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Nachman Burning (1998)
Leonard Michaels
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)

In this story, the reclusive UCLA mathematician Nachman, a recurring character in stories by Leonard Michaels, gets a haircut. He chooses a barber he knows to be terrible at cutting hair, but he goes for the companionship and especially the sexuality of the experience he knows he will enjoy in the shop of this petite, Vietnamese woman. He enjoys the way she touches his scalp, wets his hair, and occasionally has to lean against him. In fact, Nachman seems to realize that this is a bit perverse (actually, I might describe it as being more pathetic), and it is his own rationalizations and self-referential neuroses which make up much of the story. Unfortunately, he lets himself get carried away with his fantasies and does something he wishes he hadn't.

There are only two references to mathematics in the story. In one paragraph there is a long description of how he does his research on problems so difficult that they make him cry in isolation and sometimes in the middle of the night. (This explains why he does not care that the haircut will not look good in the end.) And as he moves from being passive to active about his fantasies, he is described as changing from "Nachman to the first power" into "Nachman to the second power".

For me, this story, which does nothing other than explore the fragile mental state of a character who is a mathematician (by the author's choice), is a source of concern. Nachman is an interesting, crazy character. If I was not a mathematician who monitors the portrayals of mathematicians in fiction, I would certainly enjoy this story and praise the author's writing ability. However, I always fear that the huge number of crazy mathematician characters in fiction will reinforce the false stereotype that real mathematicians are themselves mathematically unstable. Please do read this well written story, but keep in mind that it is fiction and you should not let it prejudice your view of real mathematicians.

Originally published in February 1998 New Yorker and republished in Michaels' posthumous Collected Stories. In addition, Arion Press published The Nachman Stories in a separate and very expensive book.

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Works Similar to Nachman Burning
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Cryptology by Leonard Michaels
  2. Nachman from Los Angeles by Leonard Michaels
  3. Nachman by Leonard Michaels
  4. The Wild Numbers by Philibert Schogt
  5. Of Mystery There Is No End by Leonard Michaels
  6. Nachman at the Races by Leonard Michaels
  7. A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin
  8. Orpheus Lost: A Novel by Janette Turner Hospital
  9. Towel Season by Ron Carlson
  10. Sad Strains of a Gay Waltz by Irene Dische
Ratings for Nachman Burning:
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.
Mathematical Content:
1.5/5 (2 votes)
Literary Quality:
4.5/5 (2 votes)

MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Mental Illness, Romance,
MediumShort Stories,

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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)