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The consequences of genius - A Doubter's Almanac'

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Novel explores the powerful, punishing effects of true brilliance

'Talent is a flame. Genius is a fire.' Bernard Williams

What is the true cost of genius? How does a single-minded fanatical brilliance impact the rest of one's life? What effects does it have on interpersonal relationships and one's sense of self? Great problems require great solutions, but those solutions can often prove to be obstacles in their own right.

Ethan Canin's 'A Doubter's Almanac' (Random House, $28) tells the tale of the issues raised by the obsessive genius of one particularly gifted family.

Milo Andret's is a unique and powerful mind. From a young age, he saw and understood the world in ways that few others ever have. His academic career led him to the tumultuous campus of Berkeley in the 1970s. Even there, walking alongside other immensely gifted individuals, he is an outlier, both intellectually and emotionally.

His masterwork comes when he solves the Malosz Conjecture a long-standing mathematical mystery that has thwarted generations on mathematicians. That solution allows Milo to write his own ticket; it lands him on the faculty at Princeton University and results in his being awarded the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics.

But Milo's genius is a troubled one. He struggles to follow up on his one big discovery. Soon, he is drinking too much and making numerous poor decisions with regards to the opposite sex. This combination of factors ultimately results in a great fall one that drops him from the dizzying heights of Princeton and world renown to a pitiable job teaching math at a tiny Ohio Baptist college.

And Milo isn't the only one punished for his actions. His family his long-suffering wife Helena and his children Niels and Paulette also must suffer the consequences. As the once-great man grows older and exponentially bitterer, his children are left to determine how they will choose to deal with the vast intellectual gifts that are their genetic inheritance.

The book's second half follows Niels as he deals with the aftermath of being raised by the self-loathing Milo. He manages to exploit his gifts in a positive way, but only after struggling against many of the same demons faced by his father. Ultimately, Niels finds himself once again alongside his father, doing his best to salvage and rebuild their relationship before it is too late.

Genius is rarely without consequences in fiction, but 'A Doubter's Almanac' offers up a particularly brutal take on the true impact of that genius not just on the person him or herself, but also on the secondary and tertiary figures in that person's orbit. And make no mistake the interpersonal gravitational pull of true genius is powerful indeed, drawing people in and trapping them, for better or worse, in a place where relationship dynamics will rarely (if ever) be anything other than a one-way street.

Canin is a masterful writer, creating rich and textured connections between his characters. Romantic relationships, mentor-mentee interactions, family dynamics all are addressed with both broad strokes and nuanced detail. It's fascinating; while the narrative is largely driven by the intellectual nature of mathematical pursuits, the beating heart of the story springs from people. It's a delicate balance one that the author strikes beautifully again and again.

The agonies inherent to ambition are also never far from the forefront. Whether it is Milo's early striving or his later desperation, his naked hunger for greatness is inescapable. That hunger is hopelessly entwined with every interaction, whether it is with a lover or a peer, a wife or a child; his yearning effects and infects every relationship he has.

'A Doubter's Almanac' is itself a work of impressive ambition, operating on a truly epic scale. Moving across seven decades, it is a tale that exquisitely details the zeniths and nadirs of true genius. Ethan Canin combines delicately muscular prose stylings with a narrative that engrosses on levels both intellectual and emotional.


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