MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Of Mystery There Is No End (2002)
Leonard Michaels
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Leonard Michaels' recurring character of UCLA mathematician Nachman faces questions of infidelity when he learns of the extra-marital affairs of his friend Norbert and Norbert's wife.

It is somewhat comforting to see that Nachman, often presented in these stories as being incredibly anti-social, even has friends. (In fact, the character of Norbert appeared briefly in Nachman from Los Angeles as a colleague when Nachman was a grad student.) However, Nachman here still appears particularly naive and fragile, and I cannot help but feel that we are supposed to somehow connect these character traits to his being a mathematician.

Of course, the purpose of the story is to discuss romance, social boundaries, psychology, etc. However, the purpose of this website is to discuss the mathematics in the story. So, even though there is very little of it, I will focus my attention on that bit in the remainder of my discussion.

When Nachman is stuck in LA traffic, he realizes that it is a perfect opportunity to do mathematics and begins to reach for a pencil and paper. (However, as he shortly witnesses his best friend's wife kissing another man on the street, he never gets to do any.) In fact, one of the things I do like about the job of being an academic mathematician is that it is possible to work on my research anywhere. Unlike my wife, a biologist whose work must be done in a laboratory, I can make progress on my research while sitting on a beach or walking through a forest.

To emphasize the connection between Nachman's feelings about infidelity and mathematics, the author includes a ``flashback'' scene in which he is a young boy. His great aunt is about to begin teaching him a mathematics lesson, but she begins by correcting his spelling (he has written "mathamatics" at the top of the page):

(quoted from Of Mystery There Is No End)

Pinching the pencil between her own skinny white fingers, she dragged the eraser back and forth on the paper, back and forth, until the a was obliterated. Then she drew a round and perfect e, pushing the pencil point into the fiber of the paper and pulling the hsape of the letter, like a small worm, slowly into view. Mor than four decades later, trudging on the beach in Malibu, Nachman saw again the red rims of Aunt Natacha's ancient eyes. She looked at Nachman to see if he understood. The lesson had little to do with spelling or mathematics. She taught him there is a right way. It applied to everything.

In the story, we also see Nachman opening his mail. He gets a request to read and report on a draft of a mathematics textbook, an offer for a job at a defense contractor (paying 10 times as much as his institute salary), and an invitation to speak at a conference (in mathematical physics, which is not his area of expertise). It seems strange that this are coming to his home. Such offers more frequently come to the departmental office or by e-mail. However, these seem like reasonable things for him to be receiving -- not very different than what I receive and I think Nachman (who is supposedly quite famous) would probably receive many such requests.

I'm not too fond of the closing passage in which Nachman ridicules the idea that math is a ``social creation''. The suggestion is that since he works on his math in isolation (sometimes waking in the night to write down a proof that has come to him), it is not a social thing. This same passage suggests that progress is not made by reasoning but by epiphany. (``Nachman had never even met a mathematician who could tell you how a solution came to him or her. It just came or it didn't.'') Of course, the author is saying these things more to comment on the character and his thoughts about infidelity, but these are misconceptions about mathematics that I'd rather not see promoted even for the sake of the art of such a talented writer.

This story appears in Michaels' posthumous Collected Stories. In addition, Arion Press published The Nachman Stories in a separate and very expensive book.

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Works Similar to Of Mystery There Is No End
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Rough Strife by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
  2. Nachman Burning by Leonard Michaels
  3. Nachman at the Races by Leonard Michaels
  4. Nachman from Los Angeles by Leonard Michaels
  5. Problems for Self-Study by Charles Yu
  6. Orpheus Lost: A Novel by Janette Turner Hospital
  7. Cryptology by Leonard Michaels
  8. The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks
  9. The Embalmer's Book of Recipes by Ann Lingard
  10. Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz by Irene Dische
Ratings for Of Mystery There Is No End:
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:
1/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
4/5 (1 votes)
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Categories:
Genre
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Romance,
Topic
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)