20 QUESTIONS FOR JORDAN ELLENBERG
by Stephen Burt
A foul-mouthed misanthropic poet from a obscure corner of Europe inspires, in turn, a struggling college in the American West; a superstar professor who decides to stop speaking; and the lucky-in-love misfit student who must watch the professor (in case he starts speaking again). Thus runs the plot for Jordan Ellenberg's The Grasshopper King—both the funniest campus novel in ages, and a slippery, serious-minded investigation of what happens when good languages go bad. If that's not enough, the novel also offers sterling examples of competitive checkers; misguided institutional architecture; "ling-fic" (see below); syncretic cosmogonical folklore; and reasons why people regret ever leaving New York.
Jordan grew up amid friendly statisticians in Montgomery County, Maryland, where the mathematical powers-that-be discovered him early on: after winning international youth-in-math competitions and some televised quiz shows, he studied mathematics at Harvard and fiction-writing at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Now he teaches math at Princeton, where in between proving theorems and preparing for his upcoming wedding, he sometimes writes a column for Slate. We explored the trails of hidden knowledge leading in all directions out from The Grasshopper King, and back to it, via email in February 2003.
1. Is The Grasshopper King a campus novel? What's a campus novel, anyway?
JE: Campuses are interesting places for two reasons: people pursue difficult knowledge there, and kids grow up there. The part of their growing up that happens between 18 and 21 seems to them to involve the acquisition of difficult knowledge, but actually most of what they learn is developmentally automatic. So from the juxtaposition of these two pursuits you get some irony, and this irony produces comic novels.
My sense is that "typical" campus novels—or at least, the novels people mean when they say "campus novel"—use that irony as follows: Look! professors think they are in search of difficult knowledge, but really they are more like adolescents at play; that is ridiculous!
The Grasshopper King is maybe a bit different in that I really do believe that pursuing difficult knowledge is, at bottom, important and non-ridiculous; so I'm less interested in the ironic fate of the professors and more interested in the ironic fate of adolescents who take the analogy between their automatic development and their coursework too seriously.
2. How much did it change between the first draft and the published novel?
JE: Drastically. It was originally a long story called "Henderson Between the Wars," and I just kept on writing it until at some point it became so long that I had to start all over again and write it as a novel.
3. You've spent a lot of time on a lot of campuses: were you conscious of particular models for the Department of Gravinics, or the layout of Chandler State?
JE: No. Chandler City is just a particular dim feeling made into a town with a campus in it.
4a-f. Gravinic, the language in which Henderson writes, appears to have an infinite number of tenses, moods, and declensions—making it both the perfect language, adequate to all human thought and expression, and an impossible language, which no one can learn to speak. Can you talk about its relations with, and your relations with,
a. Esperanto, which figures in your short fiction?
b. Chomskyan (or other) linguistics?
c. real Eastern European languages with complicated tense systems?
d. creation myths and the language of Eden?
JE: I thought for a long time that The Grasshopper King had nothing to do with math, but now I'm inclined to concede that it does. In mathematics, as in Gravinics, you're driven by an intermittent sense that there's a single wire that powers the universe, and you've got your hand on it. But no one outside your in-group is going to understand what you're talking about.
The Johns Hopkins library has a really great collection of books and pamphlets about proposals for universal languages; not just Esperanto, Volap"uk, and Interlingua, but languages which—even by Volap"uk standards—didn't catch on. Languages with lots of inflections, languages with no inflections, languages made out of ones and zeroes, languages made out of musical notes... one-man languages. I spent a lot of time going through these, and they're present in The Grasshopper King, for sure.
What I know about Chomskyan linguistics mostly had to be discarded in order to write the book, in the same way that you have to throw out a lot of the physics you know in order to write a good science fiction novel. In fact, the right genre label for The Grasshopper King is probably "linguistics fiction". Does this genre exist? It might consist solely of Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music (see A. 19).
5. Is The Grasshopper King a Jewish, or a Jewish-American, novel? What's a Jewish-American novel, anyway?
JE: I'm not sure I think Jewish Americans feel the same kind of cultural solidarity that, in my fantasies, they did fifty years ago. Maybe because they don't have accents now. So it's not clear what makes a novel Jewish-American, besides the uninteresting criterion that it be loaded with American Jews. I think now that we don't have accents, we (Jewish Americans) have picked up a bad habit of deploying our ethnicity self-consciously, mostly to check it's still there. Do you ever find yourself using a Yiddish word in conversation, then realizing that, just before you spoke the word, the thought "I think I'll now use one of the Yiddish words available to me" flashed across your mind? I do. Or didn't you think that Bee Season was a really good novel, but that the business about Kabbalah was the least interesting (though still pretty interesting) part?
Samuel Grapearbor is a Jew, as I am, but in the book I've self-consciously failed to deploy his Jewishness to avoid self-consciously deploying it as above. I'm not sure that's morally better, but it saved me having to learn a lot about Kabbalah or Shabbatai Tzvi or what have you.
6. Does the math world know about your novel? Do you expect them to find out?
JE: I'm not publicizing the novel in the math world; I'm suffering from a paranoid fear that someone on a tenure committee somewhere will take its existence as a sign that I'm not fully committed to mathematics. Actually, in case any tenure committee members are reading this, I might as well say that I am fully committed to mathematics. The fact is, mathematics is easier and a lot less painful than writing novels. Also, you get tenure.
7. Can you describe your research on checkers? Why checkers?
JE: I wanted to put in a board game because it forces people to pair off—see A. 9. Checkers, in particular, because of Marion Tinsley, who was the checkers champion of the world from 1954 to 1991, a period during which he lost a total of five games. I'm pretty sure he was the best player of any competitive game who's ever lived. In 1994, when he was 67, Tinsley played a match against Chinook, a checkers-playing computer program from the University of Alberta, for the "World Man-Machine Championship." He and Chinook played to six straight draws, after which Tinsley, who was too exhausted to keep playing, conceded the match and the championship to Chinook. He died a few months later. He seems like the kind of person whose story Samuel Grapearbor would like a lot. In fact, the story used to be in the book, but it never sat smoothly there, so I took it out.
8. I was surprised to find absolutely no concealed references to the Baltimore Orioles anywhere in the novel. Did I miss them?
JE: When I was writing the novel I was living in Baltimore, which meant I spent about six hours a day with the Orioles; pre-game call-in show, game, post-game call-in show. I watched the Orioles more or less autonomically. So it never occurred to me to insert concealed references; it would have been like coyly alluding to the fact that I eat dinner every night.
On the other hand, the Orioles of that period (1993 and 1994) were one of the most interesting and melancholy versions of the team. 1993 was the year Fernando Valenzuela pitched for the Orioles. Valenzuela, when he was 21, already had a Cy Young award and was going to be the pitcher of our time, but by 1993 he was seven years past his last winning season. For some reason he came to Baltimore, and he had another losing season. But he brought a bit of noble twilight to the team, a team which was, all in all, a perfect mix of nobly twilit old guys (Valenzuela, Rick Sutcliffe, Harold Baines), young guys who hadn't found themselves (Mike Mussina, Arthur Lee Rhodes, Jeffrey Hammonds), and, maybe most importantly, middle-aged, middle-talented guys who picked that year to have great seasons which they must have known they would never again equal (Chris Hoiles and the incomparable Jack Voigt). It was somewhat shocking to me to look up the statistics and see that the Orioles were actually pretty good that year, and finished in a tie for third. My memory of that team is Valenzuela losing in the late afternoon.
All this by way of saying that the entire novel might actually be a concealed reference to the Baltimore Orioles.
9. Does The Grasshopper King reflect (in ways visible to you) anything you learned from John Barth or Stephen Dixon at Hopkins?
JE: Actually, the single remark that really changed the book was made by Robert Stone; I was lucky enough to be at Johns Hopkins for one of the two years he was there. The whole middle part of the book, which largely consists of four people hanging around in a basement, was—just as it might sound—very muddled and slow in the original version. The advice Stone gave me was that, no matter how many people are in a room, each moment in a scene has only two of them in it. And this became an organizing principle; there are three ways to divide four people into pairs, and I ended up hanging the whole midsection of the novel on the combinatorial framework that results when you consider these three pairings, one after the other.
10. Will you ever return to reviewing works of fiction? Are there living authors you'd like to review but have not?
JE: Reviewing fiction is my least favorite of all the kinds of writing I have ever done. I always felt strung up by my responsibility to the author of the book; he or she spent years on this thing and I was going to pass judgment on it after one or two readings, late at night when I was too tired to do math. The only books I liked reviewing were the ones I knew everyone would like (DeLillo, Dixon, David Foster Wallace, Stone...) where I felt it wasn't my responsibility to get people to purchase the book or not, and I could just spin out an essay carving out some particular section of the existing critical consensus that I wanted to endorse.
I'd love to write about Matthew Klam. I was on the Amtrak last week, and I was sitting behind two consultants, and they spent the whole trip having the most amazingly consultant-like conversation—skill sets were maximized, talent was valorized, boxes and boundaries were thought outside of and beyond, everything! I had no idea what they were talking about. But they were prototypical members of the category of consultants, that was clear. So much so that I started to wonder whether they were actually actors hired by Amtrak to impersonate consultants in order to show that their business class service is, in fact, patronized by the business class.
Klam is, I think, the only person who's made a serious effort to take this kind of talk, which seems to us like dead language, and show that it's a real language by making prose fiction out of it. Well, maybe George W.S. Trow did this too, in Bullies, but he seems to have abandoned the project.
But see? That was much more fun than actually sitting down and writing a review of Klam's book. I'm glad I don't have to do it.
11. Can you think of a novel, besides The Grasshopper King, which sets a crucial scene in a cafeteria?
JE: Sure: A Fan's Notes. Frederick Exley sees Frank Gifford, the star quarterback, across the college cafeteria. Exley tries to pin Gifford with a derisive stare; Gifford smiles and says hello in a vague way that works Exley up to such a pitch that he stays pretty mad for the next 300 pages. I'm glad you asked this question because it led me to open A Fan's Notes again; I'd forgotten how much I'd drawn from it. Stolen from it, I guess I mean.
12. How did you come to write for Slate?
JE: For reasons I don't quite understand, they really wanted to run a math column. They were looking for someone with advanced training in math and experience in magazine journalism; that narrowed it down a lot.
13. In your previous life as a journalist, you covered (among other things) the Modern Language Association's annual convention of anxious English professors and disgruntled graduate students. Are there bits of the MLA in the Gravinics world?
JE: The novel was already more or less in final form when I visited the MLA, so probably no, there aren't. I think the nature of the discipline of Gravinics owes much more to mathematics and physics than it does to literary studies, which is why it is called "Gravinics" and not "Gravinian studies."
14. What about Matter-Eater Lad?
JE: Given his superhuman digestive powers, I expect that, yes, there are bits of the MLA in Matter-Eater Lad.
15. You started the novel as a graduate student, and finished revising it as a junior professor at Princeton. Did your change in academic p-o-v affect your work on the novel?
JE: It helped with one thing. The novel is told from the viewpoint of an old man looking back on his youth; but the old man is only 33. There aren't that many contexts in which being in your early thirties and being an old man make sense together. One of them is the context where you and I live, in which we spend a lot of our day surrounded by nineteen-year-olds. Knowing about that helped make the frame of the novel make more sense to me.
The other context in which 33-year-olds are old men, is of course, baseball—see A. 8, especially Fernando Valenzuela.
16. If you Described Your Background and Upbringing in a few sentences, would it save me the potential embarrassment of having to ask several detailed questions about them?
17. Along what may or may not be the same lines, can you reveal any secrets of the Math Olympiad?
JE: Answering both 16 and 17: I learned a lot of mathematics very early in life, which meant that as a child I spent a lot of time sitting in big rooms trying to solve math problems more quickly and cleverly than other children. But I think to describe the Math Olympiad this way misses a lot of its charm; in general, I believe it's inherently kind of delightful when bunches of teenagers from different countries are plunked together for a few weeks, and when I wear my "Mathematics brings friends together" T-shirt, I am not doing so ironically, though I'll admit it tends to happen close to laundry day.
18. Has there ever been a case, to your knowledge, in which a real scholar stopped speaking?
JE: There's the case of Alexander Grothendieck, who, with a kind of immense effort of pure will, completely rewrote the foundations of algebraic geometry in the 1960s, then became alienated from other mathematicians and retired to the Pyrenees to raise sheep. Only a few people are allowed to know where he is. The last few documents he wrote before leaving mathematics ("Sketch of a Program", "The Long March through Galois Theory," "Pursuing Stacks") have acquired a kind of lonely, devoted following, in which I sometimes include myself.
19. The Grasshopper King is one of the funniest novels I've read. Do you have models for humor in prose fiction?
JE: The primary kind of funny I know how to produce is that which comes from enforced intimacy between high diction and low subject matter; I think I learned this from Frederick Exley (see A. 11) and Michael Chabon. Probably visible only to me are the influences of Stephen Dixon and Delmore Schwartz. Schwartz in particular is the master of dialogue which makes fun of its speaker in a way that's not at all forgiving but remains affectionate; this works better than Exley's uncut sourness for almost all novels (maybe all non-Exley novels.) I would count David Foster Wallace and Grace Paley as models if I had any idea how to model myself after them. Paley is impossible to imitate, and Wallace is impossible to imitate without producing parody.
20. Your book describes (among many other things) how socially isolated, academically gifted young men learn to admit women into their lives. If someone began a review of The Grasshopper King with that sentence, would you be pleased, surprised, nonplussed [in the colloquial and inaccurate sense of not-surprised-at-all], or nonplussed [in the accurate but rarely encountered sense of having your socks knocked off]?
JE: I would be happily nonplussed [in the second sense] and possibly a bit chagrined [in the original sense of feeling like I'd been rubbed vigorously with a rough piece of sharkskin, or shagreen] that the structure of the book was so visible. The question this question raises is: What is the Great American Nerd Novel?
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003