For a troubled math genius, a fractured father-son equation
On this winter morning, Ethan Canin seems more interested in talking bicycles than discussing his vivid, moving, finely crafted new novel, A Doubter’s Almanac.
That’s because he has discovered that the interviewer shares his love of bicycling. A couple of years ago, Canin and his wife purchased fat-tired bikes with studded tires, which means he can ride almost every day of the year in Iowa City, where he teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Canin, his wife and their three daughters—ages 12, 16 and 19—“own a lot of bicycles,” including a tandem that hangs from the ceiling of his “writing shed,” a building behind his house that he converted from an old carriage house. Bicycling is one of the ways Canin offsets the anxiety and sedentary nature of writing.
But Canin’s desire to talk bikes also seems to arise from a deep reluctance to make any sort of big pronouncements about his book. “It’s all just discovery to me. I never set out to deal with anything,” Canin says during a call to his home. “Fiction can’t be intentional like that. Because anything you set out to prove is too simplistic, and the reader will revolt against that.”
Canin goes on to quote E.L. Doctorow. “He said writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but in doing so, you can go the whole way. That’s the way I write. You just don’t know what’s next. When you’re five years out, that’s scary.”
So scary, in fact, that Canin was reluctant to let his wife read the final draft of the novel. “I’ve been married to my wife for many years, and we were together for many years before that. I used to give her every paragraph and ask her to read it. I didn’t give her this book until I’d written the whole thing, and even then I almost couldn’t bear to give it to her. I thought I’d wasted five or six years.”
Readers of A Doubter’s Almanac will be astounded to learn of Canin’s fears. The novel is, start to finish, an emotionally and intellectually gripping narrative about a mathematical genius named Milo Andret. Born in the 1950s, Milo grows up a solitary child in a silent household in the woods of northern Michigan. In a lovely passage early in the novel, on one of his solo ventures into the woods, Milo finds a fallen tree, then conceives of and, over time, fashions an intricate wooden chain from the dead tree; still, his teacher thinks Milo’s claim to have made the chain is a lie. In a small way, this points to the doubts and competitive envy about Milo’s abilities that are one of the powerful currents that cascade through the novel.
Milo’s conceptual abilities—which he sometimes considers a form of idiocy—are astonishing. In his 20s he wins the Fields Medal, which is the mathematical world’s Nobel Prize. But Milo’s singularity comes with high emotional and professional costs.
The second act of Milo’s life—his intellectual banishment and physical decline—is narrated by his alienated son, Hans, who tries to balance his father Milo’s “brilliance, his highly purified arrogance, his Olympian drinking, his caustic derision, his near-autistic introversion and his world-class self-involvement” against his mother’s “modest parcels of optimism and care.” It’s an unworkable equation. Hans also worries that he and his young children have inherited both the positive and negative sides of Milo’s unusual abilities.
Which leads one to wonder what traits Canin thinks children inherit from their parents.
Canin laughs. “My experience both from having children and knowing other parents is that before you have kids, you wonder whether it’s nature or nurture, but once you have kids almost every parent will tell you it’s 100 percent nature. Nurture has nothing to do with it. Maybe that’s a way of avoiding blame, but I see crazy things in my kids that come from my parents or my wife’s parents. I know I have the body type and the head movements of my uncle who I hardly know. I talk like him. I move like him. It’s just bizarre. And my daughter has these crazy similarities to my mother. So with no basis in research, I think all those things are heritable.”
Still, natural abilities aren’t the whole story. Canin, the author of four previous novels and two short story collections, is also a believer and practitioner of the daily habits of craftsmanship. “I teach wonderful students here” at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he says. “I don’t have to teach anything academic. It’s all craft-based, which I love.”
Not only that, Canin is a longtime woodworker and carpenter, experiences that inform sections of this novel in very tactile ways. Canin says he built a standing desk in his writing shed years ago. He is currently remodeling the small house next door in Iowa City that he and his wife bought from their elderly neighbor. And he’s rebuilding a cabin in the woods of northern Michigan where he and his family spend their summers.
“I do a lot of hammer and nails,” Canin says, then adds, laughing, “I’ve always been a woodworker since I took shop in school. It’s about the only thing I learned in high school that I remember.”
Of course, Canin also graduated from Harvard Medical School and practiced emergency medicine in San Francisco, where he spent much of his youth. He draws on his medical background in his powerful descriptions of Milo’s alcoholism and Hans’ struggle with addiction. “Anybody who has worked in an emergency room will tell you that the alcohol problem in the United States is a thousand times bigger than the drug problem,” Canin says. “It’s the elephant in the room.”
More generally, Canin says of his career as a doctor, “there’s no place like it. If you’re interested in stories, you’d want to be a doctor. People tell you things that they tell nobody else. You see a side of the world that is crazy. It’s incredibly interesting. There’s a lot of side learning that goes into it—you have to learn anatomy and physiology and all that—but what could be better for people who are interested in literature? Other than being a priest or a cop or maybe a soldier, I can’t think of anything else that would show you the world the way being a doctor shows you the world.”
Deciding to leave medicine, Canin says, “was very hard. Would I do it today? Never in a million years because I have kids and a mortgage and college tuition to pay. But at the time, I wasn’t able to foresee any of that. It was very difficult to walk away. It’s a huge amount of education. It was a steady job. It was an interesting job for the most part. But I realized that if I didn’t need the money from finishing a book I would never finish a book. I mean, writing is one thing, finishing a book is another. Leaving [medicine] was a motivation to finish writing a book.”
Finally, there is Canin’s lifelong interest in mathematics, which bodies forth in the novel in both playful and serious ways. “I’ve always been good at math,” he says. “I’ve always loved it. But not like Milo’s mathematics. I understand about 25 percent of that math. I adore math, and I’m helping my kids with their math, and of course they can’t stand it. It’s very dicey how you teach adolescent kids, how you have to lie low, but I keep telling them how beautiful math is and they’re like oh, right, Dad, you’re just saying that.”
Canin laughs, then adds, “In some ways this novel really was a labor of love—in the sense that I love mathematics and I love the idea of trying something that is difficult in the world. Imagining myself into a character with Milo’s kind of devotion was one of the few pleasures of writing the book.”