Friday, October 23, 2009

Logicomix, Apostolos Doxiadis

Two pages in, the author looks directly out of the panel and tells us this book is not "a kind of textbook or treatise, in the unlikely guise of a graphic novel!" and that right there is the problem. What follows instead is an engaging but flawed biography of Bertrand Russell. Nested within two iterations of exactly the same framing device is a recounting of the "foundational quest" of 20th century mathematics of which Russell, according to this story, was a central figure.

To the book's credit, it does make that quest genuinely interesting. When Kurt Godel gazes sphinx-like from the page and climactically shatters all previous preconceptions with a simple summation of his incompleteness theorem and thus lays the foundation stone of modern day computer science, there is a genuine and thrilling sense of discovery. But in doing the necessary and generating interest in a plot driven by mathematical investigation, the book makes plain its most evident failing. This supposedly ambitious and inventive work makes little attempt to use the medium to its fullest advantage and teach its audience the mathematics it is about within the framework of the story it is telling. While it may seem a tall order, Will Eisner's work on P*S, The Preventive Maintenance Monthly and Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III's brilliant Promethea, show it to be possible. Where Eisner, Moore and Williams made the medium sing while explicating complicated philosophical systems or teaching how to build, stock and run a supply shed, Doxiadis et al. run through the well worn paces familiar to anyone who's even looked at a copy of Persepolis or Maus.

What seems evident from the novel's incompletely explored theme of the connections of genius and madness is that Dioxadis is intimidated by the challenge of tackling either. In telling the story of the foundational quest he chooses to use the viewpoint of Bertrand Russell, the least talented and most emotionally stable of the novel's mathematicians. Rather than the burningly brilliant Wittgenstein or sibylline Godel. Instead, he uses a character whose importance lies almost entirely in failing at his own most ambitious project to resolve the problem of the set of all sets, whose commitment falls short of breaking himself on the shores of that mad country where Wittgenstein readily throws himself and Godel seemingly arose fully formed.

A far more interesting take on the topic would dive through the looking-glass and into the thoughts of these figures rather than into an explanation of Bertrand Russell's limp-wristed pacifism. But the zeal for mathematical mystery invested into the novel's pages is infectious, and while he may not be up to the medium expanding genre busting the topic truly deserves, Doxiadis does deliver exactly what he promises: an interesting and thoroughly enjoyable yarn.

1 comment:

mordicai said...

You had this for days without me knowing?