Located “a mile northwest of Enosburg Falls,” the University of Northern Vermont is even more of an academic backwater than its arch rival, the University of Burlington. But UNV has one thing Burlington doesn’t: a star math professor named Simon Goldman.
Pinched from the Ivy League, Goldman ends several years of idleness by announcing he’s solved a problem that has perplexed generations of eggheads. But has he? Or is he just concerned about keeping his cushy fellowship? Department chair Guillermo Slutnick, colleague Herman Melville Singleton and the formidable dean of arts and sciences — known to her faculty subjects as the Virgin Queen — all want to know.
Needless to say, Montréal author R.J. Stern’s first novel, Goldman’s Theorem, is a comedy. But while it may play fast and loose with Vermont’s academic landscape, his zany campus satire gets the math right. At least, that’s the word from scholarly journal The Mathematical Intelligencer, which praises Stern’s portrayal of its discipline as “undistorted and accurate.”
It should be, since the 63-year-old writer has been a math prof at Concordia University since 1976. Weary of the misleading portrayals of his discipline in popular movies such as Good Will Hunting and A Beautiful Mind and the TV show “Numbers,” Stern says he set out to write a campus novel that would do for math departments what Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 did for the army. It would showcase “the most absurd stuff ... yet something only somebody on the inside could write.”
One piece of insider’s knowledge is that mathematicians jump to premature conclusions more often than the innumerate may realize. Stern himself recalls sending out a flawed article for publication: “The result was correct, but the proof had a major, major error in it. I just barely stopped the presses, and I was incredibly upset, teetering on the edge of psychosis,” he says with a storyteller’s relish. “I’d always wanted to write a novel, and I thought this was a good theme.”
Why set it in Vermont? A New York native and permanent resident of Canada, Stern has summered for the past quarter-century in the Eastern Townships just north of the border. His cycling trips regularly take him into the Northeast Kingdom, “as far south as Cambridge,” he says. “I’ve always just loved the vibes in that border region.” Residents will recognize authentic details of the borderland where — in the recent past, anyway — a Vermonter could make a quick jaunt into Canada for a bag of Montréal-style bagels and share a laugh with the customs agent about meeting Osama bin Laden. Other splashes of local color include the book’s farcical depiction of farmer-cyclist tensions and, yes, an appearance by Vermont’s elusive catamount.
After a publication saga that involved working with agents and suffering a “heartbreaking miss with one big publisher,” Stern ended up in print with a small, independent Canadian house. He’s planning a sequel, Goldman’s Corollary, which he describes as “sort of like a comedic murder mystery” based on the famous game-theory problem the “prisoner’s dilemma.”
Though Stern maintains that “the only way to make money [writing] is if somebody decides to make a movie out of your book,” he’s happy to keep doing it. And readers may be surprised at just how funny a book with digressions on topics such as “nonsmooth analysis” can be.