Ethan Canin - A Doubter’s Almanac

I devoured this book. I loved all 577 pages of it, couldn’t wait to return to it every day. 

Usually, I say “to each his own”, but this is a rare book when I want to grab the naysayers by the ears and make them see what I see. The reviews are mostly 5-star reviews, with a handful of 2-star reviews along the lines of “blah blah arrogant man gets away with being a jerk blah blah soft-willed women enable him blah blah.” Those people literally missed the point of the entire book. I guess I could feel sad for them, instead.

I don’t want to summarize plot because plot = spoilers. But what really captured my attention anyway were the characters and the big, heady, universal, literary themes.

Yes, many of the main characters are unlikable. But they know they are unlikable. They struggle with it. Or they reject the premise of likability altogether. You aren’t supposed to forgive them for it or somehow think it’s “okay”. It’s just the way it is. Not everyone is actually charming. Not everyone can learn to be charming. 

The book is built around the question: “was it worth it?” As in, “was the way I spent my life worth it?” The question is posed time and time again about the mathematics, but really it could be asked of any life choice. And by hurling the question at people who are amongst the best of the best in history, it makes it clear that the question is truly a universal one. It’s not just drudges like us living our normal lives who might wonder, but those with unparalleled gifts. They have doubts, too. 

In asking the question, Canin also asks “what is failure?” and “can a person be a genius and also a failure?” Ah, it’s so glorious in its messiness and the misery of its characters. It’s raw and honest and captures the truth of the brilliant minds I know (and the people who surround them).

To the people who say they don’t want to read about a man getting away with being a jerk: he doesn’t get away with it. He doesn’t get away with it at all. That’s clear from the very beginning of the book. Every day of Milo's life is a struggle against darkness. 

To the people who say the female characters are underdeveloped, I disagree. They don’t swoon over men and forgive them their sins. They either reject them outright or find themselves deeply disappointed in brilliant men who don’t always amount to something. They wonder if they, too, made a mistake. There’s so much nuance there. 

The main secret of adulthood is that the definition of “worth it” shifts over time, like sand under your feet. When you’re young, you think it’s about something specific - money, relationships, awards, happiness. But when you’ve lived more, you realize none of those things proves anything. Those “successes” are all fleeting. And when they pass, what do you have left? There is, literally, no proof of anything. Which is why asking this question under the guise of a mathematical problem is goddamned brilliant. 

In an age when it’s trendy to talk about rewarding effort and to celebrating the process behind the work, I found it refreshing to live inside a brutal world where effort and process are irrelevant. Where characters have a painful, vicious dedication to results:

“History is merciless,” says one character. "The struggle doesn’t matter. The struggle vanishes. What remains is the work, and the work either stands or falls.”

That’s the thesis of the whole book, and it’s a slap in the face of all that the 21st Century holds dear. 

Lastly: at least one of the characters is described, repeatedly, as a “saint”. I feel certain that this is a school essay question-in-waiting: the narrator describes Character X as a saint. Do you agree with this characterization? What does it mean to be “saintly”?  Just to drive the point home, one even rejects the notion of saintliness when asked about it, saying, “Serving others is in fact service to oneself.”

I adored the fact that Canin spent some time with characters who gave to others, that he deemed their stories worth telling.