It’s my own fault, of course. For the first time in long while, I believed that a book and its Amazon copy were in tune, which naturally led to my disappointment in Stuart Rojstazer’s debut novel, The Mathematician’s Shiva. The jacket suggests a Pynchonian romp of secret plots, geopolitical rumblings, high-math technical language, and a parrot of interest. Good on the marketing team for finding the most compelling bits of the novel and convincing me that those composed the heft of the story (a story I would still love to read). But between the covers one finds a more classically middlebrow, multigenerational saga of European immigrant geniuses in which a son tries to figure out who he is after his overbearing-yet-distant-yet-loving mother dies.
It seems that everyone is in the market for multigenerational sagas, these days.
The story begins as Rachela Karnokovitch dies in Wisconsin, surrounded by her son, ex-husband, and brother. A world-famous mathematician who defected to the United States after living through war and post-war Soviet hell, rumors burble that she solved the Navier-Stokes equation with her last remaining brain activity. Her geophysicist of a son, our narrator Sasha, resents the inescapable comparisons to Rachela, and his attendant sense of underperformance as a human and a Karnokovitch. His apoplexy doubles when some 14 or 15 mathematicians badger their way into his mother’s shiva, ostensibly to grieve the passing of a Great Mind with her family, but also and with incompetent subterfuge to ransack Rachela’s home in search of a Navier-Stokes proof on paper. Luckily for Sasha, the interlopers regard the $1 million Millennium Prize for the proof as no more than an objective correlative of Navier-Stokes’s mathematical importance. What one might generously call hijinks ensue.
There are, in fact, secret plots, geopolitical rumblings, high-math technical language, and a parrot of interest, but as often as not these wanly colorize a monochromatic narrative. The shiva begins on page 195 of the 366-page novel; the majority of reader time is given over to throat-clearing and the establishment in no uncertain terms that the narrator has a strained relationship with his mother, who was the greatest mathematician full stop. Rojstaczer gives Rachela’s huband the obvious critique of the phrase “greatest female mathematician”. “What is this qualification ‘female’?…There will not be another like her for two hundred years, maybe longer.”
The reader must work to make the observation funny in this ostensible comedy, which requires little effort that Rojstaczer nonetheless refuses: The Mathematician’s Shiva features the “greatest parrot mathematician”, giving the lie to such condescending formulations. I don’t mean to prescribe Rojstaczer humor, but he’s written a comedy of manners that rarely takes up opportunities for wit. Instead, the book adopts a tone of general lightheartedness and discursive, meandering narration. I’m sure you’ll agree that that’s no substitute for jokes or play.
It doesn’t help that in the comedy of manners, the mathematicians are indistinguishable except by the facts of each person’s history and nationality. Three of the shiva-crashers are identical triplets that Sasha fails to differentiate. This would be a joke, except that for the reader a similar trouble applies to the majority of the cast. One of the crashers was Rachela’s rival, one her lover, some are pure admirers, but by the end of the novel all of the identities, like the parrot, like the Prize, all are red herrings.
The closest structural analogue to The Mathematician’s Shiva is The Usual Suspects, a movie that eats itself in the final scene. Nothing quite so dramatic happens here, given that the reveal of what happened with the Navier-Stokes equation is mentioned nearly in passing. The facts of the case would, in a more carefully constructed novel, ask interesting questions about ego, tradition, epistemology, fame, family, adolescence, and money (and maybe religion, which, as a member of this set, is taken up by the book not at all). As written, it nullifies the above red herrings’ bearing on the plot and the reader’s investment in them, an investment one cannot help because the herrings are the only parts of the book with potential energy or mystery.
Despite all of the above, the most troublesome fact of The Mathematician’s Shiva is political: in Rojstaczer’s attempt to dramatize academic-intellectual sexism, specifically as it manifests in the field of mathematics, somehow his novel’s women exist only as pressures and possibilities in the narrator’s personality-formation — and the narrator is a man. The author referred to the story as a “bildungsroman of middle age”, which might diagnose the problem.
In the mid-century bildungsroman, to which Rojstaczer is explicitly indebted, women are an experience for a young, male narrator to have on his way to a (usually) womanless self-actualization, after which state he will have total control over his sexual and romantic desires. That Sasha is a middle-aged Russian-Jewish (which racial identity has a complex relationship to whiteness and geopolitical power in a way taken up by the book not at all) man means two things: 1. The story is filtered through a man with pretty classic man-like hang-ups concerning women and mothers; and 2. the narrative signifies as it relates to a man with pretty classic man-like hang-ups concerning women and mothers.
As a geophysicist, Sasha baby-steps the reader through the scary world of math (after writing out the Navier-Stokes equation itself, he coos, “Yes, OK, reader, I know you are probably sweating almost instantly at the sight of such a thing,” which shows how much of a condescending prig Sasha can be, but at least he metaphorizes the equation’s purpose in the most rewarding literary conceit of the novel [a tip-off: Navier-Stokes quantifies turbulence, and human relationships are very etc. etc. I don’t need to spoon-feed it to you]), but this keeps math at arms-and-legs distance, never to signify except as a difficult, abstract, quasi-mystical semiotic system (with a built-in relationship to Kabbalah and Judaism taken up by the book not at all).
As a man, he does the same thing with regard to women. There are two extended passages with actual pleasure to be had, and not incidentally, they are moments when Sasha interacts with women smarter and more interesting than himself: at his mother’s death and during the dissolution of his marriage. Let me complete the passage in the above parenthetical:
Yes, OK, reader, I know you are probably sweating almost instantly at the sight of such a thing. You are thinking perhaps, “Why does this author show us such opaque symbolism? Forget this book by this middle-aged man raised by eccentric mathematicians (as if there are any other kind). One of his parents is already dead in this story and she was probably the most interesting character of the lot.
Hands in the air: he got me, at least as it concerns Rachela. I won’t continue to catalog the ways in which he Mathematician’s Shiva is a bust on that front, because they are not very compelling. It’s all pretty standard submerged chauvinism (Sasha forgives himself for his womanizing in a climactic, Shakespearean orgy of marriage) and an general inability for writers who are men to dramatize what it is like to be a woman or write with a sophisticated understanding of sexist ideological reproduction. Rojstaczer manages to write a compelling woman, then kills her forthwith, allowing her return only as a memory or a child in her memoir. As collateral damage, her early death precludes any normalization of “women in math” the book could have accomplished by showing a female mathematician being a mathematician (not a mother, wife, child, or corpse).
Which leaves us with one last theme or current I’ve addressed only parenthetically: the experience of Eastern European Jewish immigrants and émigrés in the United States. As a theme, it inspires a response of aggressive tepidity. However, as a milieu, the characters’ polyglot dialogue, funereal traditions, and cultural alienation feels lived-in. There’s no obsessive over-explaining of the shiva procedure as with the psychology of math geniuses. The details register as de rigeur and mundane, that is to say, traditional.
The funeral and shiva are obligations that Sasha has to fulfill; the floating commentary on Orthodox grieving and why people would observe the law of a religion they don’t observe imbues itself into the reader slowly and inexorably, the same way one emerges from grief. Sasha could have refused the mathematicians’ request to sit shiva, but he didn’t. One never completely understands the decision, but as the shiva progresses, one becomes more sympathetic to the different capacities for grief among friends, colleagues, admirers, nemeses, and family.
Alas, the shiva is merely occasion for gentle academician, diaspora, immigrant, and maladjusted-mathematician jokes, but all of these jokes, even as one character may be the subject of several of these categories, they almost never twine or influence each other. All identities and plots are discrete, set against types of people that don’t exist in the diegesis: naturalized US citizens, gentiles, well-characterized women, well-characterized characters, etc. The apophatic descriptive style leaves the book curiously amorphous in almost all of its aspects. But the critical indictment, for me, was the realization that the enticing, mysterious jacket copy was an apophatic description of the book itself.