Milo Andret can’t get lost. As a boy on a boat in Lake Huron, summertime, the water “smooth as oil,” he realizes that his father is rowing his family out to sea. Surrounded by water, and without a visual marker to guide him, Milo leads them home. Years later, Milo abandons his children in a park, challenging them to find their way back to the car. They do. Forty or so years after that summer day on the lake, Milo’s granddaughter will prove herself a natural orienteer during a school hike. But by then, far deeper into the novel, this talent, which leads all the characters to varying levels of isolation and self-destruction, reads less like a blessing than a curse.
Ethan Canin’s latest and longest novel, A Doubter’s Almanac, is about this extraordinary family, and especially Milo himself, the brilliant, alcoholic mathematician who is the novel’s axis. It’s fitting, in an intuitive and satisfying way, that this novel about people who always know where they are on the world’s surface, as Milo might say, has a bold and surprising topography. A Doubter’s Almanac opens in a briskly written third-person, following Milo from his first early flashes of genius in the northern Michigan woods, when he carves a miraculous chain from a fallen tree, all the way to Berkeley and then Princeton, from love affair to love affair and drink to drink, and most impressively, through the tangle of his singular mind, as he develops a proof of the Malosz’s conjecture and in doing so solidifies himself as one of the pre-eminent mathematicians of his time. But then, about 200 pages in, there’s the dizzying intrusion of a new narrator. It occurs in media res, mid-assault (Milo has just attacked the Nobel Prize–winning husband of one of his lovers), without signpost or warning. In intimate, present-tense first person, Hans Andret, Milo’s son, announces himself. “I’ve been untruthful,” Hans says, and in doing so claims the story we’ve just read as his work.
If this kind of pseudo-meta writer trick puts you off, it shouldn’t, not in this case. It’s handled beautifully by Canin, who after seven books is at the top of his form, fluent, immersive, confident. You might not know where he’s taking you, but the characters are so vivid, Hans’s voice rendered so precisely, that it’s impossible not to trust in the story. Even difficult abstractions, passages that unravel Milo’s most complicated mathematical ideas, take on narrative momentum—Milo is unable to abandon a problem until he’s solved it, and his desire is compelling, even when the math is hard to parse. “It was as though the numerals had been expressly fabricated, like more-perfect words, to elucidate the details of creation,” Canin writes of Milo’s passion for math, though he might as well be referring to his novel, in which the delicate network of emotion and connection that make up a family are illuminated, as if by magic, via his prose.
Dramatic shifts in point-of-view seem to be more popular than ever in contemporary literature. Typically, they’re used to undo a surface interpretation, to reverse, with the change in vantage point, the way we’ve experienced the characters. Take Fates and Furies: the POV switch shows us that Mathilde and Lotto’s marriage is a loving mirage upheld by lies and secrets. The effect is a kind of literary voila! These people—who are characters, in case you forgot, invented by a writer—are both not who you think they are, and not who they think are. And of course, there’s Gone Girl, perhaps the most well-known recent example, with its alternating he-said, she-said versions of Amy’s disappearance. In both cases, the changes in perspective left me dazzled, and definitely grabbed full-throttle by the plot, but ultimately a little cold. While entertaining, both stories feel sort of thin. Though it’s interesting to remember that perspective changes everything, that to be a human means to be surrounded by people we’ll never truly know, in fiction that reminder can leave you feeling like the characters you just spent 200 pages with are strangers.
While the shift in A Doubter’s Almanac does inspire a special-effectsy burst of adrenaline, the move to first person pulls us in. It’s in service of a son’s profound desire to know his father, to understand him. It’s as simple and moving as that. Hans, as the teller of the story, is committing an act of love. He is trying to come to terms with a man who, after rising to the height of his field, neglected his family in pursuit of another unsolvable problem, which is eventually revealed to be his own alcoholism; and in the process, Hans is also trying to find himself.