Mandelbrot the Magnificent – Liz Ziemska

I was pretty intrigued when I saw this book at the bookstore – partially because it had been filed in the science-fiction section. Mandelbrot was a favorite mathematical figure of mine – a sentence which in itself shows what kind of an odd person I am – and was thus curious as to how he could be used as a figure in a work of paraliterature. He is, after all, a real person, but real people have been the pivot point for fantastic re-imagining of our own history before. That much is not new. What made it interesting enough for me to buy the book was just its choice of subject.

Benoit Mandelbrot was a Polish French American mathematician whose work has been extremely influential both in mathematics and related fields. Mandelbrot the Magnificent looks at Mandelbrot early life, when he and his family traveled form one place to another, consonantly fleeing the Nazis. It explores the difficulty of a well-off Jewish family losing everything to stay alive.

Notice something funny about that description? You’re right, it sounds just like what the ordinary biography of Benoit Mandelbrot. So why was this book in the science-fiction section of Barnes and Noble?

Because this book didn’t seem to know what it wanted from itself. The blurb on the back mentioned magical realism. I guess you could say that is true, the same way you could call a book an action adventure because it once uses an exclamation point. Maybe that was too mean; the magical realism is in this book but it is merely a thin spread towards the end of a very thin book. That in itself isn’t a problem, as I like both mundane books as well as things a little more fantastic. The problem for me came in the fact that I ultimately had no idea what to do with this magic. There are a number of stylistic choices the author could have gone with, but the one that is most disappointing is to just shut the door of the book and walk away. That’s what this one felt like.

To actually tell you why this book qualifies as magical realism would constitute spoilers. It almost wouldn’t be worth putting it there. But the inverse wouldn’t make things any better, as it would just read as a very imaginative biographical fiction of just a few of Mandelbrot’s formative years.

There is just no way I can feel impressed by this book. This book felt like the first act of a three act structure. By the end of it, I felt like we had just been introduced to the conceit of the story, and great things were soon to come.

It was sad how disappointing this book was. I would willingly buy this book again if it was three or four times longer than what we got, and just had more everything.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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