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Stay Close, Little Ghost (2013)
Oliver Serang
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

This is a bizarre, psychedelic and semi-autobiographical novel about a man named Oliver who has an uncanny ability to find four-leaf clovers, spends much of his time working on a mathematical problem, and has a complicated social life.

The main character sees and believes in many unusual things, including a last glimpse of his former girlfriend screaming as she becomes a permanent stain on a pillar at the train station, special glasses that let him peer into people's souls, and personal messages scratched into tunnel walls by a girl with no eyes. In some other works of mathematical fiction, such as the movie Pi, such things are understood to be signs of the underlying insanity of the mathematician character. However, I did not feel that this was the case in Stay Close, Little Ghost, and the many people who have written their own reviews of the book around the Web seem to agree. Rather, in making use of "magic realism", these unrealistic aspects of the book are designed give an impressionistic sense of the human experience. Paraphrasing the author commenting on the book's origins, the surrealistic features are just reality "turned up to 11". Still, I worry that some readers influenced by the stereotype will presume that the bizarre aspects of the book have something to do with a supposed link between mathematical ability and mental illness.

Interestingly, in this novel there is a similar attempt to impressionistically capture something about academia and math research. At first, his description of mathematical problems as trying to find the top corner of a "diamond" sounds like it may be a literal description of a combinatorial optimization problem:

(quoted from Stay Close, Little Ghost)

[W]hen a problem gets big, the number of corners doubles and the doubles again, and on and on until it becomes huge. So big that finding the highest corner becomes finding a needle in a haystack several times over. Some problems have a clear path between the corners that runs like a little river up the side. But for other problems, it isn't quite so clear. ...There's something more amazing hidden in this: rather than solving one problem and chipping off it's top corner like the topknot of a defeated samurai, you could ask a huge problem, the problem of all problems. The problem of all problems asks this: what is the way to most easily find the path to the top of any problem? Slicing the top corner off that magic diamond would slice the top corner off every problem in existence.

However, before long his effort to solve the big problem, which presumably is P vs. NP, is described in terms of diamonds that he must climb, farm, rake, break, and otherwise manipulate in non-mathematical terms. It feels like math research, but no actual mathematical content is conveyed in the descriptions.

There are two ways in which this reminds me of Rudy Rucker's early writing. On the one hand, the psychedelic atmosphere and the protagonist's single-minded focus on a famous mathematical problem that also interests the author both reminded me of White Light, Rucker's experimental novel about the Continuum Hypothesis. And, on the other, in the sense that this book conveys the feeling of math without any mathematical details, it made me think of the Moddler, an invention in Rucker's A New Golden Age which was supposed to have been able to do the same.

Serang, who is an American currently teaching at the University of Bremen in Germany, also captures some of the feeling of academia, such as what it is like to attend (but not quite listen to) a seminar. At one point, he gives one of the four-leafed clovers he has found to a professor who asks "Is this really a four-leaf clover?" Oliver offends him by turning to a colleague and saying "God they really over-hype the quantitative skills of this department."

Please do not base your opinion of this novel simply on what I've written above. I am looking back over what I've written so far and finding that it does not really capture the overall impression that I have of the book, precisely because I was focusing only on the mathematical aspects. Although references to his "diamonds" problem show up throughout the novel and do seem to be important, this book has much more to do with his romantic relationships and involves much more drinking and dancing and meeting people on trains than the review above might lead one to believe. Math is just one small aspect of the book, just one small aspect of Oliver's life. That is another way in which this book is different than many other works of mathematical fiction, whose protagonists are often entirely consumed by mathematics. I hope that readers who have only met mathematicians through their (mis)representations in other works of fiction can appreciate that bit of realism hidden amongst all of the surreality of Stay Close, Little Ghost.

Contributed by Anonymous

I love this book

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Works Similar to Stay Close, Little Ghost
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Com os Meus Olhos de Cão [With My Dog Eyes] by Hilda Hilst
  2. White Light, or What is Cantor's Continuum Problem? by Rudy Rucker
  3. The Capacity for Infinite Happiness by Alexis von Konigslow
  4. Habitus by James Flint
  5. Orpheus Lost: A Novel by Janette Turner Hospital
  6. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  7. At Ocean by Oliver Serang
  8. The Proof of Love by Catherine Hall
  9. Continuums by Robert Carr
  10. Zilkowski's Theorem by Karl Iagnemma
Ratings for Stay Close, Little Ghost:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
2.5/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.5/5 (2 votes)

MotifAcademia, Proving Theorems, Romance,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)