Giordano, Paolo (2009), The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Doubleday
[Translated by Shaun Whiteside]
I’d really rather write a review of a book that I loved than of a book that I hated or felt indifferent to. I really don’t like to write negative reviews so I’ll try to keep this one here as short as possible. Paolo Giordano is the great young star of Italian letters. He won the Premio Strega for his debut novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers, the youngest winner of Italy’s most prestigious prize ever. He’s garnered praise from all kinds of writers and publications. So, I’m probably wrong, as with my resistance to Other Electricities. The book has been translated by Shaun Whiteside, but, my Italian being crappy, I can hardly judge the merits of his translation; I have no idea how certain stylistic quirks and peculiarities looked and sounded in the original Italian, so anything I may say about style may not reflect badly upon Giordano at all, but on Whiteside. The writing is, if we try to look at the positive side of it, clean and efficient, as is the whole book. The whole book, and this is certainly part of the intended effect, smells whitewashed, stinks of disinfectant and cleanliness. I’d almost expect an echo to return to me were I to shout at the book, it’s like a huge tiled room, words arranged nicely and in an orderly fashion, a few characters, picked for their symbolic and emotional possibilities, stacked neatly in a corner, and ideas for a few episodes in another. On the floor a few tidy schematics to make sense of it all.
Small wonder, then, that Paolo Giordano’s a physicist in his day job. Clean and precise work is what he spends his days with, writing is just a hobby, and according to Italian wiki he did not really publish before he put out his novel, so it basically represents the first full statement of his artistic vision and apparently he doesn’t have much of one. Giordano’s not a storyteller, the whole book is one long lifeless construction. Much of this may appear to be interesting, but rest assured, it’s not, his is a very dully old-fashioned idea of how a book should work. The Solitude of Prime Numbers is structured into seven chapters that chart the development of two somewhat disturbed individuals through their adolescence and the early years of their adulthood. Each chapter is basically dedicated to one or two events; the first is set in 1983, the last in 2007. The chapters are of uneven length, shortest in the beginning, where Giordano tries to win us over with a few vignettes that clearly strive for effect. As he gets into his characters, the chapters get longer (with a one or two very short chapters remaining) until the final chapter which is the longest, by far.
The structure is clearly meant to create an impression of loneliness, of discontinuity, and it reinforces a main theme of the book which is hinted at in the title. This is about
pairs of prime numbers that are close to one another, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from really touching. […] If you have the patience to go on counting you’ll discover that these pairs gradually become rarer. You encounter increasingly isolated primes, lost in that silent, measured space made only of numbers, and you become aware of the distressing sense that the pairs encountered up until that point were an accidental fact, that their true fate is to remain alone […]. Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another.
So, you see, the chapters exemplify this central mathematical idea that helps power the book. I’m actually pretty sure that you can draw up a scheme that makes sense of how the chapters and episodes are arranged by aligning this with one mathematical idea or another. Most elements of the book strike me as readable in such a way and usually, I’m game for this kind of silliness but this time I just didn’t care. The book doesn’t make you care, really. The Solitude of Prime Numbers is one of those books that talk down to you, that bellow at you: feel this! It’s clever in such an obvious way that it takes all the fun out of checking up on its clever tricks. Everything is calculated for effect, there is not an ounce of superfluous fat on its bones, and reading should provide food, nourishment, it should carry weight of a sort, but there’s really nothing here. A clever boy’s clever games which, and this is probably among the worst things about this book, would not need to be a novel. This could equally well be a movie or something of that sort. Giordano uses words almost reluctantly, trying to get it all over with as soon as possible. The writing is impossibly flat in most places; unless Shaun Whiteside has bungled the translation, Giordano doesn’t much think about choice of words, if he finds a sentence that works on the level of direct denotation, he sticks with it, regardless of how it sounds etc. So the writing makes it hard to care, but the characters carry most of the load when it comes to the singular dullness of The Solitude of Prime Numbers.
The thing is, I generally choose my books well, the time I have to read books is limited, so most books I read are rather good. This explains why I have not read a book with such an amount of cliché ridden characters as The Solitude of Prime Numbers contains in many months. It’s really the book’s major weakness and downright appalling, in places. Where do we start with this? Why not with Alice, one of the two protagonists of the book. In the first chapter, Alice shits herself while skiing, tries to hide her shame, and, subsequently, has a skiing accident. Both protagonists represent a portion of the typical problems and prevalent illnesses of the typical teenager, with just the right bit of exaggeration to make the two characters exceptional and representative at the same time. Alice, for instance, is deeply ashamed of her body, since she’s scarred and disfigured by that accident; in response to her unease, she then becomes anorexic. Due to her eating disorder, she’s also incapable of bearing children which is a strain on her marriage later in her life. Her eating disorder is not about gaining control, as far as I see it. I think her character is built upon shame, a shame that manifests itself in her body, even the miscalculated shit in the first chapter is part of this theme. Her disorder is her way of combating that shame, re-making herself into someone acceptable. The book is really expertly built, all of Alice’s episodes are full of this topic, including tropes of rising and falling, of mobility. It’s not just general body image problems. She’s handicapped (this is the appropriate word, really, in the context of the novel), and this, as deviation, as loss, as aberration, is also reflected in much of the book, including the small chapter that describes how the accident came about. All of this, acquired in a freak accident, is projected into the character, made a key property of it. It’s weirdly reductionistic, but, unless we look, by way of contrast, at Mattia, the other protagonist, not distasteful yet.
Mattia’s main theme can be said to be guilt. His body is not often thematized. As a teenager, he takes to autoaggression, but, in a drastic feat of exaggeration, instead of cutting himself, savoring the pain, he rams sharp objects right through his hand. By this, he is not really handicapped, his is a life of the mind, he is a brilliant child who grows up to be a gifted, successful mathematician. The guilt arises first in his inability to save his sister, who is a bit slower than others, strange, possibly a bit autistic. A reviewer from the Independent called her “retarded” which, regardless of the questionable choice of word there, I don’t think she is, but the thing about the book is that it invites such readings, it’s really what the sister is for, she’s a foil to make Mattia’s decision plausible to leave her behind on a bench near a lake when he attends a party; a mistake as it turns out, because she apparently subsequently drowns in that lake. From then on Mattia sees plenty things to feel guilty and protective about, most important among those is probably Alice. But here’s the thing about the characters. They are such incredible clichés that you can reduce them to a higher level of abstraction and the story makes just as much sense. Mattia is a man, and Alice is a woman.
No, hear me out, I’m not saying this is a parable on anything (it probably is, but let’s not go there), but it certainly spreads actions and attributes according to well worn and deservedly old-fashioned attitudes. Gender appears to be the single most determining factor in the decision how to construct each character, and I’m not even talking about the anorectic girl. No, even as basic decisions as having the woman be the one whose problems are problems of the body and the man the one whose problems are problems of the mind, are clearly gender stereotyping. The woman’s career takes the back burner to her marriage, while the man is successful in his career, yet is dragged into the everyday reality by women. Women need counseling and help, men help. Men give sensible advice (eat more, so you’ll be able to bear children) women are too irrationally disturbed to listen to reason. See? And I had to scrape none of this off from some deeper meanings, this is basic surface stuff, in plain sight. This is how the book works. The author’s essentialist leanings, as far as gender is concerned, forms a peculiar alliance with the essentialist tendencies in his dealings with disorder, which he, in the ingenuous structure of the novel, has withdrawn from simple cause/effect scenarios. As a whole, it clearly uses minority characters for their minority value.
The Solitude of Prime Numbers is like a freak show, and Giordano’s its director and if Mattia’s character works better, is more believable than Alice, it’s because being a woman makes her more of a freak. Paolo Giordano hammers his points home, with little subtlety in the actual language used, but with great deftness as far as the construction of the book is concerned. Much of this book revolves around order, traditional order, narrative order, and for what it is, it is well wrought, but what it is is nothing that I consider commendable. Do not read this book. Do not buy it as a present.
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