India, finance, childhood, math; Novels of February


The Romantics" by Pankaj Mishra (Random House, 272 pages, $23.95) is a deep, beautiful novel set chiefly in India's holy city of Benares in 1989 and 1990. It is the Brahmin narrator's story of his first months away from family and school, and of that period's transforming effect on his life.

Nineteen years old, intense, observant and filled with uncertainty, the young man has embarked on a personal course of reading guided by the works of Edmund Wilson. In the midst of this unlikely literary endeavor he becomes involved with an equally unlikely -- if less salubriously so -- group of misfits, both Western and Indian.

Just as Edmund Wilson seemed to bring coherence to literature and its context, the young man yearns to make sense of the wildly miscellaneous milieu in which he finds himself. Out of modesty and eagerness to learn, he mistakes the group's essential incoherence, and even banality, for his own ignorance. An affair with a French woman -- a deftly drawn, self-absorbed creature --seems to be bring his life into incandescent coherence; but only temporarily -- with a disastrous backlash.

Mishra's novel, his first, can be reasonably compared to "A Passage to India": The misunderstandings and cruelties that bloom in its pages grow from a mulch of decayed Empire and extinguished promise. But it is richer than Forster's novel: in its spiritual complexity, the stunning life of its supple prose and vibrant imagery, in its arresting immediacy and in the palpable sense of place it evokes.

David Liss' "A Conspiracy of Paper" (Random House, 448 pages, $25) is set in the London of the 1710s. It is a time of heroic financial shenanigans fueled by the speculations of the South Sea Company. Thrown into the middle of the affair is the novel's narrator, Benjamin Weaver, private investigator, retired boxer and estranged son of a Jewish stockbroker (now dead under suspicious circumstances).

He tells his tale -- much of which involves expositions on finance and speculation -- in the ponderous, coyly knowing patois of romantic fiction, with its arch constructions and talk of "swiving" and "manly parts." At the same time, Weaver is a man for our time, possessing enlightened views, clean hair and an unsnobbish demeanor.

As a novel, the book -- tangled in loose ends and weighed down by discourses on finance -- never gets off the ground. We are meant, it seems, to be struck by the similarities between the South Sea Bubble and the present highly charged stock market. Beyond that -- if that -- the book seems to have no point at all.

"Make Believe" by Joanna Scott (Little Brown, 224 pages, $23.95) takes an orphaned child as its central character and much of the story is perceived through his eyes. He is Bo, whose black father was murdered before he was born and whose white mother dies in a car crash before he is 3. The narration moves back and forth through time and from individual to individual. It becomes a great pouring forth of inner voices as the characters are heard in their sorrow and fear, temporizing and justifying; and in their random thoughts that lead to apparently inevitable actions.

Taken in by his loving paternal grandparents, Bo begins to emerge from a trauma-induced shell; but a custody battle soon puts paid to that. In the end, despite the complexities of its being advanced from different points of view, the novel becomes a fairy tale with goodies and baddies, a doughty little hero and a miraculous ending.

If you can imagine someone, this late in the day, taking on psychoanalysis and sending it up in highly playful way by mixing in magical realism and the sexual fantasies of an ineffectual male, then you can imagine the dullness of "The Verificationist" by Donald Antrim (Knopf, 192 pages, $21).

The novel starts promisingly enough with Tom, its self-absorbed, infantile narrator, explaining that he's organized the first of what he hopes to be many pancake suppers at a junky restaurant for his fellow teaching analysts at the "Krakower Institute." He claims that its low-key atmosphere will encourage free discussion of patients, breakthroughs and "new ideas relating to the seemingly everlasting task of reconciling classical metapsychology to our particular branch of Self/Other Friction Theory."

Tom is a master of self-serving rationalization, but his comical unloveliness and adeptness at dishing up baloney can't save the day for the reader. Soon he's floating off the floor, anchored by the bearlike arms of a fellow analyst; carrying on with one of the waitresses who has joined him aloft; observing priapic developments below among the other analysts; and examining his pitiful life. Tom is "out of touch," we see, and so too the novel, which has the relevance and grip of a satire on Fletcherism.

The last few years have shown that it is possible to write books on mathematical subjects that are exciting and accessible to the general reader. Clearly it was only a matter of time before a mathematical novel would appear; and, yes, here's Apostolos Doxiadis' "Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture" (Bloomsbury, 208 pages, $23.95).

Unfortunately, the book fails at both fiction and mathematics and is simply a delivery system for boosterism about great men and moments in mathematics. The discipline is merely gestured at, never investigated or revealed; its ability to provoke emotion and obsession are asserted, not shown. As for the great mathematicians themselves: They droop in such flaccid prose it's a wonder they ever got up in the morning. Take G.H. Hardy: "A true master of his craft, he approached Number Theory with brilliant clarity, using the most sophisticated mathematical methods to tackle its central problems..." Written with the panache of a civic brochure, the novel doesn't begin to solve the problem of integrating mathematics into fiction, or the reverse.

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge, Mass., and writes a column for the Boston Sunday Globe. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere.

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