a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Divide Me By Zero (2019)
Lara Vapnyar

Notes intended to be the outline for a math textbook by the narrator's mother instead give structure to her stories about her mother's death and her own love life.

Like the author, the character Katya is writer of literary fiction who emigrated to New York City from Russia as a young woman. Katya's descriptions of her interactions with her dying mother, her two children, the husband she is divorcing, the billionaire to whom she is engaged, and the former high school teacher she still loves show her to be selfish and immature. She is in need of the sort of guidance provided by "self-help books", but the guidance she receives turns out to be mathematical.

Katya's mother was an influential math educator, school official, and textbook author in Russia and in her old age decides to write a math-themed self-help book for American adults. The brief notes she was writing for herself in preparation for writing that book are used as the opening of the first 21 chapters of "Divide Me By Zero". For example, Chapter 5 starts with "Do not push too much math on a child or she will rebel" and Chapter 9 says "Fun with graphs: If you can't determine the exact moment of the event, try to find the last defined moment before the event and the first that comes after" (accompanied by the graph of a function of one variable with a local minimum P surrounded by labeled points B and A). These are always intended to resonate with the text in the chapter. For example, Chapter 9 features Katya looking at photos and trying determine the moment that her marriage became a loveless one.

For me, at least, this worked best when Vapnyar was able to build upon the opening mathematical comment of the chapter, using math to say something about daily life and conversely revealing some truth about math itself. For instance, in the chapter which starts with "Higher dimensional spaces occur in the sciences" she writes:

(quoted from Divide Me By Zero)

Sometimes I think I turned to math the way B. turned to Orthodox Christianity, to fill a spiritual void that became acutely unbearable after my mother died.

If you think about it, math is as good a religion as any. It's both endlessly abstract and irresistibly precise. You can grasp the entire world with the help of math and make it seem less chaotic, unpredictable, and scary. Isn't this why my mother started to work on her last book to begin with? She must have felt that something was wrong; she must have glimpses into the chaos of death, and so she turned to math -- her safe, perfectly structured space.

One way to describe love according to the gospel of math is as a condition that causes a dimensional shift. The emerging new world that contains love becomes so vast that it opens into an entire new dimension, dwarfing all of the worlds that existed in your life before you fell in love.

There are some places that the math (or math history) is annoyingly wrong. For instance, on page 266 Katya suggests that "few people outside math circles" know the name of Carl Friedrich Gauss because (unlike the apparently better known Lobachevsky) he was afraid to publish his work on non-Euclidean geometry. And later she says that every function has a limit, or some other such nonsense. But, as is often the case, it is difficult to know whether these reflect a misunderstanding on the part of the author or if she knowingly had the character of Katya mislead the reader.

Divide Me By Zero is not among my personal favorite mathematical fiction novels. Katya's immaturity, her sense of humor, and obsession with sex were not to my taste, and I didn't feel that Vapnyar did much with the math. (The quote above is a rare exception in a book where most of the mathematical metaphors were much less interesting.) However, I do recommend this book to anyone who can appreciate a book for the way it is written. One of the blurbs refers to the "charisma of [Vapnyar's] storytelling". I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I can't quite find the words to describe whatever it is that makes her writing so effective either. The book really is well-written, and is certainly an interesting example of mathematical fiction.

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Works Similar to Divide Me By Zero
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Book of Knut: a novel by Knut Knudson by Halvor Aakhus
  2. Continuums by Robert Carr
  3. The Invention of Ana [Forestillinger om Ana Ivan] by Mikkel Rosengaard
  4. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  5. My Heart Belongs to Bertie by Helen DeWitt
  6. Miss Havilland by Gay Daly
  7. Tigor (aka The Snowflake Constant) by Peter Stephan Jungk
  8. Mandelbrot the Magnificent by Liz Ziemska
  9. The Mathematics of Nina Gluckstein by Esther Vilar
  10. Mefisto: A Novel by John Banville
Ratings for Divide Me By Zero:
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:
4/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)

MotifRomance, Math Education, Religion,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)