Zehrer, Klaus Cäsar (2017), Das Genie, Diogenes
Sometimes, when I look askance at a book I dislike, I ponder the question of what makes a bad book. I don’t mean going down the Bourdieu/Herrnstein-Smith path – I mean it in a simpler way. My gut feeling as I read Klaus Cäser Zehrer’s 600 page debut novel was: this is an awful book. And yet, it’s also entertaining, but not because of Zehrer’s literary skills. It’s primarily entertaining because Zehrer takes a real person with an exciting life, and tells that biographical story with very few adornments. For those, like me, who had not known of this person’s life, reading the book was quite a rush and led to me looking up other biographies and studies. Zehrer’s main accomplishment is that he takes the life of William James Sidis and stays out of the way as it unspools on the pages of his novel. If you want to read literature – you won’t find it here. If you are a fiction reader who enjoys seeing a mind thinking as you follow the trail of words – you will be disappointed. If you want a streamlined biography without footnotes and told with the verve and speed of an adventure novel, this is probably for you. William James Sidis’s brief life became more and more complicated the older he got, but Zehrer is entirely untroubled by the possible complications. He picks a style and sticks to it, and nothing stops him. The style is 19th century bildungsroman, but without the baggage of symbols and interior life. It’s a tale of the rise and fall of a genius, told without any interest in women, minorities or, really, any other issues that would stop the rollicking speed of this book. Here’s the kicker: I cannot possibly recommend this book. But I might give it as a present to some people in my life who aren’t great fans of difficult literature. Das Genie is William James Sidis as re-imagined by Ayn Rand: a tale of heroism and failure that fails to do justice to its protagonist. There’s no critical distance or thinking involved in the book at any point, which is the most frustrating part. Zehrer’s style is competent and unremarkable, but at least it’s usually tight and sharp enough for his purpose. So is this a bad book? Or just mediocre? I don’t know.
Das Genie has three distinct sections. The first section is about Boris Sidis, an immigrant from the Ukraine who lands in the US to make it big. It’s written for an audience who already know that Sidis will become an important figure in 20th century psychoanalysis, and it’s the most Ayn Randian part of the book. We find that Sidis is a capital H Hero of intellectual prowess. He picks up English with ease, he starts working in a factory and after a handful of days is ready to lecture the factory owner about how to run that factory. He’s an Ivy League Hank Reardon: proud, uncompromising, and going from success to success. He goes to Boston where he teaches English to other immigrants, he impresses William James and Charles Eliot Norton into giving him a spot in Harvard, and he finds himself a wife. In a scene that could be straight from Atlas Shrugged, Zehrer explains to his future in-laws how useless emotions like love are and that it is not relevant whether he loves his future wifé, but whether she will be useful to him. And indeed, she becomes his biggest supporter, earning a PhD herself, and fighting for his vision and legacy for the rest of her life, inheriting even his struggles with empathy, as her interactions with her son show. Eventually he sires a boy, who he names after his benefactor William James and immediately tries to turn that boy into John Stuart Mill 2.0. He endows that boy with a lot of knowledge, but also with his Objectivist disdain for other people and authority. Why follow rules when those rules are stupid? The tale of the boy is the second chunk of the book, and the story of adult William James Sidis, called Billy, is the third. Even before getting into the meat of the book around the “Genius” of the title, Billy Sidis, the book becomes hard to take.
There’s no doubt – the book reads like a breeze, exactly like an adventure novel. But unlike modern takes on the 19th c entury adventure novel (I might post a review of Christian Kracht’s work here one of these days), there’s no sense of the author understanding the problems inherent in framing narratives this way. Zehrer doesn’t just present Sidis’s misogynist disregard for women, he mirrors it in his book. Sidis doesn’t have time or space for women – and Zehrer doesn’t either. That first section reads like a male fanboy. The two other sections are easily summarized: Billy gets into Harvard at 11, graduates with a Bachelor’s degree and leaves Harvard, disinterested in a formal education. Goodwill gets him teaching gigs here and there, but public attention, bullying and the oppression of gender roles and expectations lead to Billy trying to hide from the limelight, ending up as an anonymous accountant, hiding from journalists and his own family. He ends up writing three different books under pseudonyms, all three about his own strange obsession, like languages and train tickets, gets involved in communist activism, founds not one but two revolutionary societies and dies in his early forties of a stroke. I mean that last sentence alone should make your mouth water. What material! And you close the book almost heartbroken about this waste.
It’s true, the eventual failure of Sidis’s education philosophy in his son’s demise complicates the picture without Zehrer’s intervention, all by itself, but that’s not enough. And it’s true, the heroic tale of Boris Sidis very cleverly puts the failures of William Sidis in stark relief – but is it really clever? As the story of William James Sidis starts taking up speed and a sense of tragic inescapability, one always feels that Zehrer shares Boris Sidis’s lack of empathy. Zehrer’s biography of Billy Sidis is told from the outside, accepting all facts about his life as a given, and then chronicling his downfall with a cool distance. I’m not saying the book should have focused on Billy’s inner life. But Zehrer also never really pans out to include society or other people. His disinterest in people not named Sidis is carried over from the first section. Sidis’s life crosses that of Norbert Wiener, but the book isn’t interested at all in these two different versions of child prodigies. Does have Sidis’s disregard for authorities and his unease with less-than-brilliant people an equivalent in the famous mathematician’s life? There are women, activists and writers crossing Sidis’s path. A famous New Yorker essay on Sidis was written by none other than James Thurber. Zehrer mentions all of these things, with an almost blasé disinterest in expanding or even just thinking about these issues.
Late in life, William James Sidis wrote a long history of the United States from the point of view of Native Americans. The text is available online – Zehrer mentions it but barely deals with the interesting aspects of it. William T Vollmann built a whole career on working on American history from that angle – what are the intellectual aspects of Sidis’s book? How does Billy Sidis’s disregard for rules and mediocrity connect to his ideas about nations, narrative and history? How does he fit in the broader context? Was Billy Sidis truly as brilliant as his family claimed? I’ve listened to a talk about Norton’s tests for prospective Harvard students and there’s a lot of material there about what cultural expectations mean in that time. Zehrer has no doubt, never stumbles, never stops to think, consider or complicate. He is also completely disinterest in literary form. The book is written strictly chronologically, in the plainest structure imagininable. Closing the book, one wishes the life of William James Sidis had been told by a writer like E.L. Doctorow, for example. Or a writer interested in other voices. Zehrer’s book is almost offensively male and white, intellectually incurious, a journeyman work.
This is not what I expected when I saw that an older writer, who spent his life in journalism, published a debut novel this late in his life, and a thick, 600 page slab of a book to boot. I mean this brings me back to the initial question. Is this bad? I feel that much of what I would call bad (rather than mediocre) is colored negatively by my disappointment. This story could have been a better book. It should have been a better book. We rooted for you!
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