A Fundamental Decomposition Theorem For Fiction?

January 9, 2001

Let X be a character in a work of fiction. . . . Reflecting on his parallel careers in mathematics and fiction writing, Manil Suri pronounces the similarity of the thought processes involved in the two activities "a little eerie."
Almost a year ago, I came across a fascinating short story in The New Yorker (issue of February 14, 2000). Called "The Seven Circles," the story was by Manil Suri. Could this possibly be the mathematician with whom I was acquainted and had occasionally corresponded? Yes, indeed--author and mathematician turned out to be one and the same! The "Contributors" section at the front of the magazine identified Suri as a mathematics professor and also mentioned a forthcoming first novel, The Death of Vishnu.

In response to my congratulatory e-mail, Suri agreed to an interview for SIAM News, an edited transcript of which follows this introduction. As an "accredited" book reviewer, I soon received an advance copy of The Death of Vishnu, which I found as spellbinding as the publisher claimed in its blurb: "This masterful novel unfolds in a single apartment building in Bombay and yet it embodies the whole of India, with its Hindu mythology, ethnic rivalries, caste divisions, and clashes between modern and traditional ways of life. It is also deeply perceptive about the complexities of the human experience, from the petty squabbles of neighbors to the wildly romantic fantasies of teenagers to the memories of a man facing his own mortality." U.S. publication of the novel is scheduled for January 2001.

What about Suri the mathematician? He was born in Bombay in 1959 and received a BS in mathematics from the University of Bombay in 1979. He went to Carnegie Mellon for graduate study, earning his PhD in mathematics in 1983 under the supervision of Dick MacCamy. Since then he has been associated with the University of Maryland Baltimore County, becoming a full professor in 1994 at the age of 35. The author of some 50 research papers, he is an expert on the solution of partial differential equations by the finite-element method. Among his particular areas of interest are the p and hp versions, mixed finite elements, plate and shell problems, and problems in fluid flow. He has also been involved in applications to commercial computational codes in structural and fluid mechanics. --Ivar Stakgold.


I.S.: Please tell us something about the publisher's marketing strategy for your book and how it will affect your life.
M.S.: The initial U.S. book tour, which starts January 24, 2001, will cover 13 cities in three weeks. When my publisher gave me the list of cities, I realized something amazing. I was actually going to live the Traveling Salesman Problem! I tried conveying my excitement to the publicity department, tried explaining to them the mathematical significance of all this, and how we could perhaps come up with an optimal solution, etc., etc. They were quite uneasy about my enthusiasm and assured me that they had lots of experience in planning itineraries, and would get back to me if they required mathematical assistance. So far, they haven't.

If you think about it," says Manil Suri, "both mathematics and writing are activities where you often spend long stretches of time working alone."

I.S.: You received your PhD (with Dick MacCamy) from Carnegie Mellon at age 23. Was your writing talent already developed at that time? When did you start writing fiction, and when did you become serious about it? Who discovered you?
M.S.: Actually, I had just turned 24 when I finished my PhD. Until then, I'd only written the usual essays and stories one might encounter as school or college assignments. About two years later I found myself sitting down one day to write a short story; I don't remember what prompted this-perhaps it was to blot out the horror of grading a multisection calculus final. I recall being quite thrilled with the outcome--the only reason I didn't submit it for publication was probably that I couldn't decide between the The Atlantic and The New Yorker. I basically spent the next decade finding out just how wanting that initial attempt was. I wrote maybe seven more stories, dabbled in some informal writers' groups, even started a novel about a Pittsburgh woman and her transvestite(!) son, which I'm happy to report was abandoned after five chapters. I spent weeks polishing up two or three of my best pieces and sent them out to thirty or forty literary journals. For my efforts I was rewarded with thirty or forty rejection slips. (Typical acceptance rates, even for obscure journals, are 5% and lower--a good reason to seek tenure in math, not creative writing.) I started The Death of Vishnu as a short story in 1995. By 1997, it had grown to three chapters, and I took it to a workshop in Provincetown, Massachusetts, led by Michael Cunningham (a novelist who later won the 1999 Pulitzer for fiction). He began his critique by exhorting me to "keep writing this at any cost" and ended it with "you must do whatever is necessary to finish this." That's when I realized that perhaps the time for dabbling had come to an end, that I had possibly stumbled onto the start of something more serious.

I.S.: Was there anything about your family background that helped pave the way for this remarkable dual career?
Certainly my parents played an enormous role, encouraging me extravagantly in whatever I did, paying for a wonderful (and wonderfully expensive) school in Bombay they could ill afford. We lived in part of a large apartment that we shared with three other families, an arrangement that is not uncommon for middle-class families in Bombay, but that would have titillated my wealthy classmates no end, had they known. So I never had any friends over from school, but learned to keep myself occupied and entertained on my own. It may sound a bit sad now, but I was really quite happy, and if you think about it, both mathematics and writing are activities where you often spend long stretches of time working alone.

I.S.: To what extent is your book autobiographical? (You can leave out the sex parts.)
M.S.: Leave out the sex parts? I keep joking that the difference between writers and mathematicians is that the former never stop talking about sex and the latter never bring it up (though after seeing the mathematicians in the Broadway hit Proof I'm wondering if there's something I've been missing all these years). I was at MSRI in Berkeley last April for a two-week workshop on finite elements, and one afternoon gave a reading from the first chapter of the novel. Within a few minutes I was sweating--the reading was held in the same room as the lectures, and the audience sat and listened with all the formality and decorum appropriate for a workshop. I did leave out the sex parts, stopping just before Vishnu's encounter in the brothel with Padmini, since I was not sure exactly how much I was alienating people, and because reading to colleagues is too much like reading to family members. It turned out that people actually enjoyed the reading, as they told me afterward. Now, of course, I can't believe I passed up such an amazing opportunity--to read a really provocative, juicy sex scene to a group of mathematicians.

Coming back to your question, the starting point of the novel was the death of an actual man named Vishnu, who lived on a landing in my building. But Vishnu's story, like those of the other characters, is fictional (as, I might add, are the sex parts). The one thing that may be reminiscent of my own experience is the squabbling of the two families on the first floor over their shared kitchen.

I.S.: Mathematical research and fiction writing are both time-consuming. How do you divide your energies between them?
M.S.: There's no one formula that I can give as an answer. What's really wonderful is that if you get stuck in one activity, you can turn to the other. If you want to do something, you can always find time to do it; mathematicians raise children, too, I've heard---and surely that must take more time than writing a book. Which brings me to a pet peeve: the unfortunate presumption harbored by some people that unless you eat, drink, and breathe your discipline, you can't be very good. I've even heard colleagues being dismissed as researchers because they are "too good" at teaching!

I do hope this series in SIAM News will help dispel this attitude. My personal goal is to survive any rumors of my mathematical demise that may arise in the future.

I.S.: How do you think mathematics and fiction writing inform each other? Has being a mathematician shaped the novel you have written?
M.S.: Perhaps Professor Juhani Pitkaranta from the Helsinki University of Technology said it best, after my reading at MSRI: "It's all about Fourier series." His idea was that all fiction is composed of the same Fourier modes: love, death, marriage, sex and so on, and one gets different stories by assembling different combinations of these basis functions. Sort of a Fundamental Decomposition Theorem for Fiction. This revelation probably won't result in waves of creative writing students crowding our linear algebra courses, but Professor Pitkaranta does have a point. Certainly a key strategy to getting fiction published is to orthogonalize to what has been written before.

What's a little eerie is how similar the thought processes can be for the two activities. Suppose I'm trying to decide whether a mathematical entity X is bounded. I might try to think of various ways that X might misbehave--all the paths it can take, all the degrees of freedom it can exercise, as it searches for some loophole to slip through, some tricky way to squeeze around its bound. Fiction presents a similar scenario--perhaps X is now a character in a certain situation. To find out what happens next, I would try to put myself in X's place, looking for all the ways I could proceed, maneuvering around any of the story's imposed constraints, and choosing the most interesting path.

Coming to my novel, the central construct is the apartment building and the series of events involving its residents. Being a mathematician, I've tried to ensure that this construct is consistent with two additional (nonliteral) interpretations (much as an abstract theorem might be applicable to different settings). First, the building and its denizens can be identified with India and its heterogeneous mix of people; second, the building's floors represent the levels of ascension in Hinduism, with the occupants being souls in various stages of their life-cycles.

I.S.: In your book, you deal perceptively with religious issues, such as reincarnation, inner revelation, self-punishment, and prejudice-inspired mob scenes. You refer to Akbar, the 16th-century Mughal ruler who created a new religion embracing Hindu, Muslim, Christian, and Zoroastran concepts. Although the experiment did not survive Akbar's death, do you see any hope for reconciliation in the future?
M.S.: First of all, let me announce how shocked I am to have written a novel about religion. A mathematician, an agnostic no less, trying to describe the intricacies of faith--surely that must be an ill-thought-out proposition. Fortunately, the character of Mr. Jalal proved to be the perfect safety valve for me, a vehicle for bringing out all the conflict between faith and rationalism. I think I experienced some of Mr. Jalal's spiritual awakening myself as I worked through religious texts (especially the exquisite Bhagavad Gita) as research for the novel. Akbar had a larger role to play in an earlier draft--his pursuit of the perfect religion paralleled Mr. Jalal's quest. The "Din Ilahi" religion he formulated was actually a failure even while he was alive--part of the reason being that he set himself up as intermediary between God and his subjects. As far as reconciliation goes, I think Mr. Jalal's fate in the novel illustrates the insurmountable difficulties associated with cross-religious pollination in today's world.

I.S.: Indian authors writing in English are experiencing a surge in popularity in the West. Moving beyond the Naipauls and Rushdie, The New Yorker once devoted an issue to Indian writers. Is there someone among them you particularly admire?
M.S.: Ah, the infamous New Yorker issue--the one I consider responsible for starting the raging controversy as to what constitutes an Indian author. Does one have to write in an Indian language? Does one have to write for an Indian audience? And so on. I've already been asked a few times whether I consider myself an Indian author. Each time, what's come to mind is that in my twenty odd years of doing mathematics, nobody has ever demanded to know whether I'm an Indian (or non-Indian) mathematician. The question would be absurd. What they should be asking if they want to make me uncomfortable is whether I consider myself primarily an author or a mathematician.

(Thankfully, you're too polite to ask such things. . . .)

But you did ask me about hidden literary gems, so let me alert readers to the short novel Regarding Roderer by Guillermo Martinez, who's a research mathematician in Buenos Aires. This is an absolutely stunning book--Guillermo has taken the math/writing duality even further and actually combined the two, by using his mathematics in his fiction (Gödel's incompleteness theorem plays a prominent role). A "must-read" for any mathematician who enjoys fiction.

I.S.: To set the record straight, let me ask about the truth of the rumor that you got an advance of nearly half a million dollars for Vishnu.
M.S.: The publishing industry has a standard response to that question, which is to say that it was a six-figure advance. Since mathematicians would presumably not be appeased by such lax bounds, the actual figure was $350,000 for the U.S. rights. I guess someone decided to round this up to a fraction that the public was more comfortable with, and made it half a million. But then, an on-line newspaper felt this was not impressive enough and added another zero, to make it five million. A relative who saw this new report seemed quite disappointed in me recently when I told him the correct figure.

I.S.: Are you at work on your next novel? Featuring a mathematician, no doubt!
M.S.: I did start The Life of Shiva, the next novel in what is to be a trilogy, but haven't gotten very far. There's too much anticipation (or, rather, apprehension) related to the release of Vishnu. So these days I'm doing only math, to keep myself sane. As far as writing about a mathematician goes, I'm hoping that by the third novel (The Birth of Brahma), I'll have acquired enough guile to be able to slip in such a character without unduly alarming the reading public.

Manil Suri spent more than a decade writing, polishing, and submitting stories (and accumulating rejection slips) and attending writers' groups before the recent publication, in rapid succession, of a short story in The New Yorker and his first novel. During that time, he continued his research in mathematics. Mario Primicerio, interviewed by Ivar Stakgold for the October 2000 issue of SIAM News, completed a term as mayor of Florence in 1999; despite indications that he would have been re-elected, he opted not to run for a second term, returning instead to his research (on free boundary problems).

Based on suggestions received by SIAM News, Suri and Primicerio are not unique among mathematicians for having achieved success in pursuits completely separate from mathematics. Although Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky (who has a PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago) is unlikely to be available for an interview with SIAM News, readers can look forward to occasional reports of others who have made their mark in unexpected ways. Suggestions for interview candidates are always welcome (stakgold@math.udel.edu or siamnews@siam.org).

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