Saturday, June 11, 2011

Miscalculations - #36

STORY: "Division by Zero" by Ted Chiang – Well, the internets continue to amaze and delight with their bounty. Looks like you can go read this story, too, all legal-like. Go HERE and enjoy, or just buy the book/ebook because Small Beer Press is super-duper.


BASICALLY: When she discovers a mathematical proof that any two numbers can be shown to be equal to one another, a mathematician's entire world collapses and she tries to kill herself. Her husband, who once attempted suicide many years ago, experiences both déjà vu and numbness as he attempts to help her. Parallel points of view converge on an emotional truth about their relationship and the nature of love.

Recently, my friend Christa pointed me toward a Metafilter thread in which people were talking about the best short story they'd read in the last ten years. One writer whose name comes up again and again in the thread is Ted Chiang. Wait, who? Despite a gazillion awards and the fact that I have actually heard of his new novel, THE LIFECYCLE OF SOFTWARE OBJECTS, he was completely off my radar as an author. So, being the dedicated blogger I am, I ordered me up a copy of his book. Oh, the sacrifices I make for you, my public. (Hi, Mom!)

So, anyway, following my usual method, I picked a story because I liked the title and read it. And let me tell you, I am not sorry I did. Ted Chiang is a great writer and I can't wait to read the other stories in this book. In "Division by Zero," he does this thing that I've loved ever since I read the second half of Italo Calvino's classic T ZERO—he combines mathematical principles with human desires to create a form of fiction that feels at once connected to the architecture of the universe and divorced from mere subjectivity (even though, of course, it's not—fiction is by definition subjective).

In terms of technique, there's a lot for me to write about. The most obvious subject would probably be the story's overall structure. Numbered sections first present a mathematical concept, then advance the story through the POV of Renee the mathematician, and finally switch to her husband Carl's POV. In 1, for example, we're told what it means that division by zero is "undefined." In 1A, we see Renee in close third person, post-suicide-attempt, just about to leave the psych ward. In 1B, it's Carl in close third, in the office signing forms for her release, and he's remembering back to the questions he answered during Renee's intake. Then it's on to another mathematical concept in 2. It's a really interesting structure, and what's most impressive is how Chiang, at the story's conclusion, manages to tie the structure directly to the mathematical concepts he refers to in the story. That is, the numbered sections aren't just arbitrary or cleverly postmodern; they're actually integral to the story's meaning.

Another strong aspect of this story was Chiang's handling of time. Though the numbered sections progress in an orderly fashion—1, 1A, 1B, 2, 2A, 2B, etc.—the story unfolds in a decidedly nonlinear manner. This allows him to move around, showing Renee falling in love with mathematics as a child, how Carl's life changed after his suicide attempt two decades before, and the recent events leading up to Renee's own attempt, while still keeping it clear for the reader that the now of the story is occurring after Renee's release from the psych ward. The significant part of the story is foregrounded, while the narrative's still free to include any relevant scenes from the past.

But instead of talking further about either of these well-handled aspects of "Division by Zero," I'd like to focus on one tiny little detail that occurs early in the story. It's in 1B, when Carl is signing release papers and thinking about those questions he answered when Renee entered the hospital. Here's how he remembers the conversation: 
"Yes, she's a professor of mathematics. You can find her in Who's Who." 
"No, I'm in biology." 
"I had left behind a box of slides that I needed." 
"No, she couldn't have known." 
And, just as expected: 
"Yes, I have. It was about twenty years ago, when I was a grad student." 
"No, I tried jumping." 
"No, Renee and I didn't know each other then." 
And on and on.
What Chiang is really doing here is finding a unique way to work exposition into his story. In one fell swoop, the reader learns about Carl's profession versus Renee's, how he discovered her suicide attempt, and his own history. To be sure, these are only introductions—Chiang returns to both attempts and gives the reader more information and context for them—but the broad strokes are laid out early.

Using the one-sided conversation consisting in Carl's answers (from which the doctors' questions can be easily inferred), is another brilliant stroke. Doing it this way avoids having to include the doctors or ward staff as characters. If Chiang had wanted his story to comment on psychiatry and psychiatric hospitals, he would have wanted to introduce such characters, but instead he directs the narrative entirely on the effect that Renee's suicide attempt has on her and Carl's relationship. Rather than having an unwieldy scene taking up space and shifting the focus too much onto the hospital, Chiang simply shows Carl's responses. We get exposition, we get Carl's POV, and it feels natural and appropriate because hey, hospitals can be impersonal places. It's so simple and elegant and effective a solution that I'm filing it away for future use.

So there you have it. A strong story from a gifted writer. Lots to ponder and maybe something to read. Seriously, hooray internets.


Christa said...

I have this book out of the library, yay! I'll look forward to comparing notes.

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