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The Wonderful Dog Suit (1964)
Donald Hall

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

I have to say this very short story (published in The Carleton’s Miscellany in Spring 1964) merges magic realism and horror quite effortlessly with child-like humor so that by the end of it, you are not sure how you should react. Is it a parable? A dream? A farcical pastiche? I was reminded of Kafka’s first line from “Metamorphosis”, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from his uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect”…

Lester was a very intelligent nine-year old boy who is good at mathematics and could quickly solve complex mathematical questions (here, the author inserts a nonsensical formula of symbols which is hilarious and might remind one of Fritz Karinthy’s drama, “The Refund” and the comical mathematical problem posed therein).

(quoted from The Wonderful Dog Suit)

He was especially good at mathematics. “Hey, Lester,” his father would say to him, “if

Lester would come back with an answer, quick as Jackie Robinson.”

So when he graduated into fifth grade, his uncle gave him a dog suit which he loved so much he started wearing it all the time, perfecting his “dog act” performed in front of all the guests. In time, this act got quite complex and realistic.

One day, while he was performing his doggy act to no particular end in the local park, some kids mistook him to be a real dog and carried him home. Lester the dog was not treated well in the house and decided he did not like it in there. But he found that his suit zipper was stuck and he could no longer come out of the dog-costume. He tried to convey to the neighborhood family that he was not really a dog but a child, speaking out about address, his uncle, and how the zipper was stuck in his dog-suit. Which then led to the finale:

(quoted from The Wonderful Dog Suit)

He said, “I realize this will come as a shock to you, but I am not a dog at all. I am a boy named Lester and I live at 2331 Hummingbird Crescent and I am entering the fifth grade next autumn. Uncle Fred gave me this dog suit but the zipper is unfortunately stuck. May I inquire directions to my house? I want to see my mother and father again.

The mother clapped her hands together and said , “Listen, he’s trying to talk!”

Contributed by Vijay Fafat and Alex Kasman

A Discussion on the Nature of Mathfiction:

The following conversation took place via e-mail in March 2024 as we debated whether to add The Wonderful Dog Suit to this database of mathematical fiction.


I’m not sure this qualifies. The main plot has nothing to do with math, as far as I can tell. It is mentioned near the beginning that the boy is good at solving math problems, and the author gives an example of one (which doesn’t really make any sense, as you point out). If that was the only math content, then I would probably not consider it to be “mathematical fiction” because this is just a character trait which is mentioned but not relevant to anything. But then, another algebra problem (a slightly more sensible one) appears near the end. Presumably, the boy recites this equation out loud when he is stuck in the dog suit, but I’m not sure why he does. Moreover, the family doesn’t seem to understand any of the words he is saying so it doesn’t affect the plot anyway. Am I missing some significance of the math?


There are many mathfiction stories where taking away the math leads to a collapse of the entire plot, but many more where mathematics is incidental (though such stories are still included as “mathfiction” since they were fiction, did involve some math, even if not central, and got published into the canon). These latter-type of low-math-content stories fall in quite a large grey zone (e.g. the story “Three Plates on the Table” by Jose Maria Gironella would work just fine without the protagonist being a math teacher).

I think “The Wonderful Dog Suit” qualifies as mathfiction for a few different reasons. The story would not change much if the boy were reciting Milton’s poetry instead of mathematical formulae. However, the author made a choice to put in some mathematical bits, including as a punch-line. It is a very short, 2-page story where explicit mathematical symbolic strings appear at the beginning and the end. So the mathematical assertion is not swamped out by a completely disconnected story, as is the case for other, longer works. And the "math" in here is very obviously meant as a farce, as is the full story. This, IMO, puts it a very different genre, like a mini-Kafka, unlike some story about the fourth dimension which might pretend to be serious but is just silly. I did not find this story's silliness "silly" but more intentionally comedic. Such examples are not very common.

The boy, when he is stuck in the suit, does speak proper English and gives his name, address and so on. But the world does not understand his "bow wow". So he resorts to what he believes is his best quality – a precocious ability to do mathematics. I suppose one could take it as a metaphor of the inscrutability of mathematics to many but I don't think that was necessarily the author’s intention. It just suffices that the presence of mathematics makes it a bit more hilarious. The question of "why" the boy tries to recite a math formula may not even be relevant in such a story any more than asking how or why Kafka's man turned into an insect in "Metamorphosis".


The reason that I consider the Gironella story worth including in the database, even though he could have been a teacher of something else without necessarily changing the plot, is the way it uses a mathematical stereotype. In that case, it is the negative stereotype that people who do math at a blackboard are sad/lonely people and (like in the movie, “A Beautiful Mind”) prone to imagining people who aren’t really there. But, it would also be the case if it was a positive stereotype such as that mathematicians are “smart”. In this case, I don’t really see what the boy being good at math has to do with the rest of the story. It doesn’t seem to have any significance or involve any stereotypes that I recognize. If it did imply something about the inscrutability of mathematics, then I would include it for that reason. But, the fact that the family didn’t understand even the ordinary sentences the boy said undercuts that interpretation.

Although I can see your point about the two mathematical expressions making up such a large percentage of this short story, I am still unsure about it. Let’s go with your idea of adding it to the database and also going public with these discussions about whether it should be included.

(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to The Wonderful Dog Suit
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Say Wen by Ellis Parker Butler
  2. Getting Rid of Fluff by Ellis Parker Butler
  3. Porter Piper by Anonymous
  4. A Fable for Moderns by Lord Dunsany
  5. Been a long, long time by R.A. Lafferty
  6. The Sinister Researches of C.P. Ransom by Homer C. Nearing Jr.
  7. The Gigantic Fluctuation by Arkady Strugatsky / Boris Strugatsky
  8. De Impossibilitate Vitae and Prognoscendi by Stanislaw Lem
  9. I of Newton by Joe Haldeman
  10. The Tale of the Big Computer (aka The End of Man?) by Hannes Alfven (writing as Olof Johannesson)
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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)