Academic Depression: The Mathematician’s Shiva

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For those of us who could be considered school nerds, there can be something exotic and enchanting about the world of academia. If I could have stayed in college for the rest of my life, I probably would have. I loved school. The real world, although not without its perks, is overwhelming terrifying at times. I’ve come to realize that adulting is mostly just googling how to be an adult.

But there are some that fight the good fight and live forever in the halls of Valhalla and manage to remain in college forever. Those that continue onto professorships, enlightening and wowing the youth with their incredible intellect and ability to call out even the slightest fallacy of logic from their students. One of these individuals who managed to live eternally in the comforts (and terrors) of academia is the central figure in Stuart Rojstaczer’s first novel, The Mathematician’s Shiva, an extraordinary, brilliant, and looming Russian/Polish mathematician named Rachela Karnokovitch.

The Mathematician’s Shiva, told through the point-of-view of her only child, Alexander “Sasha” Karnokovitch, depicts the rise and fall of this legendary woman, a woman who fought tooth-and-nail for survival during WWII, who fought the male sexism and chauvinism in the realm of mathematics to be one of the greatest minds in her discipline, who gained world renowned fame for being the only one even come close to a solution of the illusive Navier-Stokes equation, and who was . . . sort of a shitty human being.

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She’s always watching.

Overall, the novel was not a bad first attempt. I didn’t dislike The Mathematician’s Shiva, but I didn’t stand up and cheer for it either. I can highly identify with the culture in this novel. Sasha describes the confusion and curiosity of belonging to two worlds. Though I was born in the United States, my family emigrated here not long before that, and my mother’s family was ripe with Slavic traditions similar to those in the novel (except not the Jewish part). So I felt as if I could appreciate these thoughts and feelings of the characters a bit more than the average reader who might have just picked up the book.

The story line is an interesting one as well. It was fascinating to learn about the enigma that was Sasha’s mother. Rachela was such a brilliant woman, and because I know so little about the world of math, it was also interesting to hear even the fictional goings-on of professional mathematicians and their work. We know that Rachela and her mind were held to such an esteem because 400+ mathematicians from all around the world came to her funeral. What a party.

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Matryoshka set 1!

Rojstaczer does an excellent job of creating a compelling, emotional story that balances almost evenly with humor and a fun sense of morbidity. The story is sad when it needs to be sad; funny as funny as death can possibly be.

However, whether one wants to look upon this as a positive or a negative, the characters in this story are largely unlikable. In fact, they’re almost unlikable to the point of nausea. Creating characters that the reader does not like is a skill- it is not necessarily a reason I can justify not enjoying a novel. However, I think it is a double-edged sword. If the writer creates such hateful, pitiful, and annoying traits for ALL of the characters in the novel, as Rojstaczer has in my point of view, then they run the risk of driving readers away.

Rachela is the perfect example of this. She is interesting and obviously is a survivalist. But she is such a despicable human being. She drives away most everyone who attempts to love her. She ruins dreams of those who look up to her in mathematics. And she has essentially ruined the emotional life of her own son. Yet, she is an enigma. It’s a bit of a Steve Jobs scenario.

About a quarter of my way through the novel, I realized I no longer wanted to finish this book. It was during the depiction of Sasha’s previously life as a married man, a man who married a woman who ultimately failed at the attempt of a professorship and the hatred of his mother towards this woman who she deemed could not survive, never even giving her a chance to shine. Sasha’s wife becomes pregnant and leaves him, never again to contact him about his own child. Sasha, on the other hand, never pursues finding his child. He just comes to accept that he has a child somewhere in the world and only throws himself further into his own academic career, achieving the professorship his wife could never attain.

It was at this moment that I realized I hated basically every character in the book. I did not care what happens to them. I did not care what happens at the shiva. I wanted to be done with this novel and the characters in it. But the feeling wasn’t in a way where the novel struck an emotional chord with me that wanted to drive me away. No. These were just shitty people, living their lives in the ivory towers of their academic institutions, and I could care less what happened to them.

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Matryoshka set 2!

To make matters worse, the novel is poorly paced. It drags on for what seems like ages, especially when you have no interest or emotional attachment to the characters. There is a great deal of flipping back and forth between Sasha’s preparation of his mother’s funeral and shiva and Rachela’s early years during the war, but there’s no real logic behind the flashbacks. They’re not logically placed, and Sasha’s descriptions of his family and their back story are all over the place. It made this 366 page novel seem even longer than it actually is. Rojstaczer does this by focusing on elements of the family’s past that largely seem unimportant to the overarching story, and he does so by simply dabbing at bits and pieces of information here and there. I felt as if the story was incomplete, and I was lacking some kind of context for nearly all aspects of the story.

On a final note, there is not a great deal of translation work that needs to be done in the novel, but enough that one would hope the author would call for a translation page in the back of the text. I’m not fluent in Yiddish, Polish, or Russian, and it would have helped a great deal to have a translation sheet provided to me instead of just having my eyes glaze over and hope to G-d I got the context right.

You’d think context would be everything in academia, but this lack of context simply made me feel as depressed as the Slavic characters in the book. Except now I never want to go back to school.

At least I have enough context to determine that.

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