Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bringing order out of chaos in Wisconsin by way of the Soviet gulag (Books - The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer)

Stuart Rojstaczer is a funny guy.  A joke-telling, Jewish, geophysicist/applied mathematician from Milwaukee, Wisoconsin who has written a debut novel about a Jewish meteorologist of hurricanes from Madison, Wisconsin. Sasha Karnakovitch is mourning his mother, Rachela, a brilliant Russian-Polish mathematician who may have solved one of the great, problems in mathematics, the Navier-Stokes problem, whose solution is worth $1 million. Wait, I'm not done.  The very top mathematicians in the world descend upon the home in Madison to which Rachela emigrated after fleeing  the Soviets, for her shiva, not to mourn and remember her as is usual in the seven-day ritual, but to get into the house so that they may find out if she solved the problem and, if not, perhaps find enough in her notes, to solve it themselves. The Mathematician's Shiva (Penguin, 2014) takes on mathematical concepts, narratives in multiple time periods, death, Jewish culture, broken marriages, and the Soviet gulag and, despite being a first novel, manages levity, charm, and a humanly engaging story. I'm grateful to Penguin for my copy.

In the context of a highly entertaining story, Rojstaczer reveals himself as a novice in one or two clumsy shift's between Sasha's present day narrative, which is tangential and weakly developed, his retrospective voice describing the events of the shiva, and pages from his mother's memoirs of her childhood.  Negotiating this many narrative threads is tricky, but the reader can recover their footing quickly, and over the course of the book the shifts become more facile.  Rojstaczer adopts a voice for Sasha that is appropriately nerdy and the tone over-earnest - afraid to not be appealing.  He sounds a a bit too much like a Catskill hotel comedian, ending nearly every paragraph with a punchline.
...Looking through the double-paned glass, those inexperienced with the Midwest might be fooled into thinking it was warm outside, at least warm for January.  Both Yakov and I knew better. "My mother is hanging in there," I said.  "You know her.  She's not going down until she's ready."

 ...I, unlike Yakov, had come to the United States as a young child.  My memories of the former Soviet Union were fuzzy at best. Given what I had heard about Russia from my parents and their friends, I knew that this fuzziness was not a bad thing.

Badoom-boom crash.  And it is not just the narrator's voice.  His mother reveals the same narrative quirk.
 In 1999, after sixty-nine years without a single major health issue, my mother was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer.  Her doctor told her to expect to live three to six months.  "Nonsense," she said.  "I have a good year of things to do."
Perhaps it runs in the family. The choice is believable in Sasha, but over done. The point when style tips over into tic.  The upside is that he creates some hilarious scenes amidst the pathos death and dying.  Sasha's Uncle arrives at his sister's hospital room carrying a bottle of vodka.  While Sasha and Uncle Shlomo pass the bottle, Sasha's more correct father refuses to drink from the bottle, grabbing a cup from a drawer in the room.
"Victor, that's a urine sample cup," my uncle said.


"This is good vodka.  It isn't piss.  I'm not pouring good vodka into a piss cup."

"All of a sudden you have principles?"

"All of a sudden you don't have any class?"

"It's a cup.  I need a cup.  The bottle already has your spit on it."
It will play well in the movie.  Rojstaczer has an ear for humor and the ingratiating patter is evocative of Sasha's character, but it runs against the grain of what we learn of his mother.  She survived life in a Soviet Gulag by digging roots and solving sophisticated math problems at age nine. But for the most part, the humor adds, rather than detracts, from the novel's effect - adding a chuckle amidst memories of the gulag, mathematical problems, and loss of one's mother.   What could be heavy going feels amusing.

What the unsuspecting reader could fear more than Soviet prisons is mathematics.  The Navier-Stokes equation is used to describe the turbulent flow of fluids in nature.  As an equation, it is used practically by many scientists dealing with the motion of fluids, like Sasha, our protagonist, who studies hurricanes. The unsolved "problem" is whether the equation produces a solution in all cases in three-dimensional space (which is the visible number of dimensions in the structural aspect of our physical world).  So the equation is useful in an applied way, but hasn't been proven mathematically, hence its description as unsolved .  Rojstaczer does include some mathematics to illustrate what a mathematical proof actually is.  He is a skilled teacher, keeping things simple and focused.  The reader does not have to wade through math relevant to the Navier-Stokes problem, that is used metaphorically.  This was the novel's master stroke.  It put side-by-side, people in turbulent life crises and a mathematical problem which, when solved, will describe turbulence.  In other words, this is a novel whose spine is to bring order out of chaos in the twin worlds of language and mathematics.  This central idea managed to subsume any of the writing's roughness with its beauty. 

Having been a Jewish, creative artist in Wisconsin myself (I arrived in Milwaukee in 1985 from New York to do a directing internship at the repertory theatre and spent five years there) this novel reminded me of many comedic, fish out of water experiences I had.  I suppose it must be a bit like being a mathematician.  Non-mathematicians know that people do math but they almost never interact with that part of them.  Mathematicians only talk about math with other mathematicians because no one else would know what they're talking about.  Rojstaczer invites the reader to be an insider in an outsider's world, bridging the personal and cultural divide with warmth and humor.  

No comments: