I loved Ethan Canin’s book America, America so was predisposed to love this book…and while there is much to like, part of it left me feeling stupid (not something anyone particularly enjoys).
The book is about a family and focuses on Milo Andret, a tyrannical genius, his son Hans, and various others who live in their orbit (the wife/mother, the lover from years gone by, etc.).
The first half is all about Milo, and I struggled to either understand or care much about him. As author Pat Conroy describes Milo, he “…is a mathematical genius and one of the most maddening, compelling, appalling, and unforgettable characters I’ve encountered in American fiction.” Conroy goes on to summarize the book’s arc: “This is the story of a family that falls to pieces under the pressure of living with an abundantly gifted tyrant.”
Milo is just different from childhood, reminding me of high functioning children (and possibly adults) on the spectrum: “It wasn’t that he didn’t like other people…just couldn’t figure out what to say to anyone.” A significant life event is a schoolyard fight, and how he internalized his father’s advice: “…he’d learned something. As he’d felt himself giving in to the blows, he’d understood that he was entirely alone in the world.”
A true mathematical genius. Milo lives for a time while a student at Berkeley in a below-street-level basement apartment, which he sees as “a filthy fishless aquarium. Yet at the same time there was an aspect to the outlook that was akin to the maple and beech forest of his childhood. The sense of a constrained world that nonetheless suggested a borderless one.”
Milo’s field of study is topology (something with which I am NOT familiar) and “…he understood at the same time the radical difficulty of what he was attempting. The weight of discipline required to unlearn the world and refabricate it from principles.” Okay, start of feeling stupid here…
Admittedly, lots of the description was way over my head, for example “…he’d been…asked to produce a fully rotated rendering of a Steiner surface, which was formed by the smoothed union of 3 hyperbolic paraboloids.” And “…he didn’t see the object he was drawing but the entire array of space instead – all things that were the object and all things that were not the object – with equal emphasis. It was symptomatic of something he’d noticed in himself since childhood – an inability to take normal heed of his senses, the way other people did as they instinctually navigated a course of being. In this was, it was like mathematics itself: the supremacy of axiom of experience. He wondered why others didn’t see this.” So I get that he is an isolated freakish genius, but his behavior toward others is appalling, so I didn’t really care that much what he was doing or saying.
After a couple of hundred pages of Milo’s studies, career rise and fall, and descent into a dark place, I really didn’t care what happened to him – I was just tired of the way his total narcissism affected his family. But then, the story switched to his son, Hans, and his experiences. Well, guess what? Hans is another genius and while not as wacky as his father, just as puzzling.
This book is filled with great language, and the stories of the main characters are affecting and unsettling (as well-drawn characters are: we CARE about them). And I have no doubt that for someone who understands what the hell Milo is blathering about, this book would be gold. I am glad I read it, and while I know several people to whom I will recommend it, it definitely isn’t the thing for either of my book clubs.
Four stars just for being Ethan Canin and for making me think. I appreciate the opportunity to read an advance copy of this in exchange for my review.