Monday, April 20, 2009

Life After Genius

Thinking of Mozart's line in a bit from P.D.Q. Bach: "I was a child prodigy, but now I'm just a grown-up guy," I picked up M. Ann Jacoby's Life After Genius at the library. I was also, of course, thinking of some of the dire predictions made by my son's elementary-school principle when he skipped third grade. The fictional Theodore "Mead" Fegley is not unlike my son; he's younger than everyone else, and he's smarter. Both are especially good at math.

For some reason, I've always been surrounded by people who are good at math. When we were in college I told them they could "speak math" at breakfast if they'd speak English at lunch and dinner. So Mead's musings on what he spends most of his time thinking about sound uncannily familiar to me:
"'Mathematical thinking is deeply unnatural. It makes things complex where they would at first appear simple. Take, for example, this rock we're sitting on. Describe it to me.'
'This rock? I don't know. It's big. And hard.'
'Exactly. Now if you give me a ledger pad and a pen, I can probably get back to you with a mathematical description of it in about a week.'
'So what you're telling me is that math is stupid, not me.'
'Not stupid, no. It seems impractical when applied to something as simple as a rock but when that same principle is applied to a complex idea--like the theory of relativity--the beauty of mathematical thinking becomes clear. The complex becomes simple.'"
I swear, it sounds just like the math people I know... a thousand words to express something that comes out like a pun.

Also this author gets right the vicissitudes of living with a person who is smarter than other people, even though she has to compare her character once again to the most famous acknowledged genius of all time to do it:
"'You talk just like him, you know....Einstein. He also had this rambling, roundabout manner of speaking. Never quite getting to the point. It happens a lot with geniuses because their minds work faster than their tongues."

I was absolutely riveted by this novel for about 250 pages. I seriously considered staying awake until I finished the book, which is something I hardly ever do, but in the end, I contented myself with finishing the next afternoon. Was I ever glad. I would have been furious if I'd stayed up reading this book only to find out that its resolution doesn't live up to the suspenseful way it's told.

As Nicole observes in an earlier review, "Life After Genius jumps around Mead’s life in non-linear fashion; equally rewarding readers with tantalizing additional pieces of the puzzle and tormenting them when puzzle pieces just aren’t enough to draw the hoped for definitive conclusion." I love the way the narrative gradually zeroes in on the moment when Mead realizes what the reader has been suspecting for a while.

But the ending is ambiguous, and I have to agree with Alyce that the ambiguity is unsatisfying. Mightily so, for me, and in a way that seems untrue to the intelligence of the rest of this novel.


Alison said...

I am reminded of a quotation from Charlie Eppes, the math genius on "Numb3rs" (I know, I know - bringing TV into a literary blog: sacrilege!) As he looks back on his life as a prodigy, his friend Larry makes the comment "You haven’t seen your best years yet, Charles." He replies "No, but I’ll never come ahead of schedule again."

Jeanne said...

Alison, yeah, just another grown-up guy! I've watched Numb3rs with Ron and the Schumachers, who all love it.

And don't I bring TV in sometimes? Maybe I need to more often--this is not supposed to be a high-toned old literary blog!

Alison said...

Nice to know that "real" math people don't completely tear their hair out at Numb3rs (especially as I strongly suspect that Peter MacNicol secretly followed Ben Schumacher around for a few weeks in preparation for his role).

Anonymous said...

I think I need to read this book, despite its unsatisfying ending. But how to read a book when I can't even manage to keep up with my blog reading?

I am obviously pathetic. Perhaps I'll become a real reader again when my kids are older. I'll have to hold on to that fantasy lest the inferiority complex I have when I read Necromancy grow ever larger!

Jeanne said...

Siren, I had less time to read when my kids were younger. But I'm not meaning to make anyone feel inferior! My aim is to tempt you to be more selfish and make a little time to read. (So although I'm not a necromancer I am kind of like the devil.)

bermudaonion said...

The ending of this one bothered me too. I usually like neat, tidy endings.

Anna said...

Overall, I enjoyed this book, but the ending drove me nuts!

Diary of an Eccentric