a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

The Cubist and the Madman (1991)
Robert Metzger

Contributed by Vijay Fafat

This is one whacked-out ride of a story, very well written for its purpose, completely disorienting in its mood and descriptions, and achieving its purpose the way a cubist painting would. Rather than summarize it, a sequence of excerpts might showcase this story better

Dr. Lyle Thaddius has been a practicing psychiatrist for 30 years, dedicated to resolving the inner conflicts and demons of all who need help. He takes on a new patient, Juan Gris, who insists on the doctor visiting his house for the counseling sessions, at 3 times the normal fees. Gris, it turns out, is an extremely old man, past 100 likely, who lives in what is described as a “madman’s house”.

(quoted from The Cubist and the Madman)

“The room was an immense cavern — a cavern that at one time had been the fashionable sitting room of an Eastside brownstone. Dr. Thaddius was certain that it had once been a place of velvet drapes, Persian carpets, warmed brandy snifters, and the stuffed corpses of anything that once galloped across an African savanna.

That was all gone.

Even its echo was dead.

What filled this place now had been touched by insanity, stained with something that had been twisted past anything recognizable as being human. It was the home of a madman. The place was a cavern whose walls were covered in shattered mirrors. Infinite reflections filled the place, all of them cracked, all of them splintered. But the mirrors were almost invisible.

It was what they reflected that filled the room.


Paintings hung down from the ceiling, supported by nearly invisible wires. Each canvas was splattered with a nightmare, a slash of rainbow color, angular and savage, filled with images of people and places, distorted and twisted, as if shredded by surgical steel and then reassembled by a blind person.”

Thaddius feels a bit of vertigo in the place.

(quoted from The Cubist and the Madman)

“Something hot and sharp jabbed behind Dr. Thaddius. eyes — something that, just for a moment, felt like a surgeon’s scalpel. He looked away from the colors, from the shattered landscapes and people, but, more important, away from his own reflected image, one that was just as broken and twisted as any of those that filled the paintings. The surgeon’s knife vanished. But the memory of the pain lingered.”

Gris is himself a character walked out of nightmares, in his dressing, his speech, his idiosyncacies. He mentions to Thaddius that he has become “lost”, and Thaddius feels a frightening, visceral connection to Gris:

(quoted from The Cubist and the Madman)

“As Dr. Thaddius wondered what Juan Gris could be hiding behind those mirrored lenses, he felt something itch deep within his head, something that hadn’t itched for years. He found himself curious — actually interested. And for just a moment, that frightened him. But he buried the fear. Years of practice had taught him that skill.

“Could you elaborate on that?” asked Dr. Thaddius, the phrase coming effortlessly, with Pavlovian ease. “Just how have you become lost?”

He stared at the deep, paint-filled creases in Juan Gris’s face, and at his yellowed, almost brown, teeth.

“Directions change. North won’t stay north. It twists and turns. North can become south, south can become east.” He blinked his eyes and pushed his ketchup-bottle glasses up the bridge of his prune-like nose. “But sometimes north becomes up, or even left. Once it even became blue.”

In less than an hour in that room, Thaddius also starts losing his sense of direction, perspective, and reality. Later at home, he remember Gris from a long time ago:

(quoted from The Cubist and the Madman)

“Yesterday the name of Juan Gris meant nothing. And that’s because I’d buried it, buried it deep. And when I met the old man, of course I didn’t recognize him. I’d never actually seen his face before. What Vd once seen, years ago, had been what he’d seen, the way that he’d viewed the world. I'd seen his art. I'd collected his lithographs. But all that was a lifetime ago. Juan Gris was a Cubist painter, a contemporary of Picasso. His paintings still lived, but the man himself had supposedly died almost seventy years ago. If he were in fact still alive, he would be more than a hundred years old now. The old man I saw yesterday must have been more than a hundred years old. Does that make them one and the same? I don't know. Gris was the purest of the Cubists. Before becoming a painter he was trained as an engineer and a mathematician. He attempted to view the world from a mathematical perspective, from a perspective that wasn’t touched by the human mind.”

In the subsequent meetings, things start becoming weirder, as well as clearer…

(quoted from The Cubist and the Madman)

“Dr. Thaddius's hand shook. Taking the paper and staring at it, all he saw was what looked like a random swirl of charcoal streaks. But after several seconds, he could see a pattern. Meaning coalesced from chaos. It was a drawing of Gris's living room, a room that was twisted, bent at odd angles, and turning back on itself until the floor and the ceiling merged together — but it was the room that Dr.Thaddius now found himself in.The drawing looked as if the room had been viewed from under water, simultaneously seen from multiple perspectives. In the center of the room sat two men. One was Juan Gris, but not the Juan Gris whom Dr. Thaddius now sat across from. This Juan Gris was young, his face smooth and his hair dark. There were no glasses, just black little eyes, piercing eyes that seemed to stare through the man who sat across from him.

Dr. Thaddius could not SEE the second man.

He was broken and torn — actually twisted — with his arms and legs bent at impossible angles. His face was built up of ragged slabs that were stitched together. Teeth that looked like shards of ice showed through transparent cheeks, while what remained of his left ear hung by a strip of bloody skin from the side of his neck. The eyelids were shut, but the eyes still saw, somehow turned around, able to look through the BACK of a shattered skull…”

He once again thought about the equations, about HIS equations, that had filled a thesis thirty years ago. They showed how fragile reality could be, how formless it truly was. They showed how it could be changed.”

Turns out that Thaddius himself was a mathematician 30 years ago, and a brilliant one, at that. He had discovered mathematical equations which enabled him to view reality from multiple perspectives, aided by what might be higher-dimensional mathematics (reminding me of Charles Hinton’s real-life experiments to train his brain to see the fourth spatial dimension by using shades and colors)

(quoted from The Cubist and the Madman)

“The Cubists felt their way in an intuitive manner. They tried to see the world without the preconceptions that humanity carries. They tried to look at the world from God’s perspective, seeing all sides simultaneously, all times simultaneously. But their vision was limited. They didn't have the mathematical tools that are at your disposal”

Thaddius started using the equations, which somehow enabled him to control the reality and spacetime around him. Or so he thought. But he could not really be a master of it all, and the mathematics drove him mad, to the point of attempted suicide…

(quoted from The Cubist and the Madman)

“Gris's living room was a spinning collage of paintings and mirrors. He saw everything, simultaneously, from all perspectives. He saw it, but his brain could not interpret it. He saw more than his brain had ever been designed to accept. He had once believed that he could master the equations that defined reality. But they had mastered him. “But you weren’t, ” said Gris, his voice echoing from the mirrored maelstrom. “After you discovered the math, understood that it was possible to manipulate reality, you found that knowledge crushing, almost killing. You then hid from yourself, hid from the equations, and started on the path that would make you Dr. Lyle Thaddius, the good doctor who would help so many discover themselves, discover those secrets hidden deep within themselves.” Dr. Thaddius knew that there was only one way out. Only one way to cope. He tried to stand. But standing implied knowledge of up and down, the relationship between floor and feet. It was there, buried somewhere in the torrent of information that now flooded over him, but he couldn’t see it, couldn’t pull it out. He had waited too long. He was too lost. T Even death was now beyond his grasp.

“But you couldn’t rediscover yourself, hiding in your new world. For thirty years you couldn’t find yourself. But the equations were still with you, chewing at you from the inside, making your existence something hollow and lifeless. You knew that, understood that you were not really alive, so you called on me, wanting me to help show you the way back. There is no returning!”


“Thirty years ago you lost yourself, lost your way. Instead of pursuing the math, understanding what it was that you’d discovered, you ran and hid, building a life that was dead and empty. But you can go BACK, can touch that place again and choose the path that you didn’t take.”

It is finally clear that this particular “Gris” is a creation of Thaddius’ own mind, sprung out of his subconscious, following a necessary expedient, “Physician, heal thyself!”.

Thaddius’s hidden knowledge about mathematics and the control it gives him over reality gets him back into a past where he can start afresh…

A brilliant story which must be enjoyed for its writing.

"The Cubist and the Madman' was published in the March/April 1991 issue of Aboriginal Science Fiction.

(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 Cubist and the Madman
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Aurora in Four Voices by Catherine Asaro
  2. And He Built a Crooked House by Robert A. Heinlein
  3. Shakespeare Predicted it All by Dietmar Dath
  4. Alone with You in the Ether: A Love Story by Olivia Blake
  5. Incomplete Proofs by John Chu
  6. Approaching Perimelasma by Geoffrey A. Landis
  7. Snow by Geoffrey A. Landis
  8. Feigenbaum Number by Nancy Kress
  9. Border Guards by Greg Egan
  10. One by George Alec Effinger
Ratings for The Cubist and the Madman:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.


GenreScience Fiction,
MotifMental Illness,
MediumShort Stories,

Home All New Browse Search About

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)