Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Logic of Love

Karl Iagnemma's On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction is a collection of eight stories about scientists in love (if "scientist" is defined broadly to include "mathematician"). In an interview at Identity Theory, Iagnemma says that the book as originally submitted to publishers only contained four science-related stories, but Dial Press, the eventual publisher, requested more science and Iagnemma delivered.

In addition to the title story (see Doing the Math, Revisited), in which a mathematician tries to understand love with Venn diagrams and formulae, the more well-known stories include "The Phrenologist's Dream," about a phrenologist who believes that he will recognize the perfect wife by the shape of her skull, and "Zilkowski's Theorem", about another mathematician who risks ruin by writing a doctoral thesis for the woman he loves.

Each of these stories includes some hard-core detail about the protagonist's area of expertise. "On the Nature" includes a drawing of a Venn diagram that illustrates the narrator's love for his girlfriend, as well as his actual formulae, complete with Greek symbols, that describe love. Do the formulae make sense? Heck if I know, but they look good. And Iagnemma has enough sense to avoid long-winded explanations. "Phrenologist," a piece of historical fiction, includes this passage:
In his vest pocket Jeremiah carried a leather-bound book; for each woman he examined, he penned three numbers: their amativeness, adhesiveness, and conjugality, rated from one to seven. At night in the hotel room, he wrung his gloves in the washbasin, then leafed through page after page of data, the figures as varied and perplexing as women themselves.

Nagle had shown that skull size was determined by race; Layfield had proven the relationship between combativeness and climate.... He was thrilled by phrenology's brash wisdom--for what was science's greatest purpose, if not to explain man to himself? As he read, he gingerly touched his own skull, propping the book open with his elbows. Surely, he reasoned, a woman's capacity for love couldn't be random.
Throughout the collection, Iagnemma gives us just enough detail to convince us that the narrator knows what he's talking about, without ever letting the science take control of the narrative.

The point of this technique is to establish the narrator's authority, to make the reader more willing to accept the story as "truth", to enhance verisimilitude. You see it used frequently, but often the author goes overboard. I've seen this happen in Glimmer Train stories more times than I care to remember. I call this kind of story, where the author seems too proud of his research, a "term paper" story. At some point you forget that you are reading fiction, with characters and human problems, and think instead that you have wandered into a textbook on geology, or marine biology, or whatever expertise has been heaped on the protagonist's shoulders.

But Iagnemma doesn't write term papers. He gets it right.