Sunday, May 1, 2016

People are more than objects in space (Books - A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin)

Ethan Canin was already one of my favorite authors for having written For Kings and Planets, and I have frequently recommended his The Palace Thief and Emperor of the Air.  With A Doubter's Almanac (Random House, 2016) Canin has written a "great" book, in the sense of giving expression to profound experiences, and also, I believe, in creating something whose meaning extends beyond its exemplars - the concerns of these specific characters, the obsessions of the period in which it was written - and has the potential to be enduring. Time will tell on that second point.

In some ways, Canin is writing about the same things he has always written - fathers and sons, success and failure, gut-smarts and brains - all within the scopes of the grandest of considerations: time and space.  Time as it is experienced on a human scale, through one generation of a family experiencing another.  Three generations of the Andret family are the focus of this novel.  Space as it is described by a branch of mathematics called topology, which studies the interrelation of things, though not on the level they are visible in nature, on a hypothetical level of multiple dimensions. This is the focus of the work of Canin's protagonist, Milo Andret, who may be a genius in using math to describe such relationships but is profoundly disabled in forming a typical human bonds and severely limited even in insight into himself.  In one scene, Canin describes Milo as having to touch his own face to understand that he was smiling.

One might call Milo a tyrant, or perhaps Aspergery for his combination of extreme intelligence and narrow focus.  One can lay some blame on his severe addiction to alcohol, but Canin, despite his medical degree, resists the neatness of diagnoses.  Milo Andret is clearly a horrible father, husband, and co-worker, but not because he is a horrible man.  He is a brilliant thinker, a skilled artist, vulnerable to love and to doubt. The strength of Canin's narrative is his rendering of the struggle between the irreconcilable parts of human beings, and never has that been clearer than in A Doubter's Almanac: Milo Andret is artist and mathematician, lover and loner, award winning genius and abject failure, child and father and grandfather.   
Canin occasionally seems to doubt the clarity of his message and over-explains himself.
It was as though he didn't see the object he was drawing but the entire array of space instead - all things that were the object and all things that were not the object - with equal emphasis.  It was symptomatic of something he'd noticed in himself since childhood - an inability to take normal heed of his senses, the way other people did as they instinctually navigated a course of being.  In this way, it was like mathematics itself: the supremacy of axiom over experience. 

But for the most part, his narrative, told from two different points of view, is strongly enveloping. Canin's earlier, shorter fiction has always struck me as impressive in giving voice to characters that would seem to be outside the wisdom of a younger man.  Now, as a mature writer, he skillfully uses the sweep of a full-length work to look across the multiple perspectives of the son and the father.  He imagines a long-suffering mother and wife's perspective, as well as two generations of daughters.  It is the breadth of imagination that makes this a great book.  Canin gets inside the feeling of success or failure both as Milo perceives it in himself and as it is perceived by his son Hans, who, in turn, fears that he may perceive it in his own children.  It is only in the accumulation of wisdom across generations that the characters to gain richer understandings of each other.  Hans knows, for instance, that Milo is obsessively focused on the interior mechanics of problem solving, but it is only when he compares his father's behavior to his daughter's, watching her read to extinguish the loudness of her own thoughts, that he understands what that experience is like.

The monomaniacal focus of Milo uses the language of numbers to understand the beauty of objects, which are understood in their relationships to one another. But the success of one proof can only approximate nature.  Canin, in describing Milo, does so in the symbolic medium of language, another approximation - approaching but never reaching the truth.  Canin through the voice of Hans describes this failure as grief.  That is the overwhelming current of feeling in A Doubter's Almanac.  I couldn't help but feel it was Canin's own grief in the context of his creative work.  His fear that his own monstrousness, as he is consumed by creating a complex vision, was for nought.  But Canin's narrative is ultimately redemptive in his creation of Hans, who may lack the sheer brilliance of his father and sister, but who discovers in himself a talent of infinite worth in the realm of relationships - compassion.

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