“A Doubter’s Almanac is a long, complex novel about math, which sounds like the square root of tedium, but suspend your flight instinct for a moment. Ethan Canin writes with such luxuriant beauty and tender sympathy that even victims of Algebra II will follow his calculations of the heart with rapt comprehension.
Throughout the over 500 pages of this elegant and devastating novel, Canin writes with authority about the likes of number theory, submanifolds and differential equations. But what he writes about with even more authority is the pressure to work, to produce, to achieve and the constant thrumming anxiety felt by his central character in particular that whatever special gifts one may have been graced with at birth could just as mysteriously disappear.
The story moves not in flash-forwards or flashbacks but in flash-arounds, time as a Möbius strip: a twisted shape with a single surface and a path without exit, which circles endlessly. This leads to narrative and thematic cycles ... This intellectually imposed structure overwhelms the emotional undercurrent of the novel.
Canin’s main imaginative challenge is to make the maths, although unlikely to be comprehensible to most readers, a convincing part of the brain life of those in the cast who inherit the Andret curse. A book that features a college course called Calculus for Poets succeeds in communicating the poetry of calculus ... This is big, serious, completely involving fiction of a kind rarely written today. By modelling the topology of genius and fear, Canin has achieved a proof of his own high value to American fiction.
A Doubter's Almanac is an emotionally explosive exploration of success and failure in a family roiled by genius ... it movingly confronts the challenges of outsized ability, overwhelming ambition and 'calamitous inheritance' with brio and feeling.
Because of the author's skill, Canin's women look almost like real ones, but closer examination reveals that they are just furniture: soft, accommodating, stable, and ancillary. Like a certain topologist who can map the world but not the heart, Canin renders half the world with precision and beauty — but, as for the other half, like Milo, he does not even know what he can't see.
In his mind, Hans tells us, 'all the other academic disciplines — including the physical sciences … were irrevocably tainted by their debt to substance.' And this is where the genius of Ethan Canin’s storytelling lies — negotiating that space between pure thought and substance where all of us have to find a way to live.
A Doubter’s Almanac flags a little down the stretch, as so many novels of this length do. Milo’s swirl to the bottom of the drain is a long way down. But Canin never loses sight of redemption’s possibility, and the fact that it lies within reach of everyone. It’s this idea that keeps you turning pages, and that helps push A Doubter’s Almanac far beyond the realm of formula.
Throughout A Doubter’s Almanac, Canin examines the drawbacks of brilliance — for both the brilliant and those who come within their orbit. For Milo, one character notes, there is no “pleasure in the company of friends. There is nothing. Nothing that might assuage the maw. He stands directly in its whirlwind. I’ve come to believe that this is the consequence of a brain like his.” Rather than challenging this romantic and melodramatic observation, Canin upholds it, for the most part, which eventually leaves little to explore with Milo, even for his own son. While this is frustrating enough, especially coming from a writer as good as Canin, what’s still more frustrating is how this novel, which is at least a hundred pages longer than it needs to be, squanders its promise. Like Milo himself, what begins with such potential ends rather feebly.
The book’s bifurcated structure does give him a double stage on which to enact great themes — how the genius gene transmits itself through shattered families; the sputtering afterlife of even the most titanic breakthroughs; the tragic disparity between being a genius and being raised by one. But from a purely a narrative point of view, why do slack when you can so dazzlingly pull off taut?
Hans’s unwillingness to write off his dad as a womanizing, alcoholic monster gives the novel a poignancy it needs to avoid being yet another clichéd portrait of a genius who handcrafted his own downfall. (Milo’s inexhaustable drinking ultimately takes a toll on his body in ways that can be painful for his family to witness – and even for a reader to read.)
In A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin gives us a truly convincing picture of what it’s like to experience the world as most of us, probably, don’t ... Though Canin wants us to care about Milo and his mathematically gifted children and grandchildren, what’s far more convincing is what’s familiar: 'We watched a pair of red ants pitilessly drag a thrashing inchworm across the sand. It was like the ending of a great novel.'
The remarkable achievement of A Doubter’s Almanac is the density of the fog Canin constructs around Milo without ever letting that fog envelop the reader. The clarity of the novelist’s vision delivers a story of majestic sweep, rendered in language that’s both mathematically precise and delightfully distinctive.
Canin is at the top of his form, fluent, immersive, confident. You might not know where he’s taking you, but the characters are so vivid, Hans’s voice rendered so precisely, that it’s impossible not to trust in the story. Even difficult abstractions, passages that unravel Milo’s most complicated mathematical ideas, take on narrative momentum.