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Beware of Geeks Baring Rifts

Life After Genius
by M. Ann Jacoby.

Review by Jan Alexander

Life After Genius, by M. Ann Jacoby
Grand Central Publishing. 386 pgs. $24.99

I don’t know much about zeta zeroes, but I do know there’s something courageous about a first-time novelist who makes her hero a nerdy teenaged boy seeking his own brand of alpha-manhood. Theodore Mead Fegley’s rites of passage have nothing to do with sex, drugs, or revolution, but instead revolve around a 150-year old equation called the Riemann Hypothesis. Mead gets stoned on math. And as the title suggests, he’s a genius. He is 15 when he enters a great institution with the thinly disguised name of Chicago University. The Riemann Hypothesis, on the other hand, is real. So, fortunately, is the dark tragicomic spirit of M. Ann Jacoby’s tale, and the deep, irresolvable angst that made me warm to young Mead in spite of the defensive wall of snarkiness he hides behind

If I met this protagonist in person I would find him socially inept and arrogant, self-absorbed and ruthless. But what the archetypal geek doesn’t generally share in conversation is his memories of a childhood and youth spent flinching and sucking it up at the hands of bullies; if he hadn’t sucked it up he wouldn’t be alive. Mead Fegley, as good a character as any to live on in the Archetypal Geek Hall of Fame, knows that his pale, scrawny demeanor and high-water chinos might as well be a sign that says “kick me.”

What is it about these guys? In my own childhood, my best girlfriend and I had a regular summer ritual that consisted of playing softball with the boys, then the two of us beating up a certain neighborhood nerd named Howard. We weren’t tough girls or anything; we just beat up Howard because we could.

Mead has vivid memories of what it was like to be the only math genius on record in his (fictitious) hometown of High Grove, Illinois, with the double whammy of being the son of the town undertaker. One Valentine’s Day, a girl gave him a dead bird in a shoebox.

This is Jacoby’s description of Mead at 10, trying to get through a daily feeding ritual: “He sips through a straw the chocolate milk he keeps tucked inside his coat pocket and sneaks bites from the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich he has hidden up his sleeve. He always eats his lunch like this. He gave up on the cafeteria years ago when he got tired of finding caterpillars hidden in his macaroni-and-cheese and grasshoppers buried in his mashed potatoes.”

Later, there is the awful incident when Mead is trying to track the movements of the town creek for a science project. In the woods by the creek Freddy Waseleski, “the kid who holds the record for most-missed-days-from-school,” rapes him with a ruler, then rips up his notebook. Mead is afraid to tell anyone, and his mother, who is the main force driving him to be miles above average, knows only that her genius son got a “C” on his science project. He must have forgotten what he’s in for if he succumbs to the ordinary, she assumes. So Mom takes Mead on a field trip to see what being ordinary will get him, down in the morgue where his father and uncle embalm dead bodies. Mead throws up. Mom has no patience with Mead taking time out to be sick. That is what it’s like to be a nerd in High Grove.

Mead imagines the university will be a refuge where he can lose himself in scholarly pursuits. He does, to be sure, discover two kindred spirits. One is Dr. Andrew Alexander, with his long gray ponytail and rusting bicycle. At first sighting, Mead mistakes Professor Alexander for a local crazy, albeit one who explains theoretical geometry to him in one sitting. The other kindred spirit is the long-dead Bernhard Riemann. Jacoby does not probe too far into the details of his hypothesis, but thanks to the techie nerds who brought us the Internet, I was able to piece together a rough explanation: It is a conjecture about the distribution of zeros, stating that non-trivial zeros should lie on the so-called critical line, ½ + it, where t is a real number and i is the imaginary unit. Okay, it does not offer ways to end terrorism or recession or genocide, but like all of the biggest problems confronting humanity, the Riemann Hypothesis has been unresolvable so far. Mead has the opportunity to take a place in the pantheon of mathematical stars if he can find undiscovered zeta zeroes and thereby add to the body of research on Riemann’s work.

By the spring of his senior year, he is on his way to presenting a paper at graduation that will indeed shed new light on Riemann’s theory and probably earn Mead a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton – a real institution and Mead’s post-graduate holy grail, a place where he believes, maybe correctly, that he would at least truly fit in.

Except for the fact that the first page of the novel finds Mead escaping from college just eight days before graduation. Jacoby unfolds the narrative with a non-linear technique, so we do not yet know about the dead critters and the ruler rape and the mother who could have been a Phillip Roth creation if he’d ever spent time in Lake Woebegone. From the start, however, we deduce that Mead is running away from a bully. That would be Herman, the most insidious bully of all. By this time, Mead is 18 (he got through college in three years) and has effected all the snidest, most flippant facades of a disenfranchised youth. He articulates his inner thoughts in an “uh, like whatever” tone which is of course nothing but a still-pliable defensive posture. Mead is even berating himself for the pain others have caused him.

In a taxi from Chicago to High Grove, with barely a dollar in his pocket and only a vague notion of how to pay for the ride, “he wishes the driver would throw him out on his ass. Tell him to get lost. Tell him to find another sucker. Because then the world would seem right again, the stars aligning with the planets, or whatever.” It is clear that Mead is used to fleeing for his life.

Another kind of 18 year old would have taken off on the road, while a math nerd heading from Chicago to parts unknown, would just drift on some magnetic force to Silicon Valley and become a multi-millionaire. Mead won’t be able to get to that revenge-of-the-nerd chapter of his life until he dukes it out in a battle in which he is no match. His nemesis in the guise of a best friend, Herman Weinstein (kids on You-tube call that a “frenemy”), has wits, looks, charm that oozes, the talents of a con artist, a family fortune and, as it happens, a father who is a major donor to the Institute for Advanced Studies. Mead’s math genius is the only weapon Herman lacks. What follows is a mystery of sorts, not so much about what happens as to why it happens. There is, in fact, a mildly disingenuous feel to the way Jacoby suspends the revelation that Herman wants Mead to name him as co-author of his paper on the Riemann Hypothesis. But why pursuing a friendship and co-authorship with an out-and-out nerd is important to uber-cool Herman – a guy who can afford to saunter in late for his freshman placement exam pleading jetlag – is a psychological mystery that promises to be the true test of this novel, and makes it worth reading the pursuant three-quarters of the story.

I would award Jacoby an A- for the twisted tale of Herman Weinstein, the character most likely to catch the attention of David Lynch and become the focus of a related, but not literally interpreted, screen adaptation. He’s evil and pathetic and has things going on with his girlfriend and the math department head worthy of a chilling novel in their own right, but we get to know only the parts of Herman that exist in Mead’s head. Maybe Jacoby could write a dual story from Herman’s point of view next?

In this novel’s non-linear progression, chapters alternate between Mead’s final week before graduation and his past, each one building in complexity like a math equation for increasingly advanced students. There are also eerie parallels between Mead’s scrappy small-town family and Herman’s horror show of bloodlines in Princeton. In that well-appointed home lies an uneven triangle, along with a history of attempted murder and time served in a psychiatric institution. It becomes clear that Mead’s body, apart from his brain, is a trivial matter to Herman, well equipped as he is with the weapons of connections and favors owed.

What happens a day before graduation becomes a cryptic, homo-erotically tinged tale of a showdown at Snell’s Quarry, the swimming hole just outside the town of High Grove, a reminder that in the academic jungle there is room for only one alpha male per pack, uh, department. As for Mead, it turns out that a scrawny young genius with a target on his back is always going to be that guy you don’t want to get stuck talking to at a cocktail party. He’ll be the one drinking a Coke, possibly in a strange protective-looking contortion, and if you so much as say hello, he’ll eye you with well-founded suspicion, wondering if you’re going to just beat him up or turn him down for a date, or if you’re one of the really vicious ones out to exploit his intellectual capital. The nerd who beats the bullies has to live with the knowledge that he has an inner beast, a killer residing in his psyche that he doesn’t much like but has to tolerate in order to survive. Howard, wherever you are, I’m sorry for the part I played in shaping you. And I hope we never meet on the dark road to Snell’s Quarry.

Jan Alexander is a novelist and Senior Editor of Neworld Review.

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