The Dangerous Math of Ethan Canin

02/29/2016 01:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It's been eight years since his last novel, and Ethan Canin has returned with the dazzlingly ambitious A Doubter's Almanac, which is one part intellectual thriller, one part domestic saga. At the center of the novel is Milo Andret, a brilliant mathematician who proves something called the Malosz conjecture (Canin made it up) and launches himself to international renown and a chair at Princeton University. To read A Doubter's Almanac is to become so immersed in the workings of a singular mind that we find ourselves solving (or almost solving) equations with Milo without ever stopping to worry that in real life we can't do any of the math. Milo is an Ahab among intellectuals, and in his monomaniacal pursuit of abstract truths inflicts terrible interpersonal damage on colleagues, rivals, friends (there aren't many), the women he beds, and his wife and children.

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When I ask Canin how long it took him to write the book, he says, six years, maybe seven drafts, but then wishes his wife Barbara who's just stepped out for coffee were there because she'd know the answer. A while later -- after we've moved on to other topics -- Barbara returns and he asks her, "Barb, how many drafts?" and she says, "Eleven, I think," and when he suggests that might be too many, she agrees and modifies the estimate. I wonder aloud if it just seemed like more to her, and she laughs, as Ethan's laugh echoes hers -- "It seemed like eleven to her. Exactly."

He can't count the drafts. But what Canin does know is that at some point the novel ballooned as a result of his wrestling with the theoretical mathematics, and then he had to cut it back. Still, the labor made the math authentic, and if there's a literary topologist out there, Canin wagers, he or she could read this book and not be "nauseated by the inaccuracy." The verdict of mathematicians aside, his readers will be struck with admiration for Canin's depiction of what it's like to pursue difficult ideas and, in Milo Andret's case, to impose horribly on others in the pursuit of what obsesses you.

Talk to me for a minute about the unique perspective gained from your dual-career. You went to Harvard medical school, did your residency in San Francisco while working as a writer, then later gave up medicine to focus exclusively on writing. How does that past life inform what you do now?

Being a doctor, it's an unbelievable privilege to have that window into humanity. You get to meet everybody from the wealthy to the despondently poor to the deeply sick to people just having their first baby. You see a lot of people days or hours from death or scared of it. In probably the most brutal month of my residency, I worked on a liver transplant unit at UC-San Francisco where I took care of people waiting to have transplants-- a lot of them were cirrhotic.

I saw all kinds of people, from people who had been drinking for fifty years, to a twenty-five year old young woman who was sitting on a mountainside and she woke up with a new liver, and I asked her what's the last thing she remembered, and she said, "I remember my boyfriend giving me some mushrooms to eat."

And, in fact, one of the plot lines in Doubter's Almanac deals with a prolonged case of cirrhosis.

All that medicine really inspired me, seeing, for example, these gargantuan people who have all these fluids in their abdomens. I used to be the guy who'd stick a needle in there and suck all the fluid out. Medicine is a trade really, it's an earthy trade. It's about putting your hands on people, a lot of it's about what in medicine they call procedures, cutting things off, sewing them closed, inserting things, it's very mechanical. It's very much of the earth, it's of life and death. I was just reading Saul Bellow and, boy, he was a master at that, the offset of the sacred and the profane. One of the things I loved about writing is that you can mix the philosophical and the earthy.

So your background as a doctor helps you get that part of the story down. But you're not a mathematician as far as I know. What did it take to get the math right?

I was talking with a friend of mine in Iowa City, and I said, "Do you know any friendly mathematicians?" and she said, "Yeah, I know a very friendly guy who's a mathematician." The guy in my book is a topologist, which is an extremely unusual field, and I said, "What kind of mathematician is this guy?", and it turns out he was a topologist. He had been teaching at the University of Iowa, just retired, and he's just the sweetest, most wonderful guy. Jon Simon's his name. He read the whole book, he gave me fifty pages of notes on the math. So, I was, like, great, man, and I spent a whole draft putting all this math into it, and I sent it to my editor and she said, "What the hell did you just do?" [laughs] She goes, "You got to take all that back out."

Well what you kept is powerful. In fact your portrait of a mathematical mind at work is marvelous, makes me somewhat nostalgic for my days as a "mathlete," maybe taps the math nerd in us all. As you were launching the dangerously brilliant Milo Andret into the world, was there anything about the field of math you were hoping your reader would discover?

I happen to love the math. But I was not writing it with any agenda in mind other than that I found it beautiful and inspiring. The book's about obsession, obsession and love, which are maybe sort of similar, which are the ingredients, I think, of genius--which has a lot of other ingredients, including the tendency to ignore everything that's not part of the obsession. With regard to the math, I was inspired by American Pastoral, that Philip Roth novel. There are these huge tracts about glove-making in New Jersey, I love the glove-making, even though I didn't understand the vocabulary, I didn't care, I knew it had to do with gloves and it was just cool. A lot of people have been turned off by math and told they can't do it, but math is not that hard -- I mean this stuff Milo is doing is hard -- but most of it's not hard. Everybody can do it but somehow they get turned off.

In its basic form this is a higher-they-climb-the-harder-they-fall story. Ultimately, the son Hans who tells the story comes to believe his father's gifted mind is at least as much curse as gift.

To me it goes back to biblical times, I suppose, that idea of knowledge being the curse. The inability to stop thinking in a way is a curse. I think a lot of smart people have felt that in their lives, that the inability to stop thinking really prevents them from entering life. I think a lot of readers probably feel that, I think a lot of intellectuals feel that. It's also just this idea of raging and battling against the storm, battling against the inevitable, the unknowable, the unstoppable-- what is there but the battle?

You told me that when you started writing this novel you didn't know you were going to introduce Hans as the narrator. Did you know Milo had a son?

No, in fact I would have said, "This guy?, no, f-ing way does he have a son." But I thought that would complicate it, giving him a wife, a son, a family, in case he seemed too one-sided.

So late in the novel this son who ends up telling his father's story stops to consider "how ignorant we are of the lives of our parents." It's a line that goes straight to the heart of your intergenerational plot.

A lot of the novel is about forgiveness, or trying to understand the pain of another -- but it's the rare kid, I think, who even as an adult can understand his parents as people. It's crazy because it's very easy to understand our children as people, or to think we do, I suppose, but so much more difficult to go the other way.

Many readers will have first encountered you as the author of the celebrated story collections Emperor of Air and The Palace Thief. Do you work on stories any longer? Is there a reason why you've become almost exclusively devoted to the art of the novel?

Technically, my contract with Random House was for a novel and a book of stories, and I had a few stories, and figured I could write a few more and pay off maybe my kids' college tuition-- or one of them anyway. But you can't decide what you write --you don't write a novel, a novel writes you. When I was young, I remember thinking, if I could just write a story longer than twelve pages, that would be a big step. Now I can't really start anything and not take it all the way to a novelistic length.

So the longer form of the novel reflects something about where you've come in your own life?

Stories seem easy to me, well, not easy, but they're a hell of a lot easier. I'm interested in the story of a life. That's sort of the only thing that interests me any more -- how did your life turn out? -- and that's really a novelistic question.

You brought up Bellow earlier, a personal favorite of mine. Do you have certain writers you revisit who seem friendly to you as you're working on a novel?

Bellow's the greatest writer of the last century, I think, of those I've read anyway, and people don't really know him anymore-- it's crazy how quickly one can subside. Early on in my career whenever I was stuck I would open Augie March just because it was a crazy outpouring of linguistic energy, and you'd open to page 274 and find a paragraph better than anything you'd ever written in your life. I don't read much fiction when I'm writing now, other than student stories. Seven or eight times a semester I'll read a story that's just tight and knocks me over, which is way cooler in a way than reading a great writer or, I should say, a known great writer.

Can I ask how teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop all these years has shaped you as a writer?

I can't remember if it's Bellow who said it, but I've always been moved by that phrase, "A writer is a reader moved to emulation." Every couple of weeks at Iowa I'll read something that makes me want to write, which is an unbelievable gift. When I'm browbeating my students about something, I'll get midway through class and with my mouth open realize, "Oh, right, that's what I should be doing in my book."

I really strive to be methodical and rigorous as a teacher: I don't think writing is a touchy-feely thing at all, I think writing is a brutal and exacting thing. At some point it must involve sincere philosophy and reflection, but you do have to cut it pretty sharp or it just all falls apart.

What's something offbeat about Ethan Canin that readers might be fascinated to learn, perhaps something you do for yourself that has nothing to do with writing?

A huge thing I do, I spend probably half of my waking energy on building and woodworking, stuff like that. Right now I'm rehabbing a little house I bought from an elderly neighbor in Iowa City who moved; and it's very cool, I love it, it involves mechanical work and then I have to sheetrock the whole house and build wooden wainscoting on the walls. It's the greatest thing, next to writing. I must say I have a pretty darned good life. I teach a few days days a week, talk with people who are devotedly interested in this obscure endeavor of trying to write, and I get my mornings doing my own killingly difficult work, which is writing, and then I get to relax and work on remodeling a house.