Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Robert Littell: The Visiting Professor

Sometimes a book proves to be disappointing; and this is not, I hasten to say, necessarily the writer's fault. Sometimes it is just that we, the reader, have selected the wrong book. Or we have approached it under a misapprehension. That, I suspect, is what happened to me with Robert Littell's The Visiting Professor.

Robert Littell is a familiar name from the past. He wrote, among a dozen or so other things, The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, and that was, I seem to remember, a halfway decent thriller. He also has some excellent reviews to show for books such as The Once and Future Spy and An Agent in Place. So I suppose I picked up The Visiting Professor imagining that it would be in the espionage mode.

Well, it ain't. I should have known that from the publisher alone: Faber. By and large Faber don't do spy stories. Far too vulgar.

The Visiting Professor proves to be about just what the title suggests: one Lemuel Falk, a Russian theoretical chaoticist who wins an invitation to join the faculty of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Chaos-Related Studies in upstate New York. And, er, that's about it. Plus the various complications which ensue. In short, it is not really my kind of book. And if I staggered through to the end I did so because of rare titbits thrown to someone such as I along the way.

For instance, Lemuel Falk becomes friendly with a Rebbe (aka Rabbi), who tells him that Yahweh is high on randomness. And he gives examples, drawn from Exodus 19 and elsewhere. For someone who has spent a lot of time writing about Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness (see post on 28 September and earlier), this is an idea not without interest.

There are other ideas which also give pause for thought. On page 145, for instance, we learn that one of the constituents of pure, unadulterated randomness is the occasional flash of what Lemuel calls 'random order'. If you work out the value of pi to around three hundred million decimal places (insufficient room on the back of an envelope) you will come across eight eights in succession; these are examples of random order in an otherwise purely random sequence.

Pure unadulterated randomness, by the way, is not just the work of God. According to Lemuel, it is God.

On page 185 we learn, by implication, that Agatha Christie was a randomness simulator, in that she had a plot (don't ask me which book, but I think it was one of Agatha's) which featured a number of apparently random murders. But in fact, of course, the murders were carefully planned to appear random; the killer wanted to bump off one of the victims, but made that victim part of a series of seemingly motiveless murders in order to disguise the motive for that one particular death.

Should you find yourself investigating a series of such murders, you can tell whether they are truly random, and hence the work of a nutcase, or not, by checking for random repetitions. In a truly random series of murders, two of the victims are likely to have the same colour shirt, or be the same age; purely by accident, so to speak. If no such correlations exist, it is probable that the crimes are the work of someone seeking to simulate random murder. So, once you have reached that conclusion, you should then look for real and valid reasons for one of the victims to end up dead. Find out who benefits from that death and you have your killer.

All of which, I appreciate, is pretty slim pickings for someone who is looking for another thriller from Robert Littell. On the other hand, if you are in search of that high-flying literary object, a novel of ideas, then The Visiting Professor might just be for you.

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