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Midtown Pythagoras (2007)
Michael Brodsky

Contributed by "William E. Emba"

Michael Brodsky is a deconstructionist's dream writer, which for most people, simply means utterly unreadable. His many novels, stories, and plays inhabit a world where meaning is just past the reader's comprehension, fitting together like long prose poem epics, a Lewis Carroll without the nonsense, a Wallace Stevens without the heart. They hold together like dreams on wakening, with so much importance and significance just beyond your grasp, slipping away into hollow memories of greatness.

Brodsky's sensibilities owe more to mathematics than perhaps any other writer ever, an algebraic parody of grammar and plot. One is constantly reminded of Bertrand Russell's quip that "Mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true". Every sentence has to be read several times, usually not quite in tune with what went before or what goes after.

Brodsky's new novella "Midtown Pythagoras" is his most explicit in referring to mathematics. (It is also very explicit in referring to its deconstructionist roots.) The story is, fortunately, among his more readable fictions, and as a bonus, it can even be read without the help of an unabridged dictionary.

The title refers to one Pete T. Haggeras. The story begins by enumerating Pete's quirks, like not eating beans, reminiscent of the historical Pythagoras. We soon learn of his obsession with numbers, in the form of favorite novels (like The Sign of Four or Towards Zero) or favorite movies (like Five Graves to Cairo or Forty Guns. A kind of plot appears: Pete, who spends his time fixating on clouds and the Manhattan skyline, capturing them in his Mixed Materials, and then leaving their traces all over Manhattan, is upset that someone is erasing his traces, and so he hires a private detective.

All the characters speak in a barely comprehensible ramble, and along the way, the rambling sometimes turns mathematical. Concerns about the incommensurability of the diagonal of a square to its edge, and Dedekind cuts, and Gödelian unprovability make their appearance. (Humorously, when one character knowingly refers to Gödel, another character unknowingly refers in response to Girdle.)

Amusingly enough, Brodsky seems to share Pete's obsession with numbers in one aspect. His long-time previous publisher was Four Walls Eight Windows. When they were bought out, Brodsky switched to Six Gallery Press.

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Works Similar to Midtown Pythagoras
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Delicious Rivers by Ellen Maddow
  2. Hamlet and Pfister Forms - A Tragedy in Four Acts by Jan Minac
  3. Pythagoras's Darkest Hour by Colin Adams
  4. Pythagorean Crimes by Tefcros Michaelides
  5. The Weight of Numbers by Simon Ings
  6. The Square Root of Pythagoras by Paul Di Filippo / Rudy Rucker
  7. The Idiot by Elif Batuman
  8. The Argentine Ant by T.C. Boyle
  9. A Good Problem to Have by B.J. Novak
  10. What the Revolution Requires by Timons Esaias
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MotifKurt Gödel,

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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)