The Wild Numbers

Philibert Schogt, Author
Philibert Schogt, Author Thunder's Mouth Press $18 (160p) ISBN 978-1-56858-166-8
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
Paperback - 159 pages - 978-0-452-28247-6
Hardcover - 176 pages - 978-0-7538-1314-0
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The protagonist of Dutch author Schogt's quick, clever debut novel is Isaac Swift, 35, a mediocre mathematics professor at a small college in an unnamed city and country, who despairs of achieving fame in his field. Meanwhile, Leonard Vale, a former teacher who suffered a mental breakdown, now maintains his sanity by attending college classes and haranguing his professors with preposterous solutions to unsolvable problems. One of these proofs is the answer to Beauregard's Wild Number Problem, a notoriously impossible, centuries-old math conundrum Vale claims to have solved. Vale's proof is useless, but it inspires Swift to search for the answer himself, as a distraction from depression following his recent divorce. After a prolonged and somewhat caricatured struggle, Swift finally finds a solution and hovers on the brink of academic stardom and immortality. Then, almost simultaneously, two disasters occur: a smug, younger colleague finds a mistake in the proof, and the unhinged Vale becomes violent. Swift lands on his feet as a quietly simmering romance finally boils and he achieves redemption. The rational, frustrated Swift and his deranged detractor play off each other memorably, despite occasional moments when the narrative strains cartoonishly for a cheap laugh or incongruous physical humor. Adding to the spate of recent books about ""impossible"" mathematical problems, both nonfiction (Fermat's Last Theorem) and fiction (Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture), Schogt is a welcome voice: a skillful and energetic storyteller whose timeless tale illustrates the ironies of academic pettiness and ambition. (Apr.)
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