The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

January 11, 2011

This Tournament of Books longlist selection seduced me with its allusions to math and its connections to physics, two subjects I find fascinating. The author is, according to the book jacket, “a professional physicist” who is currently working on his doctorate in particle physics. The novel won the Premio Strega, Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, so promised to be worthwhile even if it did not make the ToB cut. It has kept its promise to me.

Knowing next to nothing of Italian, I read the novel in English. This places me one additional step removed from the author. The book has some clunky phrasing and relies too heavily on “then” to assure the reader that chronology matches sentence order. At one point, Mattia looks “out the opaque windows of the atrium”. (And he does actually see the landscape when he looks out, so this is not a metaphorical “looking out”.) I do not know whether these missteps are the fault of Giordano or his translator, but they are of only slight consequence. These occasional discordant notes are, happily, interspersed with some nice attention to the details of growing up and relationships.

The novel opens with Alice Della Rocca preparing for ski school on a morning in 1983. She is six years old and hates ski school. Her father is anxious to get her to the slopes, so Alice gulps her breakfast milk to please him. The milk will be her undoing. She joins her ski school class, says ciao to her father, and starts up the mountain. About halfway up, she has to use the restroom. Rather than alerting the instructor, she separates herself from the group to relieve herself surreptitiously. This decision, made in a moment to avoid embarrassment, leads to tragedy.

From Alice’s life, we move to Mattia Balossino who has a twin. Where Mattia is intellectually gifted, his sister Michela is significant mental impairments. Mattia has never been to any child’s birthday party but his own and Michela’s. In his third year of primary school, a classmate finally invites him to a birthday party. The classmate invites his sister too. Mattia, who has suffered considerable isolation because of his always present but oblivious sister, is crestfallen that the invitation is not his alone. At home, he broaches the possibility of going to the birthday party without Michela. His mother is disappointed in him. Mattia wants only to spend some time at the party without Michela, being a normal boy. His chosen method of obtaining his freedom chains him to that moment for the remainder of his life.

Both of these early scenes are written with an uncluttered poignancy. The characters are set on trajectories that, the reader knows, will eventually intersect. Giordano takes his time, developing the characters and their existence as misfits. High school is quite difficult for both of them, at least until they find each other. I expected a fairly conventional love story once they had met. I believe my expectations were somewhat justified by this passage:

The others were the first to notice what Alice and Mattia would come to understand only many years later. They walked into the room holding hands. They weren’t smiling and were looking in opposite directions, but it was as if their bodies flowed smoothly into each other’s, through their arms and fingers.

The marked contrast between Alice’s light-colored hair, which framed the excessively pale skin of her face, and Mattia’s dark hair, tousled forward to hide his black eyes, was erased by the slender arc that linked them. There was a shared space between their bodies, the confines of which were not well-delineated, from which nothing seemed to be missing and in which the air seemed motionless, undisturbed.

Giordano subverts expectations for this high school romance. Alice and Mattia are broken people and Giordano does not shy from showing their frailties in a realistic light. While they balance each other, they do not “complete” one another or erase the mistakes from each other’s past. Mattia and Alice are not pieces to a puzzle that snap into place and live happily ever after. I applaud Giordano for this realism which helps to raise The Solitude of Prime Numbers above the triteness of Nicholas Sparks (at whom I somehow feel free to take shots though I have never opened one of his vacuous romances).

But, the best part of the book is, frankly, the central conceit of the novel and the passage around which, I believe, the novel must have been written. I will tease you with only a portion of Giordano’s excellent discussion of prime numbers:

You encounter increasingly isolated primes [as you search the set of whole numbers for primes], lost in that silent, measured space made only of ciphers, and you develop a distressing presentiment that the pairs [(e.g., 11, 13; 41,43)] encountered up until that point were accidental, that solitude is the true destiny. Then, just when you’re about to surrender, when you no longer have the desire to go on counting, you come across another pair of twins, clutching each other tightly.

The concept is evocatively beautiful. This is math for romantics. Or maybe just romance for nerds. Giordano’s novel fits nicely around this idea and its bleak but not hopeless consequences. By tying Mattia’s mathematical abilities to the less logical realm of love, Giordano elevates both number theory and romance. It is a nice accomplishment and one worthy of an audience. I have my doubts that it will be enough to survive the ToB brackets, but the novel would make a worthy contender.

I do have one final complaint. This is not a novel that gets chess right, though it does get romance right. A friend of Mattia’s compares the initiation of a kiss and sexual intimacy.

Once Denis, talking about himself, had told him that all opening moves were the same, like in chess. You don’t have to come up with anything new, there’s no point, because you’re both after the same thing anyway. The game soon finds its own way and it’s only at that point that you need a strategy.

While it is true that only very good chess players are likely to come up with anything newly valuable to chess in the opening, this does not mean lesser players need not worry until later about strategy. The strategy for all players begins at least by the opening (and for top level players before the game even starts). While there are thousands of named openings (or variations on named openings), it is a strategic choice for white to pick the solid d4 rather than the more dynamic e4. Likewise, whether black responds to white’s e4 with the c5 of the Sicilian Defense, the e6 of the French Defense, or the e5 of the Ruy Lopez Defense (The Spanish Game) is a crucial strategic decision. Denis’s analogy does work better for poor players who know nothing about openings, but only because they will likewise know little about chess strategy. Everything, then, is tactics.

So, of all the things that The Solititude of Prime Numbers gets right, chess is not one of them. The mathematics, however, more than makes up for this failure. And I find consolation in the fact that Giordano did not demonstrate Mattia’s genius by his winning every chess game he ever played.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

August 8, 2010

I try to recommend to my daughter books that I have previously read. I had heard quite a bit about Neil Gaiman, whose star in the YA world has streaked through the heavens over the past few years. I had never read him, but thought my daughter might find his work enticing. Watership Down has languished, barely begun, so I wanted a second try. Her mother has a history with Stephen King and, it seems, our daughter has inherited at least a portion of her penchant for the phantasmic. The Graveyard Book, its Newberry Medal, and the gushing over Gaiman convinced me that I should suggest this one. I could not afford two lackluster receptions in a row or my literary credibility might be shot with her. I read it myself first.

The story begins with a triple murder (all family members) by a professional assassin. Only a toddler survives the attack on the family. The baby, through coincidence or infantile premonition, had chosen the night of the murders to wander from its crib. The killer, Jack, tracks the roaming child, by smell, to the graveyard.

Gaiman skillfully uses that impersonal pronoun:

It stared around it, taking the the faces of the dead, the mist, and the moon. Then it looked at Silas. Its gaze did not flinch. It looked grave.

The child is known to be a he. In fact, the ghosts have been referring to the little boy as “he”, but Gaiman’s narrator uses the impersonal which creates a distance between the ghosts and the boy. The boy is not yet a part of the community and he is not really a full person yet, just a toddler.

The friendly ghosts hide the child and misdirect Jack temporarily averting sure death.

An elderly, ghostly couple who had never had children want to take the boy in and raise him. The residents of the graveyard hold a council to determine whether the adoption should be allowed. Their discussion is interrupted by a woman on a grey horse.

They knew her, the graveyard folk, for each of us encounters the Lady on-the Grey at the end of our days, and there is no forgetting her.

…They were watching the Lady on the Grey, each of them half-excited, half-scared. The dead are not superstitious, not as a rule, but they watched her as a Roman Augur might have watched the sacred crows circle, seeking wisdom, seeking a clue.

And she spoke to them.

In a voice like the chiming of a hundred tiny silver bells, she said only, “The dead should have charity.” And she smiled.

The matter is settled. The Owenses will adopt the boy and raise him has their own.

Gaiman is an excellent storyteller. He has found the perfect voice for this sinister story. There are murders and equally frightening scenes after, but the story is told as a story. In that quote above, the narrator is unobtrusively inserted into the story with the slipping in of that “…not as a rule…” Little details like that provide enough distance to remind the reader, perhaps unconsciously, that they are reading a story, the events are not real. And, yet, the story is so compelling and the little details so pleasing (“…a voice like the chiming of a hundred tiny silver bells…”) that the reader is never pulled out of the story, but held tightly in.

The boy is named Nobody “Bod” Owens. The ghosts raise him with the mysterious Silas as his guardian. Gaiman carefully foreshadows key plot points and keeps the suspense building as Bod goes on small adventures. All the while, Gaiman is building in the little messages about childhood and parents and growing up that, I suspect, are typical of the genre.

His first contact with humans after his adoption by ghosts is with a little girl, Scarlett, whose parents visit the graveyard occasionally. The two always meet out of sight of Scarlett’s parents and, so, her parents believe Bod is an imaginary friend. Because no one else sees him, Scarlett thinks him unreal too, even as she tries to understand why he cannot leave the graveyard.

”Well, you can’t stay here all your life. Can you? One day you’ll grow up and then you will have to go and live in the world outside.”

He shook his head. “It’s not safe for me out there.”

“Who says?”

“Silas. My family. Everybody.”

She was silent.

Of course, the outside world is frightening for everyone, full of dangers for children and adults alike. Bod, as he grows, must leave the graveyard. He cannot live his whole life there. The ghosts and Silas, as all parents, worry about him and try to delay the inevitable. There are missteps. They give him freedom, but his adolescent curiosity and sense of justice court disaster. The dangers outside the graveyard are real, after all. Bod’s family was murdered and for a reason. Bod does not know the reason, the ghosts may not, but Bod does know the world holds a special danger for him.

Bod’s poor choices are more entertaining than those of most tweens. When he pours out his troubles to three passing ghouls, they sympathize. “What you need is to go somewhere where the people would appreciate you.” The anomic Bod follows the ghouls out of the graveyard and towards death. There is much humor for adults and much excitement for children in this and other vignettes, all of which drives home the messages of a frightening world, the protectiveness of parents, their wisdom, their errors of love, and the need for the child to be brave and careful. In other words, Gaiman does a good job of capturing both the feelings of childhood and the lessons teachers, parents, and awards juries believe are important for adolescents.

When Bod later decides he does not want to leave the graveyard at all, that he wants to stay with his parents and the other ghosts, Silas explains to him his difference from the ghosts.

Bod shrugged. “So?” he said. “It’s only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead.”

“Yes.” Silas hesitated. “They are. And they are, for the most part, done with the world. You are not. You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone. Over. You’ve made what you’ve made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.”

I tried not to take this little lecture personally, as an allegorical description of parents or old folks. I too have potential still. I’m not dead yet!

But there are times reading this, that I felt old. It is a children’s book, if a very well-written and engaging one. I say that not only because I enjoyed it, and quickly, but my daughter (who is not quite finished) provides me with excited updates as she follows Bod on his adventures. As a children’s book, though, the bows are nicely tied, the unfolding of events is easy to see, even if you cannot always guess exactly how. The book reminded me somewhat of Alexander’s Bridge and The Secret Agent in how methodically the story was built, how tellingly events are foreshadowed. In other words, it feels a bit like a throwback, to me. There is a certainty to it all, a lack of the moral and factual ambiguity that marks adult literature, particularly recent literary fiction. Of course, this is a children’s book so it necessarily provides its young readers with the confidence that Bod will prevail, even as it frightens them that maybe he won’t.

I enjoyed the different world of children’s literature. I liked the interlude it provided between more demanding works. And I enjoyed the story. It was a good story and it was well told. I gained back a bit of credibility with my daughter. Best of all, though, my daughter and I were able to share and bond over the story. I will treasure the book for that.

Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

June 1, 2010

***This review is part of a TLC Book Tour. A copy of the book reviewed was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.***

I had this class once with Grace Paley in which she told us that every line in fiction has to be true. It has to be a distillation of experience, more true to a person’s life than any moment he or she has actually lived. So this book is as true an account as I could write of my father’s suicide and my own bereavement, and that was possible only through fiction.

This quote from David Vann is from an interview included at the end of his story collection, Legend of a Suicide. The truth in these stories is not the truth of his father’s life, but the truth of David Vann’s own life. The motivations of his father in these re-imagined events, all bearing some resemblance to the author’s own experiences with his father and in the aftermath of his father’s suicide, do not always ring coherent.

As we spent those years in California leading steadily more circumscribed lives, my father ranged farther and farther up in Alaska, and everything he did seemed to lack sense.

Of course, when describing someone suffering from debilitating depression and/or pain and/or emptiness, coherence would seem a lie. Vann does not appear to be trying to understand his father, as much as he is plumbing his own emotions. The truth of these stories is in the psychological toll taken on the son by the father’s life and death. The nonchalant violence perpetrated against the reader’s emotions is neither gratuitous nor pointless. Vann takes the reader to through his journey from boyhood to manhood. The arc of the stories is a satisfying success.

David Vann has a fascination with fish. Given the treatment they receive in nearly all of the stories, it appears at first glance to be a hate-hate relationship. A single example will suffice to illustrate:

The halibut themselves lay flat, like gray-green dogs on the white deck of the boat, their large brown eyes looking up at me hopefully until I whacked them with a hammer.

There plenty of other, well-written descriptions of fish taking blows, often creatively delivered, but Vann’s characters are most brutal to the ones they love. Vann’s offenses against fish belie an affection echoed in the son’s feelings toward his father.

In the first story, Ichthyology, the son wins a couple of goldfish at a county fair. A cat kills them. His mother buys a proper aquarium and stocks it. Dead fish are, at first, buried “in elaborate ceremonies”. Mother and son tire of this quickly, dropping the ceremony in favor of a flush. They do replace the departed with new varieties.

Review Copy provided by the publisher.

At one point, the new fish they buy are “two new silver dollars.” The silver dollars survey their new bowlmates and, almost immediately, suck out the eyes of the “badly misnamed” iridescent shark. The shark is left blind and bumbling. The boy’s mother scoops out the silver dollars and flushes them.

In the background, his parents divorce, he and his mother move to California from Alaska, and his father becomes a commercial fisherman. The father is clearly struggling, not unlike the eyeless “shark”. He blasts a hole in his head just as Vann’s real-life father did. Where the father could not cope, the fish does. Vann has indicated in an interview (which I read after writing the foregoing), that the shark was symbolic of his father and its survival eyeless was a sort of redemption for the father. I took David for the fly shot out of the air by an archer fish, another stand-in for his father.

[T]here was the fly, mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic.

I may be reading too much into this fishy imagery, but, as I said, the stories are so very much about the son. The father is a man grieving for a wasted life, a lonely future. Nothing the father does in any of these stories turns out successfully. And in each, in some way, he kills a piece of his son. No matter at whom the father points the gun, it is the son who is injured.

At the center of the book is a novella rather than a short story. In real life, David Vann turned down the chance to spend a year in Alaska with his father. Shortly after that refusal, his father killed himself. In the novella, Vann’s fictional self, Roy Fenn, reluctantly agrees to the arrangement. This alternative reality is no less painful. Rather than spending four nights on a hotel room floor listening in the dark to his father weep, as did David, Roy has months in a cabin. In the novella, as in the stories surrounding it, James Edwin Fenn is feckless. He plans poorly, usually messes up whatever he attempts, and is wholly unable to connect in meaningful ways with the people around him. We do not get far beyond this image of the father, however, before the drama at the center of the novella unfolds.

Even in scenes where James is alone, we learn more about David/Roy and his feelings toward the father than we do about the possible motivations and emotions of the father. In short, I found this book to be fictional primarily as it relates to facts. It felt to me as entirely autobiographical with respect to emotions, the emotions of David/Roy. I do not mean to suggest that David was the troubled youth of “A Legend of Good Men” or the troubled adult in “Ketchikan”. But the emotions in these stories feel raw. For instance, after dropping the fingerlings over the cliff in one memorable scene, thirty year-old Roy imagines the tiny fish on the pavement:

Waiting, then. For water, for some new rule, new possibility, that could make pavement not pavement, air not air, a fall not a fall.

By the end of this linked collection, the reader has some insight into Roy, the boy placed in many different stories, always with the tragedy of suicide either looming in the present or just behind in the past. In this, the book is a success. The effect of examining suicide from so many closely-related perspectives is quite interesting. This structural technique is conceptually related to what J. M. Coetzee does in Summertime. Where Coetzee has something to say about his alter ego, the nature of memory and perception, and the business of storytelling, the scope of Vann’s work seems more limited. He captures in close detail the feelings of despair, rage, and confusion of a son abandoned by a father, but the project does not seem as layered or as broadly ambitious. This is not a fault, merely a difference.

This collection also brings to mind Afterwards by Gina Berriault. The subject of Ms. Berriault’s novel (novella almost) is also the aftermath of a suicide. Berriault, to my mind, demonstrates how beautifully an accomplished author can use a suicide to dig deeply not only into the emotional consequences of such an act, but also into some fundamental philosophical and psychological questions. My point is not that Vann’s work is not as good as Berriault’s or Coetzee’s, but to highlight their different purposes.

Vann’s work is very focused on the emotional toll of a father’s suicide on a son. Even in the one story where the father survives, it is clear the story is about David/Roy more than the father. The book feels like it must have been a cathartic experience for David Vann. And we are fortunate he chose this method. While his work is not as ambitious in some respects as Summertime and Afterwards, it achieves its own aims in beautiful prose.

I will be interested to see how David Vann moves on from what is, in many ways, a memoir of emotions to more pure fiction. In this hope and expectation, David Vann reminds me of Dave Eggers. While I have not read everything Eggers has written since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, my impression is that he has not yet made the jump from his own “semi-autobiographical” fiction detailing the emotional consequences of his own tragic youth to fully realized and accomplished fiction. And, yet, Eggers certainly has a successful writing career. Whether Vann follows the Eggers path or, more likely, makes a trail uniquely his own, I look forward to the further successes of David Vann.

[some typos fixed 6-2-10]