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Watt (1953)
Samuel Beckett

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^2-x looks, while a committee with y members needs y^2-y 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".)

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Works Similar to Watt
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Fall of a Sparrow by Robert Hellenga
  2. Mefisto: A Novel by John Banville
  3. Ratner's Star by Don DeLillo
  4. Mulligan Stew by Gilbert Sorrentino
  5. Het gemillimeterde hoofd (The Cropped Head) by Gerrit Krol
  6. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  7. Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz by Irene Dische
  8. Rough Strife by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
  9. Stay Close, Little Ghost by Oliver Serang
  10. The One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
Ratings for Watt:
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Mathematical Content:
2/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
5/5 (2 votes)


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