Contributed by
"William E. Emba"
WATT is generally considered a very strange novel, written
in a style best described as "permutational". The narrator
and many of the characters frequently find themselves unable
to utter simple declarative sentences, but instead must
compulsively resort to verbal Venn diagrams, simultaneously
giving the reader Boolean truth and zero information.
This aspect of WATT is so prominent, that Hugh Kenner (late
Professor of English at Johns Hopkins) even translated one
sentence into explicit Boolean algebra, and another one into
Pascal pseudocode, in his book THE MECHANICAL MUSE.
Mathematics becomes dominant in both form and content in
WATT in a long section on "The Mathematical Intuitions of
the Visicelts". One researcher has found an elderly Visicelt
who can take cube roots in his head, and is putting him on
display before the relevant committee. But first, the five
committee members have to look at each other, and after
enumerating that event, the difficulties they encounter,
the narrator explains that a committee with x members needs
x^2x looks, while a committee with y members needs y^2y
looks. And afterwards the committee gets interested in square
roots, fourth roots, and queries all the way up to twelfth
roots. In the end, it turns out to be just a trick.
WATT takes a certain kind of stamina to read, but it delivers
a unique impact, weighted down with unsettling philosophical
import while lightened up with a wild and savage humor.
As a side note, Kenner was mathematically and technically
informed. He had intended to be a math major, but under
Marshall McLuhan's influence, switched to literature. He
wrote two books on Buckminster Fuller (BUCKY and GEODESIC
MATH), his THE COUNTERFEITERS contains knowledgeable
discussions of Babbage and Turing, and he had a column
in BYTE magazine for several years. His analysis of Beckett
often invoked mathematical analogies, like completing the
rationals to get the reals. (Kenner's analogies were always
thoughtful, unlike the "chaos theory" fad that consisted of
cluelessly labelling pretty much anything "chaos".)
