant for an investment firm. He becomes a multi-millionaire before the age of twenty by arbitraging stock and commodities by hedging price movements in the market. The deterioration of his father’s health draws him back into the orbit of his father’s life.
The last two-thirds of Canin’s book is a dissection of Milo’s life and the future of Milo’s wife, two children, and two grandchildren. Milos is divorced by his wife after years of psychological abuse. His son returns to be with Milo to understand why Milo became the father and person he had become. Milo’s daughter and wife are estranged but eventually come back to see Milo in his last years of life.
The final scenes of Milo’s life are a summation of Canin’s view of human nature. Death is a Sisyphean struggle for Milo. The beginning of his life is symbolized by a long chain he carves out of a single piece of wood when a boy. It is a beginning recognition of his genius. It is later revealed in an interview with a mathematics professor that becomes Milo’s champion and mentor in college. This chain becomes the lynchpin of Milo’s life. The professor recognizes topographic genius in Milo’s ability to create a perfect chain out of one piece of wood.
The chain’s linkage with seminal events in Milo’s life re-occurs when it is offered by him to his first love. She recognizes the chain as a proof of his genius. However, she refuses to take the chain as a gift. His first love leaves him; partly for another man, but primarily because of her youth and the wish to experience the adventure of life.
The chain reappears at the end of Milo’s life. The most important people in his life are present; e.g. an early mathematics competitor of Milo’s who marries Milo’s first love, his first love, his wife, his son, his daughter, and two grandchildren. A confrontation occurs. One of the links in the chain is chipped when the chain is thrown, by the daughter, at the husband of Milo’s first love. Milo’s former mathematics competitor explains to the assembled group that Milo is the failure he predicted he would be when they were young.
The uproar from the mathematics competitor’s declamation reinforces two themes in Canin’s story. One, science proofs are at best leaders to future unknowns or, at worst, false starts that are dead-end mistakes. In either case, a genius, let alone an average seeker, never achieves a satisfying conclusion. In searching for the unknown, life is wasted. Second, all the genius or average seeker can do is “never give up”.
Canin has written a good story; expertly narrated by David Baker. It is a tribute to the seekers of proof about the nature of existence. The nature of existence seems beyond the grasp of the human mind but Canin implies neither men nor women should ever give up.
What Canin’s hero confirms is that women are the sun and men are the moon. Nature and nurture make us who we are but the principal source of our power is the sun.