[Pushkin Press; 2023]

Reviewers of Benjamín Labatut’s The MANIAC tend to begin with something other than the book under review. In The Washington Post, Becca Rothfeld opens with Kleist. For The New York Times, Tom McCarthy with Conrad. And over at 4Columns, Sasha Frere-Jones, for some reason: “a terminally online person making Barbie and Oppenheimer fuck behind the Bitcoin ATM.” Me? I start with this august company.

It’s difficult, it seems, to discuss Labatut’s book directly. It is easier to talk about almost anything besides The MANIAC. And yet, reviewers usually hit the same beats: It’s a triptych—a jarring opening with Paul Ehrenfest’s filicide-cum-suicide during the rise of Nazi Germany, a long middle section that narrates the life of mathematician, physicist, and computer scientist John von Neumann in the shifting voices of those who knew and loved and hated him, a final section on the Google-developed AI AlphaGo’s defeat of Lee Sedol, the greatest Go player who ever lived—that narrates the invention of modern computing and artificial intelligence against the violence and turmoil of twentieth-century intellectual, political, and scientific history. They discuss the book’s voices, either to praise them or find them lacking; they discuss its lofty scientific heights and its philosophical meditations; they remark on the difficulty of classifying this “nonfiction novel” and Labatut’s rejection of the “novel”; Sebald comes up.

The MANIAC’s uneasy relationship to both fiction and nonfiction offers one explanation for the difficulty reviewers (myself included) have found with approaching the novel directly as well as for their rote account of its shape, structure, and feeling. That generic indeterminacy marks one of The MANIAC’s most interesting interventions in contemporary writing. “This book is a work of fiction based on fact,” Labatut writes in the acknowledgements that conclude the book. Compare to those of his other English-language publication, When We Cease to Understand the World: “This is a work of fiction based on real events.” The differences are slight, but they matter. In The MANIAC, Labatut asserts the presence of “fact” rather than “real events” (or “hechos reales” in Labatut’s original). There are many ways to compose a work of fiction, and there are many ways that its fiction can depart from either “fact” or “real events.” What’s more, “real events” hardly encompass the realm of “fact”; there are many kinds of facts that are not events, real or not.

Labatut’s work presents an abiding concern with reason—its flaws and its limits. And he situates these meditations in narrowly fictionalized lives of historical figures that many would describe as “geniuses,” appended with words like “flawed,” “tortured,” or “mad.” These men, present for the breakthroughs and horrors of the twentieth century, work in fields such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, and computing, and their preoccupations are intellectual, theoretical, abstract. But their experience of their work is visceral, as in these moments from When We Cease to Understand the World: they feel “unbearable guilt” (“Prussian Blue”); they declare, “Doing mathematics is like making love” (“The Heart of the Heart”); they find equations “disgusting” (“When We Cease to Understand the World”); they are driven mad and to drink and to violence. Labatut indulges in the irony of the fact that the person who invented nitrogen fertilizer “was also the first man to create a weapon of mass destruction” (“The Night Gardener”) and that equations of general relativity might be solved from the trenches of the First World War (“Schwarzschild’s Singularity”). Fact is, real events are, if not stranger than fiction, certainly more baffling.

Labatut strings these lives together to tell a story that is more difficult to describe than a novel about a man or a group of men (in Labatut’s work, they’re almost always men). These men—Fritz Haber, Karl Schwarzschild, Shinichi Mochizuki, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Ehrenfest, John von Neumann, Lee Sedol, among others—are taken as Labatut’s protagonists, but the “fact” that motivates his narrative extends beyond any individual life. He narrates moments when the world comes apart, and if there is heroism in his stories, it is in the ingenuity of the attempts by which his genius men put it back together; if there is pathos, it is in their failure to do so:

He could no longer distinguish any type of reasonable order to the universe, no natural laws, no repeating patterns, just a vast, sprawling world without measure, riddled with chaos, infected by nonsense, and lacking any sort of meaningful intelligence behind it; he could perceive the rise of the irrational in the mindless chants of the Hitler Youth spilling over the radio waves, in the rants of warmongering politicians, and in the blind proponents of endless progress, but he could also distinguish it, ever more clearly, in the papers and lectures of his colleagues, brimming over with supposedly revolutionary ideas that he regarded as nothing but the industrialization of physics.

That’s Paul Ehrenfest, shortly before he would forgo his ability to reassemble the world and murder his autistic son before turning the gun on himself, fearing the Nazism that would destroy them both. But Ehrenfest’s individual turmoil quickly unfolds into a broader context. History textures science’s advances, as mindless chants appear alongside revolutionary ideas. Speeches and papers and radio waves and equations mix and mingle. When Ehrenfest turns his mind to fluid equations, the study of “the irregular and unpredictable behavior of turbulence, a law behind its irreducible randomness,” this pursuit seems less intellectual than political.

To many, John von Neumann (born Neumann János Lajos) seems like The MANIAC’s protagonist. He is the book’s most eminent “maniac,” a hard-drinking, fast-driving, cigar-smoking titan who worked across fields and solved complex problems with ease. Von Neumann was central, too, in creating the early computer known as The MANIAC (Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator and Computer: get it?), hence the all-caps in Labatut’s title. But the author evokes our contradictory world in which an all-too-awake reason produces monsters—what Ed Simon, reviewing the book for LARB, describes as “the United States’ antinomian rationalism, its instrumental, utilitarian, positivist, rapacious, anarchic logic that so often can appear as its exact opposite” —of which von Neumann might be only the closest human approximation and the MANIAC might be just one early technological iteration. Von Neumann was, after all, human and ended life “screaming in agony, lost in delirium, dying, just like any other man.” On the one hand, Labatut narrates a world that loses “reasonable order,” “natural laws,” “repeating patterns” and becomes “a vast, sprawling world without measure,” and on the other, he narrates this newfound chaos through a series of extraordinary figures who are “just like any other man.”

This world we have ceased to understand and the ordinary men who have wrest it from our understanding: this is the “fact” upon which The MANIAC is based. The book is necessarily a triptych because von Neumann, its ostensible center, exceeds and exemplifies the many men he is just like, but he is insufficient for Labatut’s narrative. As many reviewers have noted, there are moments when Labatut imbues von Neumann with near-superhuman abilities, as in a chapter titled “A god-shaped hole,” in which von Neumann’s mentor Gábor Szegő describes his sense of hopelessness seeing von Neumann, in spite of his brilliance, giddily fascinated with the technological marvels of Nazi tanks in a Berlin parade. Pages earlier, the Jewish Szegő urges the need for reverence in intellectual pursuits, warning that “mathematics is the closest we can come to the mind of Hashem.” His memories of von Neumann are filled with this sense of an asymptotic sublime: the closest we can come to god, to death, to horror, to salvation. The moments when von Neumann appears superhuman (not god, but god-shaped) are when the world becomes most loosened and approximate. Labatut does not narrate the world but the closest his figures can come to it. Part of these thinkers’ achievement was to construct this barrier between ourselves and the world as such; the new physics, pure mathematics discerned the abstract laws that structure the world, forces that can never be perceived yet intimately shape reality.

This gap explains why Labatut narrates the life of von Neumann through the perspective of others, such as Szegő. These shifting, contradictory voices provide, it turns out, not von Neumann but the closest we can come to him. Reviewers seem unable to agree whether this polyvocality results “in the run-ons that serve as Labatut’s default” (Frere-Jones) or a “tonal unevenness” (Adam Kirsch). No matter how one assesses it, the novel’s shifting voices are Labatut’s most compelling mechanism for articulating the contradictions that shaped the life, work, and legacy of von Neumann. In When We Cease to Understand the World, one can risk mistaking Labatut’s depiction of, say, Heisenberg’s madness for deification, but in the dissonant chorus of The MANIAC one cannot but hear the irony echoing out of the “god-shaped hole” that von Neumann left in the world.


For Labatut, the form of the novel is insufficient to the world-rending events of twentieth-century science, mathematics, war, and politics. “A novel to me is just the worst possible form,” he says in an interview. “If I was a dictator, I would outlaw them . . . People will call [The MANIAC] a novel, and I will be ashamed.” Tabling the strength of this reaction, we might ask what kind of book, work, or genre The MANIAC is—long-form prose fiction that implements multiple perspectives and voices, nevertheless loosely unified by a single narrative. Simon remarks on the miracle of this book at all, amidst a harsh “publishing ecosystem that all too often only rewards dry literary fiction or lowest-common-denominator genre fiction,” and he characterizes the book as “historical creative nonfiction, philosophical argument, or some conjunction of the two.” But I am interested in the inadequacy of the term novel even as the author claims its status as fiction. Labatut cops to fiction “based on fact,” but people will call it a novel, causing him shame. Is the shame his failing or ours, as readers? It is difficult to imagine what Labatut would find to reject in the novel, amidst the ubiquity of both the historical novel and autofiction, two attempts to intermix fact and fiction.

One possible objection might be the weak humanness of it all. Labatut hardly seems a techno-booster, but he has declared, in another interview, the need to resist the immiseration of the literary by the contemporary, the need to turn instead to the past and the future: “Especially now, when we’re so immersed in and invaded by the present. We have to resist that. Think of other times, other ways of being human.” Labatut’s most horrific writing depicts the achievements born from humanity’s weakness. Take the images that open When We Cease to Understand the World: the eve of Nuremberg, with Hermann Göring being weaned off dihydrocodeine, a drug whose effects we must turn to William Burroughs to understand, and the preceding nightmares of meth-fueled Nazi soldiers, who would “stay awake for weeks on end, fighting in a deranged state, alternating between manic furore and nightmarish stupor, with overexertion leading many to suffer attacks of irrepressible euphoria.” It’s horrifying because it’s true; it’s horrifying because it took immense effort, achievement, and ingenuity to make it so. For each scientific breakthrough, there are horrors. And there is the awe and stupidity of human responsibility.

Labatut’s work turns toward the past, as do many novels. But the novel as a form does so at a human scale. In The MANIAC, as Labatut approaches the present—via a series of 2010s Go matches between the master Lee Sedol and a new AI-driven computer program—he also departs from the scale of humanity from which he tried to wrest the life of von Neumann. In the final portion of his triptych, Labatut has chapter titles declare “Not of This World,” “God’s Touch,” and finally the epilogue, “The God of Go.” The novel, it seems, lacks the divinity that Labatut seeks to articulate. He writes the divine, however, not to exalt it—the divine yields as much horror as beauty—but to capture the force that structures the world we, humans, have built.

For Cleveland Review of Books, Ben Cosman suggests the danger of offloading human responsibility onto the near-divine powers of science. The MANIAC, for Cosman, “provide[s] individual retribution but offer[s] no suggestions for collective restraint; technological progress continues unabated.” Quoting the naturalist Loren Eiseley, Cosman warns of telling ourselves we are at the whim of “inevitable forces beyond human control.” But in my view, the problem is not the forces beyond control but the insistence on their inevitability. These forces beyond human control are created by human action. The lack of control is of our own making, one more man-made fiction. The MANIAC’s polyvocality is instructive in this regard. We receive no omniscient perspective, from outside the myopia of humanity or from within the inhuman, seemingly divine complexity of the MANIAC or, in the novel’s final section, the AI-driven AlphaGo. When Labatut writes in the third person, even that voice feels close, motivated, fascinated. But the refraction of voices teaches us not about individual retribution but its impossibility, about the closest we can come to individual agency.

Most of Labatut’s readers do not remember a world before modern computing and perhaps not before artificial intelligence. Fiction estranges our present by narrating its invention, its birth, its becoming fact. Labatut uses fiction’s tools even as he stays in fact’s proximity: the only fabricated worlds that concern Labatut are those we have collectively built. What do we make of a work of staggering scope that wields prose narrative to render seismic shifts of world history to explain and estrange our present perspective, that probes the depths of feeling and the limits of agency, that choreographs characters and voices, actions and events? What do we call that kind of thing? I don’t know about you, but to me, it sounds like a pretty good novel.

Adam Fales is a writer, editor, and graduate student living in Chicago. His work has appeared in, among other places, Chicago Review, AvidlyYale Review, and Dilettante Army.

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