A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin (Random House, 2016) is a remarkable novel with a unique cast of expertly drawn and memorable characters as well as an engaging story of human and family relationships. The novel is largely populated with university academics in the field of mathematics, which may dissuade some readers from trying it, but the real story is found in a poignant tapestry of family relationships.
The main character of A Doubter’s Almanac is Milo Andret, a gifted but eccentric and rather unlikeable mathematician. Milo grows up in rural Michigan and then follows an unorthodox career path as a professor first at U.C. Berkeley and then at Princeton. He and his family end up in back in the Michigan lake country after his academic career essentially collapses. There are rocky relationships with his academic peers as well as a sequence of entanglements with women, something one would not ordinarily associate with mathematics professors.
Part One is told in the third person and follows Milo’s early career, bizarre in many respects. But the most engaging part of the novel really begins with Part Two, about a third of the way into the book, when Milo’s son Hans picks up the narrative in the first person and carries it through to the end.
In Part Two we learn that Hans is nearly as gifted in mathematics as his father Milo. Hans seems more level-headed and grounded in reality, though he has his own eccentricities and weaknesses. Hans weaves a story of family relationships involving his sister Paulette, mother Helena and his father. Helena, an administrative assistant at Princeton when she meets Milo, lacks Milo’s intellect but brings a certain humanity to his life and cultivates a keen interest in art. Hans’s older sister Paulette, whom Milo seems to disparage for not being equal to his talents, sees all too clearly her father’s human failings and maintains a cynicism about him that serves as a fascinating counterpoint to Hans’s more tolerant attitude. Hans for his part, while not exactly bridging the differences among the family members, maintains an equanimity and patience with his father’s shortcomings which at times rises to the level of genuine affection.
Ethan Canin is a gifted writer who first made his mark in American fiction with the story collection Emperor of the Air and followed that up with another story collection and four previous novels. He writes with understated wit and dialogue flows smoothly without cliché or artificiality. He is particularly skilled at using innovative images and metaphors to give life to his characters. In one scene in which Hans is riding in a car with his family through the lake country of Michigan he falls into a reverie induced by his regular ingestions of MDA, a drug that later evolved into Ecstasy. Hans relates: “Thoughts stuck to the roof of my cranium, where if I leaned back I could observe them, clinging there like bats.” Writing like this pervades the novel, and it gives the story a vividness that would be missing in the hands of a lesser writer.
There are lots of mathematical allusions in A Doubter’s Almanac, and it’s plain that Ethan Canin did his homework in trying to bring to life the kind of world a mathematician would inhabit. There are probably not many readers who know much about Riemann geometry or what theoretical topology is all about. From time to time these allusions come in little waves that can bring on feelings of inadequacy. But these passages of jargon can be skimmed past quickly. They are like accent notes that help create the sensation that mathematicians live in a world few of us will ever come close to understanding. Ethan Canin does not dwell on them and there is no reason for the reader to do so. The story is in the human relationships, not the mathematics.
Over time it becomes clear that Milo has in many respects failed as a father, husband and human being. His colossal ego prevents him from forming the human connections that bless the lives of those who have a little humility to temper their self images. He antagonizes nearly everyone he comes in contact with, seriously wounds those closest to him and seems to care nothing about anyone’s feelings. Despite the early promise of his youth he ends up socially isolated and nearly forgotten, living alone in a remote location in the Michigan woods. At the end it is only his failing health that brings the few people in his life back into his orbit.
There is a love story in A Doubter’s Almanac as well, though not one that follows familiar patterns. Cleopatra, known as “Cle,” plays an important role in Part One, and then reappears in Part Two to offer Milo some of the solace that his unorthodox life choices have left him.
But A Doubter’s Almanac is really the story of Milo’s family rather than Milo himself, told through the eyes of Hans as the only one in the cast patient enough to listen and try to understand the others. He serves as the true center of the novel around whom the other characters interact. There are no dramatic transformations in the story, and no one in the family comes to see Milo much differently over time. But there are quiet and subtle shifts in attitude as Milo’s health fails and the end of his life approaches. As the novel progressed I was steadily drawn into this weave of relationships and sensed that Ethan Canin had grasped something more true about life than a more sentimental or dramatic story would have tried to create.
One quibble I have with A Doubter’s Almanac is that all of the characters seem to live in a rarified world in which everyone is blessed with superior intellect. Hans’s two children, Niels and Emmy, seem to be as gifted as Hans. Maybe this is not so unreasonable given Milo’s presence and the story’s background in academe, but I found myself wishing for a little more diversity in the cast. Does everyone in this world need to be blessed with so much intellectual talent? But there’s no denying the characters are beautifully drawn and the evolution of their relationships with each other elucidates much that is true about human relationships in general.
If A Doubter’s Almanac were filmed it might earn an “R” rating for Milo’s sexual adventures and the sometimes frequent use of the “F” word that could have been tamped down a bit without detracting from the story. But the novel isn’t graphic, and just a little bit of editing could easily bring it back down to PG-13.
The finale of A Doubter’s Almanac was both moving and surprising, and it ends the novel with a beautifully rendered moment involving Milo and his family together that is heartwarming in its own eccentric way. I couldn’t say more without revealing it, which I won’t. But I will say I thought it brought the story to a touching denouement that made reading the novel quite worthwhile.