By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Ethan Canin
Narrated by: David Aaron Baker
“A Doubter’s Almanac” is a 21st century novel destined to be a classic. Though some may argue otherwise, Ethan Canin writes about a universal truth; i.e. “women are the sun; men are the moon”. Canin catalyzes one’s doubt and ambivalence about life’s meaning in a story about moral transgression, addiction, guilt, and redemption.
The story begins with details of a person with a superior intellect, and an amoral life. He is Milo Andret, a mathematician blessed with the ability to understand complex spatial relationships, even as they change shape. Milo is never lost in a physical wilderness but is trapped in a space reserved only for himself. In some ways, Milo reminds one of Ivan Karamazov (Dostoyevsky’s protagonist in “Brothers Karamazov”), a rationalist that denies God because of the irrationality of faith and the cruelty of life.
Milo, like Ivan, treats others as superficial human beings who only have relevance in respect to what they can do for him. Milo is a self-absorbed genius that begins as a naïve young boy looking for recognition from others for a superiority that he only vaguely sees in himself. Milo is a boy narcissist who matures into a misogynistic adult and dies as a repentant grandfather. Canin reveals the nature of geniuses who exploit their intellectual superiority. They alienate others. Some will lie to win praise. They are awarded for “presumed” new discoveries that are beyond the reasoning ability of their peers.
Genius is shown to have a short productive life. Canin describes geniuses as God’s spies because they have momentary insight to the laws of nature. However, God designs human brains to deteriorate early in their lives. Once past 30, God’s spies are blinded by mental deterioration. Milo crosses that threshold just before discovering a mathematical proof that escapes human understanding. Canin’s story suggests Milo fudges the truth of his mathematical proof by purposefully ignoring a false calculation. Milo, like Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment”, knows he has made a mistake, and punishes himself. Unlike Raskolnikov’s confession of murder to absolve his guilt, Milo continually acts out. He alienates himself from society with anti-social behavior, treats women with disdain, and succumbs to the addiction of alcohol.
Consciously, Milo attempts to redeem himself by teaching his son to become a mathematics topologist like himself. His son and daughter have inherited Milo’s ability to understand complex spatial relationships. However, Milo’s son also inherited his father’s addictive behavior. Milo’s son turns to mind altering drugs just as his father turned to alcohol. They choose addiction to escape the pressure of their innate genius. Because of Milo’s misogyny, he discounts the nurturing role of his wife and the innate ability of his daughter.
Many who surround Milo are sycophantic because of his mathematics reputation. However, Milo knows his reputation is founded partly on a lie. He wishes to redeem himself with a new discovery but has lost his cutting edge genius. To blunt his disappointment, he sinks deeper into alcoholism. Milo plunges deeper into misery by the realization that scientific discovery is an endless creation of new questions. One great mathematics proof only leads to another question and the search for another proof. Milo drinks himself to death, and his son is heading in the same direction.
Milo’s son abandons his mathematics career to become a financial Quant for an investment firm. He becomes a multi-millionaire before the age of twenty by creating a computer program for arbitraging stocks and commodities by timing price-movements in the market. The deterioration of his father’s health draws him back into the orbit of his father’s life.
The first third of Canin’s book recounts Milo’s life. The remaining 2/3 s dissects Milo’s life and relationship with his wife, two children, two grandchildren, and earlier non-familial enablers. Milo is divorced by his wife after years of psychological abuse. His son returns to be with Milo to understand why Milo became the father and person he had become. Milo’s daughter, wife, and stepdaughter are estranged but eventually come to see Milo in his last year of life. Along with family, other enablers come to see Milo in his last days.
The final scenes of Milo’s life are a summation of Canin’s view of human nature and the scientific process. Death is a Sisyphean struggle for Milo. Milo’s life plummets to the bottom of health’s hill, recovers, falls down, recovers, falls down, recovers, and finally dies.
The beginning of Milo’s life is symbolized by a long chain he carves out of a single piece of wood when a boy. It is the beginning recognition of his genius. His high school teacher is astounded by the chains intricacy and the skill needed to create it. The teacher is so amazed that he doubts Milo’s claim that he made the chain. The carved chain is later revealed in an interview with a mathematics professor that becomes Milo’s champion and mentor in college. This chain becomes a lynch pin in Milo’s life. The chain connects Milo to society. The professor recognizes Milo’s topographic genius in that perfectly carved chain. Then, Canin tells the story of Milo’s first female relationship. He seems to reflect on the impact women have on men’s lives.
The chain is linked with seminal events in Milo’s life. The chain reappears in Canin’s story when it is offered by Milo to his first love. She recognizes the chain as a proof of his unique genius. However, she refuses to take the chain as a gift. Milo’s first love leaves him; partly because of another man, but primarily because of her youth and the wish to experience a more adventurous life.
The chain reappears at the end of Canin’s story. The most important people in Milo’s life are present; e.g. an early mathematics competitor of Milo’s (who married Milo’s first love), Milo’s first love, his wife, his son, his daughter, and two grandchildren. A confrontation occurs. Milo’s former mathematics competitor explains to the assembled group that Milo is a failure. He reminds Milo that he predicted his failure when they were young. One of the links in the chain is chipped when the chain is thrown at the husband of Milo’s first love. The thrower is Milo’s daughter. Another allusion to the import of women in life.
Canin has written a good story; expertly narrated by David Baker. It is a tribute to the seekers of proof about the nature of existence. The nature of existence seems beyond the grasp of the human mind.
Through Milo and his family, Canin implies neither men nor women should ever give up. What Canin’s hero confirms is that women are the sun and men are the moon. Nature and nurture make us who we are but the principal source of power is in the sun.