A mathematician and his wife try to fit in with their suburban
neighbors. Perhaps the best description of the feel of what doing
mathematical research is really like. Much of the tension of the story
revolves around the protagonist's struggles to communicate with his
friends and his wife. The tension is resolved when he and his wife
revive their communication about his work through a game of extended metaphors.
Will Estes is right: this story is great. While many works of mathematical fiction use metaphors to try to describe mathematics, none does it so explicitly and creatively as this one. Here's just a sample:
|(quoted from Towel Season)
When they were dating, he'd begun to try to explain his work to her in
metaphors, and she'd continued the game through his career, asking him
for comparisons that she'd then inhabit, embellish. Right after they
were married and Edison was in graduate school, he'd work late into
the night in their apartment and crawl into bed with the calculations
still percolating in his head. "What's it like?" Leslie would
ask. "Where are you now?" She could tell he was remote, lit. They
talked in territories.
"I've crossed all the open ground, and the wind has stopped now. My
hope is to find a way through this next place."
"Right. Okay, mountains--blank, very few markings." He spoke carefully
and with a quiet zeal. "They're steep, hard to see."
"Is it cold?"
"No, but it is strange. It's quiet." Then he'd turn to her in bed, his
eyes bright, alive. "I'm way past the path. I don't think anyone has
climbed this route before. There are no trails, handholds."
Leslie would smile and kiss him in that close proximity. "Keep going,"
she'd say. "Halfway up that mountain, there's a woman with a
cappuccino cart and a chicken-salad sandwich--me."
Then a smile would break across his face, too, and he would see her,
kiss her back, and say it: "Right. You."
This story was published originally in Esquire (May 1 1998) and now appears in a collection of stories by Carlson. Apparently you can also see a copy online at various sites that let you read articles from old issues of Esquire for a small fee. The story strikes me as being surprisingly sexist for 1998 (all of the mathematicians are men, and all of the wives stay at home laundering towels and flirting shamelessly), but perhaps that's what Esquire magazine readers go for.
I heard this story read on Selected Shorts on NPR a little over a year ago. It addresses math in a human context. But it also humanizes the couple's mathematical lives in a way no other fiction I've read about mathematical lives, or any other deeply theoretical or academic lives, does. Its treatment of metaphor as a linguistic bridge to mathematical understanding explores the nature of thinking, knowing, and communicating--all closely interrelated activities.
This story addresses the stereotype of the isolated mathematician. In Edison's case, this isolation is both physical and mental. It's only when he begins to socialize with the neighbors that he becomes "normal", however he loses grip on his calculations--"it all [runs] away." The more isolated and "quirky" Edison is, the more he wants to solve the math--the more he wants to climb those mountains. But, when he tries to fit the norm, "his calculations [seem like] a cruel puzzle, someone else's work, dead, forgotten, useless."