It should be said that one of the common notable qualities attributed to supposedly great novels is that their authors’ write effortlessly. Any writer knows that is an unbelievable farce, and that was is really being communicated by such a statement is that the book is either readable or, at least, not a slog. Yet, even the best novels, books such as Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin come to mind, maintain a paradoxical difficult readability. Really it’s Dickensian, an author notorious for interesting stories that rise and fall with the breadth of his sentence structure. But this difficulty found in most great novels creates a bit of reinforced investment from the reader. It makes me ponder whether or not all readers are stubborn people simply because some books require us to be the kind of people who will sacrifice our own time to finish a difficult book we may not even enjoy simply to say that it did not defeat us. Thus, it is interesting to encounter a novel such as Stuart Rojstaczer’s The Mathematician’s Shiva, a novel that requires attentive reading, but doesn’t really ask anything of its reader.
Whereas most novels I read seem to be trying to accomplish something notable under the pretension that somehow art will save the world, The Mathematician’s Shiva really seems to have no care for such questions. In the same way that Seinfeld was a show about nothing, Rojstaczer’s novel seems to want nothing to do with illustrious themes, redeeming the world, or commenting much on humanity. Instead it functions as a denser genre novel about family and supposedly impossible math problems. The story centers around Sasha, a Russian immigrant and, more importantly, the son of the most brilliant Mathematician of the last 100 years, his mother, who dies of cancer at the beginning of the novel and whose shiva we follow for the reminder of the book.
More than anything the story is just that of family relations in the wake of tragedy. The reflections that each member of the family has on Sasha’s mother are interesting, even if a little dry at times, but in the end the critique of the book comes with the feeling that the book wasn’t necessarily written to say that much about anything. It is a good story written by someone who, if I were to guess, took a lot of pride in the novel, but truly wrote it for the sake of writing it, with little to no expectation of anything in return, reward, attention, or otherwise. And in that sense the novel functions wonderfully. It’s so rare to read something that truly does not take itself that seriously while having insightful and serious reflections on the nature of the US from an outsider/insider perspective. This makes some aspects wonderful while inhibiting others, such as structure.
The problems that the book’s structure has can be dwindled down into one sentence: Nothing feels vital. Even the frame, a shiva, just does not seem that important. The story’s MacGuffin is a proof of an impossible problem that Sasha’s mother completed before she died, thus mathematician’s from around the world attend the shiva so that they may find it, but the shiva itself does not play an important role in the story despite the fact it is mentioned in each chapter. Yet in the end this really does not play a factor in whether or not a person will enjoy the novel. The book is, to use a strange phrase, exorbitantly regular. At times Rojstaczer bites off a bit more than he can chew, but this is not the kind of novel a person regrets having read.
Recommended to: For its meditations on American culture from an outsider’s perspective, the book is invaluable, but there’s nothing here that screams “read this!” Likewise, there’s absolutely nothing here that says “avoid this!” either.
Avoid as if it’s an angry cape buffalo: Once again, if I ever heard a person deride this novel I would wonder why. If it seems interesting, go for it.