divide me by zero lara vapnyar cover[Tin House; 2019]

The Russian-American novelist Lara Vapnyar, in her multidimensional, inventive fourth novel, Divide Me By Zero, dissects intertwined love affairs in a Russian writer’s tumultuous life during middle age. When her mother dies, novelist Katya collects note cards her mother, a former math professor, used in preparation for a self-help math textbook for adults. The notes are physically collected within the text as headers for many of the chapters. The cards are cryptic reminders of how to illustrate specific mathematical concepts, like negative numbers, limits, or percentages. But they are poignant and significant for Katya because they are her mother’s last words. They are like the precious photographs of Roland Barthes’ mother in Camera Lucida. Katya’s desire to comprehend the notes becomes the occasion for writing an account of her life, which is the novel itself. They function for Katya as a cipher for both understanding her mother and her own troubled romantic life. The novel is concerned with Katya’s attempts to rationalize love and romance with mathematical logic and rigor.

The novel is dutifully chronological in the fashion of a memoir. It ambitiously follows the course of a woman’s life from childhood to middle age. At the start of the novel, Katya is a Russian child raised by a single mother haunted by the early death of Katya’s beloved father. In her teens, she is solitary, boyish, and self-conscious. She suffers a doomed first love with B., a local high school teacher. She is visited by a writer’s moments of self-realization when she reads Tolstoy and sees the films of Tarkovsky. She rapidly falls in love, marries, and emigrates to America with her husband, Len, and her mother. As an immigrant, she has difficulty adapting to American life until she finds a job as an English instructor to other Russian immigrants. Her marriage stalls when she realizes she and her husband no longer love each other and when she reencounters her first love. Towards the end of the novel, her writing career is launched when one of her stories is selected for publication by the editor of a well-known literary magazine, while her mother’s health starts to disintegrate. 

The mother-daughter relationship is the most central in the novel. It is characteristic of the novel’s relationships between women in that the relationship between Katya and her mother is predominately supportive, steady, and mutually understanding. The relationship with her mother often stabilizes Katya after she falls into despair from a tragic loss, whether the death of family or a betrayal by a man she loves. Her mother is like the lifeline that bears her back ashore after she has drifted too far out to sea. After her first love leaves with his wife for America, Katya mostly remains at home in Moscow and obsessively questions her mother about the nature of love. She believes the love between her parents was passionate and authentic and therefore she can comprehend love by analyzing their marriage. In the novel, a mother’s personal history offers her daughter practical knowledge about matters of love, romance, and self-reliance but also protection against fear and incomprehension. In the wake of the loss of her first love, Katya observes that her “obsession with B. had left her baffled about the concept of love, and she hoped that if she studied every detail of her parents’ relationship, she would be able to crack love as if it were a math problem.” Katya’s mother keeps a box of photographs of her husband and herself, love letters, and the copy of a Russian newspaper with her written note in which she promised to marry her husband on their first meeting. Katya is at first disappointed by the quotidian nature and lack of poetry in the letters but she is eventually deeply moved by the depth of affection and her parents’ “genuine hunger for each other’s presence.” Her mother’s authentic love for her father becomes a sort of birthright Katya believes she will inherit in due time. Katya carries the story of her parents’ love as protective armor against false love or love of any lesser intensity or depth. She “came to think of that note as my talisman and my written oath. What my parents had was real love, and I promised myself not to settle for anything less.”

In the novel, the promise of real love goes unfulfilled for Katya, either because of loss of feeling or impossible circumstances. Vapnyar plots three of Katya’s romantic relationships, each of which is characterized by a different species of love in regards to intensity and permanence. At one point, the men occur simultaneously in her life so the distinctive virtues and deficiencies of each relationship are dramatized. Katya’s courtship with her future husband Len is as speedy and intensely romantic as that of her parents. They promise to marry each other while Katya’s train departs from the station platform only after a week together in St. Petersburg. On the platform, Katya feels she and Len were “separate, we were complete and self-sufficient, we were invincible.” After their immigration to America, Katya feels as if Len has become petulant, remote, and uninterested. In a photograph of the couple on a family trip, they appear as if they are “‘barely touching and visibly wincing.’” Their love slowly dies and the marriage becomes a loveless practical arrangement for the sake of stability, financial support, and their two children. Katya poetically reflects on their falling out of love: “A few weeks before we left Russia, the love was definitely there. A few months after we arrived in the US, it was definitely not. We lost it somewhere between these two points. I like to think that it didn’t survive the transatlantic flight. There is something bitterly poetic about that. The love that crumbled in the altitude. Evaporated under pressure. Suffocated because of the lack of oxygen. Got vacuum-sucked down the plane’s human-waste line into a two-hundred-gallon tank.” Their love cannot endure their transplantation to America. Katya and Len’s American selves cannot love each other as well as their Russian selves. It is a young, innocent love that never matures but dissipates when both parties have become old.

The cold, interred love of her marriage lies in contrast with the heady, fervent, end-of-the-world love Katya shares with B., Boris Markovich. She is only an adolescent when she first meets B. at a screening of the film Mirror in a local high school. She immediately obsesses over B. despite his wife and son. She realizes her romance is hopelessly one-sided when B. emigrates with his family to America. B. reappears in her life as an impotent patient to a charlatan doctor at a Brooklyn office where Katya works as an English teacher. Both are already married, but they gradually enter into a romance and develop an intense affair. It is interrupted and dissolved when their spouses discover evidence of their adultery. Their love is the most impossible but also the most profound and most authentic, a love for which each has waited his entire life. It is the closest realization to Katya’s ideal of real love. She feels the “genuine hunger” for B.’s presence that she observed in her parents’ letters. In a modern parallel to those letters, she and B. write to each other hundreds of continuous emails a day detailing everything from the minutiae of the day, childhood memories, people in their lives, and to of course, sex and love. It is as if Katya inherited her parents’ penchant for epistolary romance. She calls her husband Len but refers to Boris as B., an abbreviation that is literary, romantic, and also fragrant of forbidden love. The relationship is an intellectual connection that achieves a depth she never manages with her husband. She describes her love for B. in mathematical terms as a high-dimensional space, something existing beyond her current reality. She imagines it as an “emerging new world,” one that contains a love that “becomes so vast that it opens into an entire new dimension so vast that it opens into an entire new dimension, dwarfing all the worlds that existed in your life before you fell in love.”

One of their moments of deep intimacy occurs when Boris recites to her the lines of a Joseph Brodsky love poem. It is an affecting scene whose emotional pitch rises to a religious intensity:

He leaned in and half said, half whispered the first lines: ‘My dear late at night today, I went outside to get a breath of fresh air.’ This sounded so intimate that I had to look away. I listened to the rest of the poem while staring at B.’s chest, at the frayed edge of his leather jacket, the round leather buttons, at some sort of silver chain stuck in the opening of his shirt. This was the first time that I ever got a Brodsky poem. And this was the first time I was deeply moved by a poem at all.

The scene is reminiscent of the romantic, fateful encounter between Vera and Vladimir Nabokov, when Vera recited from memory one of Nabokov’s own love poems to the writer at an emigre ball in Berlin. However, unlike the enduring love of the Nabokovs, Katya’s affair is doomed by B.’s inability to leave his wife. Katya is willing to commit, while B. ultimately decides he cannot. In the novel, most forms of romantic love are destructive rather than constructive, contingent on favorable circumstances rather than unconditional, fleeting rather than enduring, and always vulnerable to changes of heart.

Katya confesses that her intention for writing the novel is to fully understand her mother’s obscure notes to her final textbook. Katya also confesses to be something an authorial stand-in when she includes a photograph of a woman resembling the author during a tryst with one of her lovers. She writes, “I can’t resist. But I’m making it really small and barely legible to preserve the fictional status of this book.” It is a moment when the veneer of fictionality is lifted, perhaps resulting from a loss of emotional control. Immediately before the start of chapter twenty, Vapnyar includes one of Katya’s mother’s notecards, which describes the abstract concept of a topological net. Katya is confounded by the notecard and desperately tries to extract any sort of meaning. She is “looking for ways to use my mother’s notes to sort out the mess I made of my life. Looking for nonexistent connections between complex mathematical concepts and the events of my life. Delving so deep into advanced mathematics that I often lose my way. Really stretching it when I think that one or another theory almost fits.” Katya admits her purpose is not to discover some secret of her mother’s but to apply the mathematical concept as a means of making sense of her own troubled life. Katya betrays both the disorientation she feels at this point in her life and the helplessness at having lost her mother’s guidance.

Katya is mostly successful in applying the mathematical concepts to the events in her life. They often function as metaphors to describe unfamiliar internal states. For instance, she compares her love with B. to a high-dimensional state and her simultaneous lives with her husband and B. to a mathematician’s drawings of compartmentalized spaces. In other cases, mathematical theories are literally used to clarify the progression of relationships. One notecard, entitled “fun with graphs,” states “if you can’t determine the exact moment of the event, try to find the last defined moment before the event, and the first that comes after.” Katya applies the concept in her relationship with Len by finding the last moment when their love was definitely present and then the first moment when it definitely disappeared in order to locate the moment when their love started to die. Her mother’s mathematical concepts become a logical means to express highly abstract romantic emotions. They function as a private language of love and grief, like the entries of a coded diary. The notecards are the only remnant of her mother and Katya poignantly substitutes them for her mother’s advice—they become the moral and spiritual guide for negotiating her disintegrating romantic life. The novelistic device risks becoming cheap or forced but because of its urgency, its poetry, and its cleverness, it functions instead as a sly metafictional commentary on the main narrative.

Like Barthes’ Mourning Diary, Vapnyar’s poignant, sensitively observed novel can be read as an act of demystification, a study of lost love. It is an attempt to understand love that has departed whether because of betrayal or loss of feeling. Katya discovers that the logic of her mother’s mathematics allows her to rationalize the tragic events of her life and cope with the trauma of loss. The novel ultimately describes a coming-of-age, a woman’s disillusionment regarding romantic love. It is about the coming to terms with the reality of love, with the fact that it is not just ecstasy but also despair, that it is as damning as it is miraculous. It can vastly enlarge one’s interior life but also consume it like a cancer, as if it were an “affection that grew too large, its cells multiplying with amazing speed, forming growths that kept getting larger and larger, taking up the space reserved for the good working organs, pressing on them, squeezing them out, not letting them work.”

Darren Huang is a writer based in Manhattan.