cover image Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem

Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem

Amir D. Aczel. Basic Books, $18 (200pp) ISBN 978-1-56858-077-7

Famous--and infamous--as an editor and teacher, Lish's stock in trade as a writer is an in-your-face eccentricity. His fiction flaunts autobiographical details, and here, with his usual audacity, Lish takes the tragedy of his wife's long dying and fashions it into an unnerving epistolary novel. A protagonist called Gordon Lish reflects on his wife's death in a series of letters addressed to the Mercy Persons of her church, who provided succor and helped donate the ""mechanism'' that for a time sustained life as she lay paralyzed, equipment that the widower now refuses to return. The letters are phrased in curiously fussy and old-fashioned locutions and begin with scrupulous politeness--even when ""Lish'' is pleading with a court clerk to stop sending his wife summonses for jury duty. This spouse is soon, however, revealed as having gone off his rocker, as he contradicts his earlier praise, casts aspersions on the Mercy Persons (""a more ruinous bunch of slatterns I think I shall never see'') and makes vicious accusations about each of the volunteers in turn. Gradually, it emerges that ""Lish'' may have been responsible for his wife's death; he certainly killed her canary, Wilhelm, in the bathtub, and maybe her hermit crab, Fred, and he is terrified about an accident to the dish on which ""Mrs. Lish'' demanded her morphine suppositories. He also reveals that he is ""seeing'' two ladies (one bakes cakes, the other raises finches) and that he has hated his father ever since a certain day in a boat. By the end, it's obvious that ""Gordon Lish'' is loony, psychotic, deranged. Readers will have to determine for themselves whether this book is a macabre romp or an exercise in excruciatingly bad taste. (Nov.)