Halfway through Ethan Canin's weighty, blazingly intelligent new novel, his main character, a brilliant, flamed-out mathematician, tells his 12-year-old son that when it comes to success, determination trumps talent. Milo Andret urges his son — who unfortunately has inherited his mathematical abilities and liabilities — to repeat after him: "The will is everything. I will never give up." The boy adamantly refuses. The father wheedles him, to no avail. Faced with his son's persistent intransigence, Canin writes, Milo "thought for a moment. Then he smiled. 'Good,' he said."
This head-butting interchange encapsulates Canin's nuanced handling of the novel's convoluted family dynamics. "A Doubter's Almanac" is an emotionally explosive exploration of success and failure in a family roiled by genius.
The book, which takes its title from a Descartes quote stressing the importance of doubt in the pursuit of truth, is a more tightly focused and ultimately more powerful book than "America, America" (2008), Canin's more expansive attempt at a Great American Novel that encompassed politics, ambition, the social divide between classes and the American Dream run amok.
Canin has long been interested in the boons and busts of ambition, the tension between creativity and practicality and what constitutes a successful life. These are not surprising preoccupations for an author who chose the uncertainty of a literary career over medicine after the success of his first collection of stories, "Emperor of the Air," published in 1988 while he was a student at Harvard Medical School.
Although "A Doubter's Almanac" concerns the torment of elite mathematicians trying to unlock the mysteries of the universe by solving impossibly abstruse problems, it is not farfetched to see in it an extended metaphor for the challenges and frustrations of a writer trying to do the same through literature. As with mathematical proofs, it's ultimately the results that matter: "The struggle vanishes. What remains is the work, and the work either stands or falls."
Beginning with his earliest books, Canin has demonstrated an almost uncanny ability to capture the complexities of fraternal bonds and rivalry. "A Doubter's Almanac" features two generations of jockeying but relatively supportive brother-sister pairs who have inherited, to different degrees, Milo Andret's cerebral gifts along with some of his behavioral quirks. But the narrative's primary focus is on the enormous, punishing pressure of exceptionality on individuals rather than competition between siblings.
The novel tells the story of Milo's life, from a solitary 1950s childhood in the woods of northern Michigan through his academic years of feverish productivity and being awarded the prestigious Fields Medal. It also tracks his frustrations, thwarted in love at Berkeley and confounded by a devilishly difficult problem at Princeton before a disgraced return to the Midwest.
The Princeton period inevitably calls to mind John Nash, the brilliant mathematician who, after years of struggles with schizophrenia, belatedly shared the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics for his earlier contributions to game theory.
Canin spills a lot of ink describing Milo's mind, but he never calls it beautiful. "His mind was a jar of marbles tilted onto a table," he writes; elsewhere he compares it to an emptied out paper bag. At Princeton, Milo, arrogant and belligerent, desperately tries to match his earlier achievement. He self-medicates — "imbibing while deriving," a journalist quips — with a ruinous stream of bourbon, cigarettes, faculty wives and Ativan. The result, which Canin dwells on at length, isn't pretty.
The novel's mathematical explanations are easier to read than to grasp. Does it matter that the book's proofs, conjectures and equations are liable to be pretty much incomprehensible to most readers? Not much. This is a book about people struggling with difficult problems (both mathematical and personal) rather than about mathematics.
Plus, Canin gives us a pass: "There were probably no more than a dozen people in the world who were even capable of understanding the question that the problem necessitated solving." Fortunately, what comes through with utter clarity is the driving passion to plumb deeper meaning and solve the great unsolved puzzles, including the mystery of time.
Milo's life story is refracted through his son's perspective; Hans hopes to "understand the truth about him" and come to terms with his "extravagantly sad family." His quest turns the book into a surprisingly gripping mystery. "Does one grow wise in increments? By fractioning a life and then summing it?" Hans asks. Like his father, he has struggled with substance abuse. But, having learned from his father's tragic trajectory, he is determined to strike a different path.
"A Doubter's Almanac" recalls the meaty novels of Richard Powers as well as David Leavitt's "The Indian Clerk" (2007), a novel about two great early 20th century mathematicians, G.H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan — though Canin's family saga, packed with near operatic drama, is far more emotional.
While it hits some notes too often — the granddaughter's similarity to her grandfather, the degenerative effects of too much alcohol — it strikes many more dead on. Hans' sister comments about their unreliable father, "He's the quicksand I grew up on."
Yet "A Doubter's Almanac" refuses to remain mired in bitterness. Instead, it movingly confronts the challenges of outsized ability, overwhelming ambition and "calamitous inheritance" with brio and feeling.
McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org, Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and other publications.
A Doubter's Almanac
Random House: 553 pp., $28