Both Math and Not

by malmskog

I’m pretty much in a constant, random walk-type state of reading Both Flesh and Not, the collection of essays by David Foster Wallace. As has become a pattern for me with hip things that turn out to be truly amazing, I’m somewhat late to the party.[i]

The problem with taking this long to catch on to David Foster Wallace (he died in 2008, Infinite Jest came out in 1996) is that I missed out on those years of having his voice in the mix inside my head. His work is so goddamned smart, funny, sad, and ultimately generous, and has lately taken such a space in my mind and heart, that I feel I must hurry up and tell everyone about it so they don’t miss out too. I’m trying to hold my evangelism back in daily life, because I don’t think anyone wants to hear about it. I mean, I read a lot and like to hear about books, but there are only a few people in my life from whom I enjoy unsolicited book tirades.

But that’s one of the good reasons to have a blog. It’s all about just saying what I want!  Nobody has invested anything in this piece, or is obligated to read about it any longer than they want to.  But then, would anybody read this unless they already knew? Or would the reader just glaze over and click on something else? Who would actually read this blog entry about David Foster Wallace and (as you can guess) math unless they were already pretty into either DFW[ii] and math, and probably a friend of mine as well (or my mother—she reads these things too, hi Mom!)? So am I not writing only for an audience that either doesn’t care, or one that not only knows everything I am going to tell them but will probably think I am mangling something that is legitimately beautiful and very close to their heart? This kind of writing has an audience problem.

This dilemma of audience is the crux of the problem of fiction about math, as DFW points out in “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama” which originally appeared in Science in 2000. “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama” takes a critical look at two math novels of twenty-ish years ago: Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolis Doxiadis (1992) and The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt (2000). Critical in both senses, one pleasure of this essay is sort of like as a really good bad movie review. Plus DFW can be totally hilarious.  Though he doesn’t actually pan Uncle Petros in the end, he does let us savor some weak points. Reaching beyond these two books, DFW takes what he calls the “Math Melodrama”.

Math Melodrama is the pop culture trope of mathematician as “a kind of Prometheus-Icarus figure whose high-altitude genius is also hubris and Fatal Flaw.” At the time of his writing, Good Will Hunting and Pi were still pretty fresh at the video store and the movie version of A Beautiful Mind (2001) would soon appear in the theatres (and then a year later in the VCRs of May classrooms of AP calculus classes across the country). Math was granted laurels as a creative endeavor, and with that came the trage-glamourization (totally made up that word) of mathematicians.

This Melodrama is nothing new for musicians and writers.  The title character of the movie Frank is an eccentric, creative, driven musician who wears a giant fake head all the time. He is talented, exciting, charismatic. The other characters variously value him, envy him, want to be like him, and push him to realize their own ambitions. This is all fun in the beginning but darkens, culminating in an Icarus moment at South by Southwest.  Sounds like Music Melodrama in action, but it’s not Frank who has the Fatal Flaw. It’s the main character, the musically limited but driven keyboard player, Jon, who ignores Frank’s obvious deterioration and in his quest for recognition and winds up humiliated. Frank isn’t in great shape at this point and retreats to his parents’ home. When Jon tracks him down there, he is trying to understand what went wrong in Frank’s life, what terrible event was the key to Frank’s genius and suffering. Frank’s parents offer maybe our one bit of insight into Frank, and something that helps take this film past the easiest answers. Frank’s dad: “Nothing happened to him. He’s got a mental illness.” “The torment didn’t make the music,” his Mom says. “He was always musical; if anything it slowed him down.“ This conclusion asks us to reject the notion of talent or genius linked to insanity, viewing the two as independent.

The two books DFW reviews are similar to Frank in that their main characters are not the undeniable geniuses of the world. These books are not about Ramanujan or Gauss or Archimedes. They are about people who do pretty well but who want desperately to be the best; people who want to win the prize of outside acknowledgement and inner peace that they think will come with solving an officially hard problem or a triumph at South by Southwest. And in all cases this doesn’t work out, because they don’t win. Which makes for decent and worthwhile stories in the case of Frank and Uncle Petros (I haven’t read Wild Numbers), but I am also interested in the case of what happens when people do win. This is one of the plot points not totally at the center of the Melodrama, but is essentially the other half of the same story. Are these people unhappy because they reached too far and failed? Does failure make people miserable? Does ambition make people miserable? Does talent make people happy? Does success make people happy?

There are plenty of places where this is taken on (we could work on this through Frank, for example) but this very gnarly dilemma is touched beautifully in DFW’s Infinite Jest, as the main character Hal contemplates own position in light of his wildly and broadly successful father and his disappointed and embittered grandfather: “Have a father whose own father lost what was there. Have a father who lived up to his own promise and then found thing after thing to meet and surpass the expectations of his promise in, and didn’t seem just a whole hell of a lot happier or tighter wrapped than is own failed father, leaving you yourself in a kind of feral and flux-ridden state with respect to talent.”  This is not the thing that the ambitious characters in the melodrama are thinking about, but it is worth thinking about.

My own thoughts on this problem drift back to the lives of both David Foster Wallace and Jack Kerouac. These were two writers who won. Who succeeded artistically and professionally and had everything any daydreaming writer could hope for.  However, I assume that by the ends of their lives, David Foster Wallace and Jack Kerouac were not happy.  Reading Big Sur hurts because Kerouac has laid it out for us, how winning does not necessarily feel how we think it will feel, or doesn’t feel that way for all that long. Reading “This is Water” hurts too, because it is about the way we are tragically complicit in our own suffering, but also about how we can find at least a little relief. It addresses truth and meaning in life and seems to give a few answers, but when read in the knowledge of David Foster Wallace’s later suicide it can seem like a manual for a hopeless and futile struggle.  I have no idea why DFW killed himself or why Jack Kerouac could not stop drinking.  We could assume that the force that made these two people intensely creative was the same force that drove them to desperation.  However, I have to believe that these are independent.  Everybody struggles in life, but some people are almost randomly struck with depression, mental illness, vulnerability to alcoholism.  Everybody is good at something, and some people are great because they work super hard and/or have talent, and some people are almost randomly struck with exceptional creative vision or intelligence and the drive to pursue it.  Some people are struck with both the creativity and the despair.

This is oversimplified, I know, and I feel like the relationship between ambition, success, and happiness is much more complicated than this.  But these stories remind me in a very concrete way that winning, or getting what I want, would probably not solve my problems or be the key to lasting happiness.  Which is a good thought to have on hand as a mathematician, because I very frequently do not get what I want.  My method fails, my paper is rejected, my students stare blankly at me, my grant application is denied, and on and on and on.  There’s no way I could keep doing this if I had to win to enjoy it.

I’ve gotten away from “Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama” here. The essay says a lot that I won’t re-say, but I do want to go back for just a moment to the problem of audience. The thing about math and mathematicians in novels that a little bit of technical sounding gibberish can lend a mathy feeling which is a legitimate spice for a story. Science fiction math gibberish often serves a real narrative purpose. And if it works there, that means there’s no ironclad rule against math gibberish in a good story, so maybe it could work anywhere. The problem is, though, if math is really central to the plot, there’s going to be this problem of audience. The people who see math as a draw are probably going to know enough math that nonsense or oversimplification is really annoying. But if the story is full of real math, it’s going to lose non-mathematicians pretty quickly unless its also super compelling otherwise.

The movies mentioned above didn’t have any trouble finding an audience—they were good enough or formulaic enough beneath the mathy surface that people liked them. And maybe people liked thinking a little bit in the few places where the math glinted though. But who will actually sit down and read a novel involving math, with all the extra time that reading a book involves? Someone who loves novels, someone who loves math, or, most likely, someone who loves both. Which means your novel better to a really good in at least one of two ways—as a novel (usually a story about people) with math providing some color, or as a study of real mathematics (a story about mathematical ideas) with people providing some color. Or else it’ll be doomed to reach only an unsatisfied audience of people who love both math and novels, and are desperate enough to try about anything to get both in one go, and are very often disappointed by their endeavors. That is totally me.

Writing well about mathematics (fiction or nonfiction) is just ridiculously hard to do well, but there are so many beautiful ideas in mathematics that people just want SO BAD to get them across. So people keep writing about math, and I keep reading it, but only a few writers can really reach beyond the small intersection audience of people who just love to read and who already know a pretty fair amount of math.[iii] Even fewer can use math in a story about people and create something magical, transcendently wonderful writing that talks real math but is so great either you understand the math or, if you don’t, the math becomes like so many of the Spanish passages in Cormac McCarthy’s books—meaningful even in obscurity. It’s a language you don’t speak but it still speaks to you and puts you in the place and mood of the story.[iv]

“Rhetoric and the Math Melodrama” is not about math, exactly, but it is an outstanding piece of writing about writing about math. As a piece of criticism it succeeds beautifully in reaching beyond its raw material, to speak about issues meaningful to people who haven’t read the books and probably don’t even care about math. Regarding Both Flesh and Not, I’m probably the odd one that came for the math narrative criticism and stayed for the prose poems and Roger Federer (not to mention buying a ticket for Infinite Jest) but I’m damn glad I came for something. David Foster Wallace is an Astonishingly Good Writer.

[i] Please enjoy or at least forgive the tribute footnotes. My first favorite footnotes in fiction were Manuel Puig’s in Kiss of the Spider Woman, but David Foster Wallace makes footnotes seem indispensible, like how could anybody write a focused but interesting and layered and natural piece without them? But anyway, another example is Wilco. I mean, it’s been years since loving Wilco was really hip or edgy, but there was a time! And I was behind it. Throwing hipness out the window, that was actually great, like discovering some incredible TV show and finding 4 seasons of it waiting for you on Netflix. Or realizing that there are

[ii] Please forgive the tribute abbreviation of David Foster Wallace as DFW. By the way, I learned recently that these are not acronyms unless they are pronounced as words in their own right. So like STEM is an acronym but DFW if probably not.

[iii] My first favorites in this were Journey Through Genius by William Dunham and The Code Book by Simon Singh. But my favorite right now, which I will write about soon if I get time, is Jordan Ellenberg’s newish book How Not to Be Wrong.

[iv] . What writer can do this for math? Maybe DFW in Infinite Jest? I loved that book but I need to give it a second read to think more about how the math in it works. Everything and More (a book about infinity, and of course more) would also be a natural place to look, but needs another look, too, because I didn’t finish it. My whole fascination with DFW started a few years ago when I randomly read his Kenyon College commencement speech (adapted into the essay This is Water), and I started Everything and More expecting something like the speech and was disappointed. Here was this Great Writer writing about math so I ought to love it but it left me cold. I remember that I was just pummeled flat by the number of words the man could put in a sentence. He seemed to be using way too many words to say things, things that were hard but even harder when he put it that way. That’s honestly what I thought (though I feel funny saying that now because I was completely won over by Both Flesh and Not and Infinite Jest so I figure I must have been mistaken about Everything and More). In the essay, DFW also points to some (he thinks well done) math-heavy narratives I haven’t read—Ratner’s Star by Don DeLillo will be on my next library list, and of course Gravity’s Rainbow.