Mathematician spins novel tale of life on a college campus
By Cynthia Yoder
Princeton NJ -- Jordan Ellenberg's debut novel, "The Grasshopper King," may have the formula for success: One reviewer has called it "perhaps the funniest and best-written 'college' novel I've read since (Vladimir Nabokov's) 'Pale Fire.'"
Ellenberg, in fact, is an expert at formulas -- mathematical formulas, that is. He has been solving equations since he was 6 years old, was a teenage math prodigy and is now an assistant professor of mathematics at Princeton.
"I took writing workshops in college," he said, "and along the way I realized it wouldn't be so bad if I did something else after college before getting my Ph.D. And that's what I did -- I essentially wrote the book in that year."
He attended the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, one of the nation's top creative writing programs. There, he studied with some of contemporary fiction's greatest figures -- John Barth, Stephen Dixon and Robert Stone. The result of this brief but intensive excursion into the literary life was a master of arts and a jaunty, 251-page satire on the life Ellenberg knows best -- academia.
"The Grasshopper King," which was released on April 1 from Coffee House Press, is set at Chandler State University, a campus established by a 19th-century gold prospector in the dusty West. At this small-town college, a professor named Stanley Higgs has popularized the very bad poetry of an Eastern European hero named Henderson to the point of gaining international attention. A reluctant student named Samuel Grapearbor becomes ensnared in Higgs' oddball life, and what follows is a literary romp through the fields of treachery, passion and more of Henderson's bad poetry.
Ellenberg said the book is not autobiographical in any real world sense; however the angst and longing experienced by Grapearbor are certainly universal. The book contains the teenage desire to be "anywhere but here," the awkwardness and uncertainty of new love and the way that an obsession can take over an entire life.
That said, Ellenberg hopes no one identifies too strongly with the characters in his book. "I hope no one reads this book and says, 'That is my life,'" he laughed. "They'd need more help than they could ever get from reading my book."
The novelist's own teenage life was anything but typical. At 17, The Washington Post, The New York Times and USA Today reported on Ellenberg's math competition winnings, including his gold medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad. Even The National Enquirer ran a story proclaiming him "America's Top Math Whiz Kid."
Links between writing and math
After the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, Ellenberg returned to Harvard and graduated with a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1998. That fall, he came to Princeton to teach.
Ellenberg previously insisted that there was no relationship between his writing and his math. These days, he is more inclined to find connections -- he admits that mathematical structures can be found throughout "The Grasshopper King."
While he won't be too specific about this, in order to relieve readers from getting bogged down in a kind of "Where's Waldo" search, he does point out that the number three figures into his book on several levels. First of all, he wrote three drafts of the book. Next, readers will notice that there are three main characters. And thirdly, the book is divided into three very symmetrical parts.
But to throw everyone off the trail, Ellenberg also points to his immersion in science fiction in his early teens as a great influence. The fantastical element of that genre shows up in the imaginary and often mythic world that is created in his novel.
In "The Grasshopper King," the mythic world is the Eastern European language of Henderson, the bad poet. The language is Gravinic, an impossible language that becomes an obsession of Professor Higgs, and in turn, Grapearbor.
"In science fiction, you start with the impossible and see what follows -- what that impossibility creates around it," Ellenberg noted. "You can almost make the case for this being a linguistics novel, with the same relationship to linguistics as science fiction has to science."
In other words, it's linguistics with a twist. A huge impetus for the book, he said, was this quote from Samuel Beckett: "Once a certain degree of insight has been reached all men speak, when speak they must, the same tripe." The quote appears as an inscription to Part 3 of the book.
Ellenberg pokes fun at the worship of language and its authors in creating an aura of awe around Henderson's truly awful (though truly comedic) writings, which are "reproduced" at various times in the novel. For example, students are transfixed into silence at hearing the lines, " the hectoring of the vendors of spoiled fish/is equal in offensiveness to/the/hideous coughing of my mother. /Berlin is dying/of syphilis and I/ am its rotting nose."
But while laughter at human silliness is a central aim of the book, Ellenberg said he was aware of the dangers of being too entertaining in his prose.
"Setting off fireworks on the page can keep you from the substance," he said. Learning from the statements of his hero, novelist David Foster Wallace, who was critical of the gags in his own earlier work, Ellenberg was cautious not to rely too heavily on cheap shots.
"It's a version of a problem teachers face in performing in front of a classroom," he said, pointing to the work of Princeton Professor of Humanities Elaine Showalter, who discusses this issue in her book, "Teaching Literature."
"Professors can make wisecracks and give students an entertaining experience," he said. "But that drastically reduces students' ability to discern what's been conveyed to them. The problem becomes clear when a student comes up to you and says, 'Hey, great lecture,' when you know it was lousy."
Ellenberg, whose reading is copious and varied (and recorded on his personal Web page, http://www.math.princeton.edu/ ~ellenber/personal.html), said he associates reading with a "keen state of excitement." That is what he hopes his readers will experience in consuming "The Grasshopper King." And while he can't promise readers a second book, he does keep his pen uncapped in writing a column called "Do the Math" for the online magazine Slate.com.
Other recent works by and about Princeton faculty members include:
"AMPL: A Modeling Language for Mathematical Programming (Second Edition)" by Brian Kernighan, professor of computer science, with Robert Fourer and David Gay, Duxbury Press.
"Coming Into McPhee Country: John McPhee and the Art of Literary Nonfiction," an anthology addressing the significant body of work written by John McPhee, lecturer in the Council of the Humanities, edited by Alan Weltzien and Susan Maher, University of Utah Press; includes an introduction by William Howarth, professor of English.
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