by Susan Sechrist
“Go Figure” is a regular feature at Bloom that highlights and celebrates the interdependence and integration of math and literature, and that will “chip away at the cult of youth that surrounds mathematical and scientific thinking.” Read the inaugural feature here.
So, I had a plan a few months ago for how I was going to share the second half of The Hyperbola Stories, an academic project that I worked on with my friend and colleague, Rachel Horst. Rachel and I used a mathematical figure—the rectangular hyperbola and its inverse, the lemniscate (which looks like an infinity symbol)—as inspiration for each of us to write a short story. We swapped our stories and each of us “hyperbolized” the other’s in our own way, refiguring it into a new work using individual and arbitrary methods to read, analyze and rewrite. We discovered some very interesting things, which I had planned to share and frame using works from established scions like Jorge Luis Borges and exciting contemporary writers like Ian Williams and Rivka Galchen. I was going to explore ideas of materiality and representation; how writing, like any art or science, can become an act of inquiry; how entangled and self-replicating fiction can be, especially in the hands of two academics.
But then, both Rachel and I had to deal with pressing family issues. The pandemic and its economic challenges and social upheaval stretched on. For me personally, disconnection and loneliness came coupled (lemniscatically, I might add) with great bursts of creativity, but my intellectual motivation had been set adrift. I veered away from academic analysis and literary craft in favor of writing some decidedly non-academic, non-literary pieces. I worked on a fantasy romance adventure novel. I wrote an experimental short story about a family funeral.
Rachel became enmeshed in her comprehensive exams, a brutal stage in the doctoral process, because she is a much more focused and energized and committed student—I hate her for that (no, not really—but yes, I do). We disconnected as so many people have in this environment of health anxiety, family overload, overwhelming political mayhem, online toxicity disorder (too much Zoom-ing or doom-scrolling), and looming economic uncertainty, ours or that of friends and loved ones. Everything around us was tightening and pulling us back: the borders are closed, and our faces are covered. Behind this necessary cocoon—we are, after all, working to keep our families, communities, and society as healthy as we can—we are incubating in whatever ways will eventually feed the new life on the other side of this crisis. We are drawing and redrawing the lemniscate, turning and looping in our own constrained little spaces, just waiting for when the grid is reopened, for when we can bust out and use all that energy we have stored to build our expansive hyperbolic curves, those big open arms that reach out to infinity, that can embrace anything and everything.
It all sounds good. It sounds like I’m optimistic and patient and innovative. But on the best days it feels like a muddle and on the tough days it feels like chaos. Rachel and I started this project together as a way to connect and develop and experiment with intersections, something we just don’t really have right now. We started collaborating in the old world—over coffee or beer and yam fries at the graduate student pub. Then, the new contagious world clamped down and we strategized over phone and Zoom calls. Our presentation paper was accepted at a conference, which was going to be held in Prague (wee!) but then was rapidly moved to an online format (I’m glad it wasn’t cancelled altogether, but, crap!). While I’m really pleased and proud of what we presented at the virtual conference, our continued experiment is on hold like so many parts of our lives. We are looping back and forth in our own quarantined lobes. And that lemniscate is losing its figural and metaphorical charm, quite frankly.
I can do some of what I planned.
I can show how Rachel and I interrupted our own original short stories with intersections that led us down intriguing Borgesian forking paths, but that were grounded simultaneously to the first iteration of each story. For me, these interruptions and intersections felt like mathematical derivatives. When I was learning calculus eons ago, I envisioned a derivative as a moment in the life of a mathematical function. For a simple function, like a parabola, a figure which is numerous in everyday life—think of power lines stretching across the landscape or how a necklace hangs between your fingers before you put it on—the derivative is a simplified equation that describes how that parabolic shape changes over time. The derivative allows us to pick any point on that curve and know its rate of change, something that probably isn’t important for your necklace, but is crucial for designing a ballistic trajectory or landing a probe on Mars (Yay, Perseverance!). In writing, the word “derivative” has negative connotations ranging from the lazy and unimaginative to bordering on the plagiaristic; but mathematically, a derivative is a powerful insight, a building block or a genetic slice. It reveals what is going on in a complex and complicated function at any moment in time.
But how to identify mathematical derivatives in a fictional story? What qualifies for “rate of change” in a plot or a character’s motivation or movement through a scene? I was going to have to compare not just apples to oranges, but orange juice to apple pie. Whatever method I devised was going to be arbitrary; not very scientific. But then, this is an experiment; art as inquiry; disassembly and reassembly to challenge the material culture and to challenge our process of assembling meaning in the first place.
The method I developed was a mix: offirst, rawI did a text analysis to arrive at frequently used words. Then, I categorized those words into various groups, including objects, places, actions, qualifiers, and emotions. Finally, I selected one word from each group using a random number generator.
I arrived at: memory, children, city, little, and eyes.
These were the derivatives, the points in time, of our stories. From here, I went back through the version of my story, Fantasy Forward, that Rachel had hyperbolized and my version of Rachel’s story, Remarkable Curves, that I had hyperbolized. I identified sentences that contained these word-derivatives, memory, children, city, little, and eyes.
I thought this list was pretty thrilling. We’d created some weird, rich combinations by twisting and breaking the original stories, by shifting the variables and adding in our own unexplainable random acts of being both reader and author. We re-authored. We were chaos creating something emergent just by playing with the elements. We were like weather systems. We made tiny little storms.
My last step was to take these tiny storms, these odd jumbles of intriguing narrative derivations, and create a final combined microfiction and see if some internal logic persisted, see if it could survive on its own. It only took me about 15 minutes to puzzle together the pieces and while they didn’t fit seamlessly, they made a crazy kind of sense that felt, well, mysteriously algorithmic, like we’d tapped into some secret second nature that hides inside narrative.
I found this resulting intertwined microfiction surprisingly cogent and compelling. But probably what was most interesting was how readily the content at this end stage of manipulation and interpretation fit together—it seemed richer, more ripe and fertile, more malleable and yet dense with very particular and definitive meaning. Tearing it apart didn’t diminish it, maybe because Rachel and I were informed by the original stories and guided by them; that mindful underpinning gave us freedom to experiment. It felt holographic—as if the intent of the original story was stored in every derivative of it. No matter how much we carved it up and refigured it, we could still see the ghost of its original form. It’s hard to explain, which is what made it so much fun to do; despite our attempts to intellectualize, analyze, and mathematize, (or maybe because of those attempts), the ephemeral quality, the enchantment, is still there.
Narrative wants us to play with it, take it apart, put it back together. Of course, this is what we do as writers all the time—our own work is the hyperbolized result of other works that we’ve read and digested and taken apart in our own heads. Now that would be an intriguing bit of psychological and intellectual and linguistic analysis—determining mathematically which derivatives from which stories I’ve read in my lifetime are contributing to my own fiction. That math would be very, very hard.
Another consequence of lockdown and quarantine: I’m unable to finish anything.
Okay, saying “unable” is a cop-out. I’m unwilling. Something about having piles of books partly read and projects partly done in a dusty stasis just fits the synecdochical life we all seem to be living right now. Life is incomplete and partial and unfinished. The trajectory these days is less a predictable parabolic curve and more like a stunted and broken line.
I’ve been reading Ian Williams’ Reproduction and Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. I’ve also picked up Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Ted Chiang’s Exhalation. They are all sitting here on my desk awaiting some kind of hyperbolizing; the first three are in various stages of read-ness, the last two completely uncracked. I’d hoped to hyperbolize and derive them in this installment, to reveal their compelling holographic intersections and find their hidden narrative code. But I just haven’t done it.
At least, I haven’t done it in any measurable way, yet.
Susan Sechrist is a freelance technical writer and PhD student at the University of British Columbia, striving to better integrate her creative and mathematical sides. She published her first short story, the mathematically-themed “A Desirable Middle,” both in Bloom and the Journal for Humanistic Mathematics.
Feature photo courtesy of Flickr.