Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Doubter's Almanac: Our fathers, ourselves

I was mentally composing an impassioned rant about the last quarter of Ethan Canin's A Doubter's Almanac, grumbling under my breath that I wished a certain character would would for heaven's sake just hurry up and die, and then a single line in the final chapter absolutely floored me: "I remember being happy."

It's not a particularly impressive line, but when it arrives in the final chapter of a book devoted to characters who seem determined to make each other unhappy, the line is both surprising and oddly believable--but you'll have to read the book to find out why.

I often teach Canin's short story "The Year of Getting to Know Us," in which a rebellious teen struggles to assimilate unpleasant knowledge about his distant and intractable father. Toward the end the dad is giving his son a rare golf lesson when the dad says, "You don't have to get to know me because one day you're going to grow up and then you're going to be me." Tragically, he's right.

A Doubter's Almanac covers similar territory in much greater detail, introducing brilliant but tortured mathematician Milo Andret first through his own eyes and then through those of his son, Hans, who knows his father well enough to know he doesn't want to grow up to be him but can't seem to stop himself. In Canin's hands the characters come to life in all their--well, I wouldn't exactly call it glory. "Ignorance and wounded shrieking" is Milo's assessment of the human condition, which about covers the tenor of the book.

And yet it's a compelling and skillfully crafted novel. Milo holds his own alongside a long line of Professors Behaving Badly--move over, Thomas H. Chippering, Moses Herzog, and William Henry "Lucky Hank" Devereaux Jr.--with the exception of his total absence of humor. The humorless boy who carves an elaborate chain from a chunk of tree stump only to hide it carefully away ("he'd long wanted to produce something worthy of concealing") becomes the humorless adult so single-mindedly devoted to his worthy goals that he alienates anyone who gets in his way and even some who don't.

Which makes that moment of happiness in the final chapter so much more remarkable. The novel could easily have turned into an extended rant about horrible fathering, but Canin knows that no son would be so obsessed with a father who didn't have some redeeming qualities, and he also knows that memory is fickle and a child determined to hate his father would have to intentionally block out those fleeting moments of happiness.

Hans believes that he has escaped his father's obsessions with solving great mathematical mysteries, but he merely transposes his father's obsessions to a different field, turning algorithms into ready money by peddling "the shadow of the prediction of risk" on Wall Street. He and his father hunt for different types of treasure, but Milo recognizes in Hans a similar obsession with the pursuit itself:
We'll always be in chase. In chase of the next question, which we're usually familiar with because it was the answer to the previous one. Everything builds. Increment upon increment....The trick is accumulating the steps, each one so trivial that it can be comprehended by the crippled thing we call the mind.
A Doubter's Almanac builds its case against Milo Andret step by excruciating step but then, surprisingly, turns back and starts tearing those steps down. In the end Canin provides no bright moment of redemption, but he does allow us to turn away from the "ignorance and wounded shrieking" long enough to hear a refreshing note of joyful laughter.

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