a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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A Map for the Missing (2022)
Belinda Huijuan Tang

Tang Yitian, a Chinese-American math professor who grew up in China shortly after the revolution, undertakes a journey to find his estranged father. Anti-intellectualism always made it hard for Yitian to get along with his father, but a family tragedy leads the father to completely disown his son. It is their relationship (and nothing about math at all) which really is the driving force behind this novel.

But, there are a few interesting mathematical scenes.

In one, we see a young Yitian studying math before an exam. Math is not his favorite nor his best subject. He dislikes that (at least from his perspective) math is made up of rules that must be memorized and not understood. His math teachers refuse to answer his questions. But, his feelings about math improve a bit when the girl upon whom he has a crush finds him studying and helps him with trigonometry.

Yitian had the misfortune to be interested in an academic career in a country where intellectuals were oppressed. He was mostly interested in studying history. Without permission from his father, Yitian's brother signed Yitian up for the university entrance exams. However, due to his own inability to read, the brother accidentally signed him up for the mathematics exam. That is why Yitian eventually became a math professor, despite his negative feelings about the subject. (Fortunately, he does begin to like it more. For example, he acknowledges while taking Real Analysis that math is not as arbitrary or non-sensical as it seemed to him in school.)

The title of the book is derived from a mathematical scene in which Yitian is trying to teach his American students about topology. He explains the idea of the genus as a topological invariant, showing them how one can transform a donut into a coffee mug (an illustration of which appears in the book) and then:

(quoted from A Map for the Missing)

He expected the class to be amazed, but when he looked up, they only seemed to be as bored as they always were, not at all like he'd been when he heard about the idea of the genus. He could always tell when the end of their class was approaching by the early sounds of students closing notebooks and zipping up their backpacks. When he thought back to his years in university, he saw he'd maintained a certain innocence about life and learning these students hadn't. They were jaded about intellectual matters and couldn't summon up any awe about these ideas. It was amazing, he'd thought back then, that an unchanging property of an object wasn't only what was there, but also what wasn't. It meant that if you could define what was absent, create a map for the missing, that was also a way of knowing a thing.

He wished such a simple principle was true in his father's case-that the facts he didn't know could be as important as the ones he did The objects of truths he knew about his father were small and uncertain, without shape. What year his father was born, the year he married, that he'd served in the army. That he hated his own father. The list of unknown things was much more numerous. Why his father could become so quiet, why he liked to drink, why he and Yitian's grandfather never spoke. In topology, cataloging the holes was a way of forming shape from the absences. The world of mathematics made this diminished way of knowing useful. Here, in the real world, Yitian couldn't even name how much he didn't know.

Just as it is used in that passage to convey something about his feelings for his father, math is used metaphorically to address social situations elsewhere in the book. Yitian imagines substituting people into the triangle inequality, and thinks of himself being divided into real and imaginary parts (with his real part being his body sitting in the classroom taking complex analysis and the imaginary component being connections to things from his past, like his Grandfather's stories).

Yitian only becomes a mathematician due to an error, and mathematics is only discussed explicitly a few times in this book. So, one might question whether this really is mathematical fiction or simply a story about a person who happens to be a math professor. But, it was not really a mistake by Yitian's brother which is responsible for the fact that he studied math. This is a work of fiction and that story was a decision made by the author. Why did Belinda Huijuan Tang choose to make Tang Yitian into a math professor? The fact that these mathematical metaphors recur and that the title is derived from one suggests to me that the author considers the mathematical component to be an essential, even if only small, aspect of the novel.

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Works Similar to A Map for the Missing
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
  2. The Man Who Dammed the Yangtze: A Mathematical Novel by Alex Kuo
  3. Decoded by Mai Jia
  4. Disciple of the Masses by Xujun Eberlein
  5. Yi ge dou bu neng shao by Yimou Zhang (director) / Xiangsheng Shi (screenplay)
  6. Singer Distance by Ethan Chatagnier
  7. Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
  8. The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti
  9. The Capacity for Infinite Happiness by Alexis von Konigslow
  10. A Universe of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved
Ratings for A Map for the Missing:
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:
3/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)

GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifAcademia, Romance, Math Education,

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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)