Sometimes math in books confuses me.
I sort of always thought that fiction was the place that you go to escape math, especially when, in high school, math class stopped being about numbers that were added, subtracted, multiplied, and divided, and instead became about dealing with these letters and numbers that didn’t seem like they went together, and when you asked your teacher about it he would just say, “Well, look, it’s like trying to read a sentence,” and you’d be sitting there like, “No. No, it definitely is not.”
I’m really suspicious when I see math sort of dominating the plot in a book. John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines made me really skeptical about how books and math could go together. Green’s main character, a child prodigy named Colin Singleton, is preoccupied with designing a logarithm to explain why he’s dated nineteen girls who are all named Katherine. And he figures it out. He’s a child prodigy after all. He should have some kind of advanced skill with numbers and equations. Green even creates extensive footnotes and an appendix to show how his collaboration with an actual professor of mathematics resulted in the logarithm designed for An Abundance of Katherines. Like, it actually works. If you want to test out why you’re dating some people who have something pretty important in common with one another, you know, like their first name, then the math’s basically done for you.
What is definitely not viable, or even believable though, is how Colin gets nineteen girls to date him. The chances of that happening, let alone the possibility that all of his girlfriends share the same name, is sort of ridiculously improbable. He’s kind of a disconnected asshole. Therefore, fiction and math are not completely compatible.
But lately I’ve kind of been swayed by the way math is being used by authors as a way to tell a story, instead of dominating the plot like Green’s Katherines. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon does this really well, where protagonist Christopher uses math as an explanatory focus when words, sentences, and stories can’t create the language that he wants to communicate. Similar to this is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel with an entire chapter written in Power Point because this format, much like math, communicates more than words do. In both of these books math isn’t the focus, but it becomes inexplicably linked with story.
When I first heard about Charles Yu and his book How To Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe, I basically decided that I wasn’t going to leave my apartment until I finished reading it. This is because Yu writes about a time travel machine repair man, and I was like, “Oh my god: a) Time travel, b) Cleverly written, and c) There is a paradox involved.” Yu throws some math in there and a little bit of physics, too, because I guess that’s something time travel relies on, some of that science as an explanatory focus. But it’s Yu’s short story “Problems for Self-Study” that appears in his first collection of short stories Third Class Superhero that has kind of turned my general reaction of “Maaaaath? Agaaaaaaaain? Whhhhhhhhy?” completely around because he demonstrates just how effectively it can be used to tell a story. “Problems for Self-Study” examines A and B, a man and woman whose relationship is detailed through equations, points on a grid, physics, and that old go to problem of how to tell when a train will arrive at a certain point depending on a whole bunch of factors such as speed, time, and location.
Told in a series of numbered steps that take the reader through the relationship, Yu uses math as an art form to poignantly and effectively tell a story. For example, he uses the occasion of pregnancy to discuss “what is well-known in the field of celestial dynamics as the three-body problem” where it is problematic to predict the actions of three bodies, while with two bodies “the equations are solved analytically.” Yu matches situation to equation, word to number, emotion to symbol.
“Problems for Self-Study” was one of the most affecting short stories I’ve read in a while, particularly because the short story seems to be a really good vehicle for mathematics because the equations and ideas can be investigated, but they can also be contained. In Yu’s strong collection of short stories that put him on the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" list in 2007, this one stood out among the rest. And it sort of exposed me to more math than I’ve done since high school. I kind of felt like I learned something.