The premise of M. Ann Jacoby’s debut novel, Life After Genius, is an interesting one. 18 year old Theodore “Mead” Fegley turns up in a cab, with a broken arm no less, at his parent’s house less than two weeks before his college graduation, and just days before he is to present his groundbreaking findings on the Riemann Hypothesis to a room full of eager mathematicians. Something has gone wrong, but Mead, as he prefers to be called, offers no explanations and just begins working alongside his stoic father and angry and intemperate uncle in the family business- undertaking and furniture selling.
There is a lot about this novel, which is intriguing and thought provoking. Right off the bat there is this feeling of tension throughout the book, and it never lets up as the reader tries to puzzle out what went wrong between Mead and his enigmatic, wealthy frenemy Herman. All that is known is that some sort of confrontation between the two has left Mead feeling he has no other choice but to move back home, abandoning his degree a mere weeks before graduation.
Told in third person narrative, and entirely from the protagonist’s perspective, Life After Genius jumps around Mead’s life in non-linear fashion; equally rewarding readers with tantalizing additional pieces of the puzzle and tormenting them when puzzle pieces just aren’t enough to draw the hoped for definitive conclusion. While the basics aren’t extremely hard to decipher, and are easily guessed by the novel’s midpoint, the more compelling questions seem to be why and how it all happened, and if Mead will go back to school and set things right.
In some respects, Mead is a typical teenager grappling with issues that teenagers face at some point or another- feeling different and like an outsider, struggling to make the right choices, trying to figure out who he is and who he should be- but he is doing all this with the additional handicap of being socially inept and isolated because the genius factor has always played a dominant part of his existence and thereby affects all of his relationships.
Jacoby is to be commended for writing a novel with such a firm characterization of her protagonist. Mead engages and forces the reader to walk the line between sympathizing with his experience and wanting to throttle him for his stubborn blindness and naivete. He is complex, and not always likable, nor is it always easy to agree with his very limited viewpoint, but he never deviates from who he is no matter what situation he is facing, and whether or not he has similar experiences from his past upon which he can draw. It is hard to tell by the end whether his path through the novel has lead to any significant change or growth, although he gets flashes of awareness here and there.
The emotional issues are spot on. Jacoby weaves Mead’s story of isolation and feelings of being misunderstood in such a way that we are able to have some sympathy but also see how he- and all people- misunderstand others as they try to get what they need and make people into whoever it is they feel they should be. Mead does this consistently with Herman, as he purposely misunderstands him in order to first, consider him a friend, and second, to navigate the rules of friendship, which he doesn’t understand.
While it is easy to get caught up in all the mystery in the novel- drama also unfolds around Mead’s aunt, uncle and cousin in which he heavily factors- there are a few trouble spots. The major ones, which can’t be easily overlooked, are with his age, and Mead’s own limited perspective which is the only one available throughout the book.
Jacoby addresses Mead’s age in myriad ways throughout the novel, yet it is glaringly ignored as an aspect of his attendance at college, upon which the whole story hinges. When he arrives at Chicago University he is fifteen- years-old, and tells the other students that he will be sixteen in two weeks. He goes home for break in his first semester but then he mentions that he doesn’t go home for another two years. He stays in the dorms in between semesters and over summers, and figures that his dad would have paid for him to live off campus if he had expressed such an interest. He isn’t frequently in touch with his family. It was hard to fathom that a sixteen-year-old would be allowed such freedom. When his mom leaves him at school, she tells him what time he should go to bed and what shirt he should wear the next day, so it almost unbelievable that a few months later, and then over the ensuing years, she wouldn’t require him to come home and spend some time with his family, or call him at frequent intervals. Even if it is to be believed that his parents don’t care, it seems like the school would have had some sort of procedures in place to deal with a minor child on their premises for such long periods, if only for issues of liability.
The narrative perspective in this novel is a double-edged sword. It allows the reader to fully experience Mead and the choices that he makes, but if when there aren’t enough situations that successfully illuminate the other characters, it makes it hard to get to know them, and they aren’t given the opportunity to rise above their stereotypic nature. One of the pitfalls of a story like this is that it needs to deal with types whom are easily recognizable- the overbearing and pushy mother, the long suffering father, the insufferable rich kid, the person who sees and loves you no matter what- they are all there, but given only Mead’s rather warped perspective, they are never able to escape those roles to become three dimensional people whose motives go beyond the cursory to the truly understood.
Jacoby’s first novel is ambitious in subject matter and has a lot going on to recommend it. The suspenseful storyline keeps you wanting to know what happens in spite of a frustrating main character. However, in that character’s defense, the author has created a seemingly thorough and accurate portrayal of some of the personality quirks and liabilities of the genius mind. The balance of math in the story is pretty much perfection. Enough that some of the basics are just barely understood- you know you are out of your league without feeling completely overwhelmed by alien concepts. The cliff hanger ending makes for great discussion, book club or otherwise.