a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Engineer of Moonlight (1979)
Don DeLillo
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

The aging mathematician Eric Lighter spends time with his assistant (James), wife (Maya), and ex-wife (Diana) who are all staying together at his home in this two act play.

Diana is shocked to learn that Eric has recently spent a good deal of time in a mental institution without her knowledge and seemingly wants to learn more about his situation, but there is little revelation or plot development throughout the play. (In an interview, DeLillo says that the character of Diana begins to understand more throughout the play, but that the audience never does.) Instead, the conversation primarily consists of witty exchanges on such subjects as education, religion, the need for sunscreen, society's way of handling people with mental disorders, and some "cringy" discussions about race. A relatively large portion of the play is taken up by the bizarre board game the four play whose rules are the source of the title:

(quoted from The Engineer of Moonlight)

ERIC: Now watch. This is tricky. The Woodcutter [indicates Maya] becomes Painted Skull. We're getting very esoteric here. We're bordering on the mystical. White Dog [indicates Eric] becomes the Engineer of Moonlight.

In many ways, the play reminded me of David Auburn's Proof. (Though this is much older, and so if there was any direct influence it was that Auburn was inspired by this.). For instance, consider this quote in which the assistant jokingly answers Diana's question of how he and Maya are helping to organize the elder mathematician's nonsensical ramblings:

(quoted from The Engineer of Moonlight)

JAMES: We organize his formulations. Type, file, so on. And we transcribe his rantings and ravings. They don't always coincide. I specialize in rantings. Maya does ravings. We're way behind on the tapes. You can help us there. When you're not doing the laundry.

Mathematics plays no role in regards to the plot besides the stereotypes that connect mathematics with both intelligence and insanity. But, there are a few quotes of interest here and there:

  • The play opens with a discussion of the fact that Eric Lighter now spends a lot of time counting aloud:

    (quoted from The Engineer of Moonlight)

    DIANA: He counts.

    JAMES: I almost see the point. Natural numbers. There's a curious satisfaction in counting. It's something we retain, isn't it?

    DIANA: You find it touching.

    JAMES: I almost see how someone can believe in that.

    DIANA: How is it a question of believing? Belief. He is sitting in there counting. He counts through much ofthe night, evidently. Strange, no? A trifle worrisome. At least I think so. It seems to me.

    JAMES: Think of it as a formula. It's a recitation, a sacred formula. Eight hundred and seventeen thousand, four hundred and eleven. Eight hundred and seventeen thousand, four hundred and twelve. You see how reassuring.

  • Mathematics even arises in this conversation, whose purpose mainly seems to be to address the jealousies between the members of Eric Lighter's coterie:

    (quoted from The Engineer of Moonlight)

    MAYA: I hear him.

    JAMES: She hears him.

    [Maya goes inside. Diana slowly applies lotion to the back of her hands, the insides of her arm.]

    They communicate beyond the range of other intelligent beings.

    DIANA: As you and he used to do.

    JAMES: In what sense?

    DIANA: In the sense that I didn't always know what you were talking about.

    JAMES: That was mathematics.

  • When Eric begins sharing his theory about the way society now lets "madmen" roam the streets, he says:

    (quoted from The Engineer of Moonlight)

    This is what happens to broken-down mathematicians. We become visionaries.


  • And finally, Diana shares her own thoughts on mathematics (with which I completely disagree, but anyway):

    (quoted from The Engineer of Moonlight)

    DIANA: To me, mathematics was always an occasion for faith. I could penetrate just so deeply and then no more. I could understand historical developments well enough. Even the philosophy after a fashion, and the abstract nature of the thing, and the logical foundations. And that nothing useful ever comes out of pure mathematics. You use it for nothing.

    And that there's no such thing as a mathematician being good or competent or proficient. You are great, aren't you, or nothing. Past a certain point, there's no getting better. No working up to some isolated moment of power and beauty. It's there, isn't it, or not there.

This play was written between DeLillo's other work of mathematical fiction (Ratner's Star, 1978) and his break-out success (White Noise, 1985). It has never been professionally performed on stage, but was published in the Cornell Review (Winter 1979 pp 21-47). I am grateful to Vijay Fafat who brought it to my attention in March 2024 and the Interlibrary Loan Staff at the College of Charleston for obtaining a copy for me to read.

(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 Engineer of Moonlight
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Proof by David Auburn
  2. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
  3. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
  4. Ratner's Star by Don DeLillo
  5. Homage by Ross Kagan Marks (director) / Mark Medoff (screenplay)
  6. Jumpers by Tom Stoppard
  7. Incompleteness by Apostolos Doxiadis
  8. Art Thou Mathematics? by Charles Mobbs
  9. Two Trains Running by August Wilson
  10. A Disappearing Number by Simon McBurney
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MotifMental Illness,

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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)