Virtuosic ... Most critics tasked with rendering Labatut recognizable liken him to the melancholic German writer W.G. Sebald, whose gently meandering novels contain long, dreamy meditations on destruction and decay ... A work of dark, eerie and singular beauty. It can also be difficult to read. The book is narrated by a cluttered polyphony of characters, among them both of von Neumann’s wives and a number of his teachers and colleagues. But there is a reason for this mad mumble of voices ... A dark tale.
The Maniac does, by and large, assume the guise of fiction...but I did find myself wondering what it gained from this that a (minor and essentially rhetorical) tweak into long-form journalism would retract ... At its best...you just throw up your hands and think, Who cares what discourse label we assign this stuff? It’s great ... If there is a critique to be leveled at Labatut, it falls in the realm not of genre but of gender. Amid — or, more aptly, beneath — the panoply of brilliant men in The Maniac, women function as bit players ... To be fair, Labatut’s not unaware of this. If he can’t retro-populate White Sands with female leads, he at least grants his women broader, more incisive wisdom.
Sets out to penetrate this mystery with imaginary testimonies by real people—siblings and teachers, colleagues and lovers—who knew von Neumann at different stages of his life. Labatut mingles biographical facts with fictional episodes and details to take us through each stage ... Labatut is intent on casting von Neumann as a Faustian figure, a man who transgressed the limits of knowledge to become something more and less than human. This idea may be Labatut’s greatest departure from biographical fact ... He skillfully distorts von Neumann’s biography to communicate...darkness ... Feels like a more accessible and conventional treatment of its predecessor’s basic idea—the moral corruption at the core of modern science. This is partly because Labatut has set himself a more difficult narrative challenge by focusing on a single life at greater length.