|In this story, the reclusive UCLA mathematician Nachman, a recurring character in stories by Leonard Michaels, gets a haircut. He chooses a barber he knows to be terrible at cutting hair, but he goes for the companionship and especially the sexuality of the experience he knows he will enjoy in the shop of this petite, Vietnamese woman. He enjoys the way she touches his scalp, wets his hair, and occasionally has to lean against him. In fact, Nachman seems to realize that this is a bit perverse (actually, I might describe it as being more pathetic), and it is his own rationalizations and self-referential neuroses which make up much of the story. Unfortunately, he lets himself get carried away with his fantasies and does something he wishes he hadn't.
There are only two references to mathematics in the story. In one paragraph there is a long description of how he does his research on problems so difficult that they make him cry in isolation and sometimes in the middle of the night. (This explains why he does not care that the haircut will not look good in the end.) And as he moves from being passive to active about his fantasies, he is described as changing from "Nachman to the first power" into "Nachman to the second power".
For me, this story, which does nothing other than explore the fragile mental state of a character who is a mathematician (by the author's choice), is a source of concern.
Nachman is an interesting, crazy character. If I was not a mathematician who monitors the portrayals of mathematicians in fiction, I would certainly enjoy this story and praise the author's writing ability. However, I always fear that the huge number of crazy mathematician characters in fiction will reinforce the false stereotype that real mathematicians are themselves mathematically unstable. Please do read this well written story, but keep in mind that it is fiction and you should not let it prejudice your view of real mathematicians.
Originally published in February 1998 New Yorker and republished in Michaels' posthumous Collected Stories. In addition, Arion Press published The Nachman Stories in a separate and very expensive book.