Tin House // It’s the Disregard of the Natural Landscape that Proves Man’s Intelligence: An Interview with Ken Kalfus

My interview with the terrific Ken Kalfus is up at the Tin House blog.


Historical fiction, we’re told, always says more about the era in which it’s written than that in which it’s set. Yeah, yeah. Set in Egypt in the waning years of the nineteenth century, Ken Kalfus’s glimmering new novel Equilateral takes a different approach in that it isn’t content to only offer commentary on who we are now but, also, on who we might have been. The premise is deceptively and beautifully simple: a British astronomer named Sanford Thayer is overseeing the construction of an equilateral triangle, three hundred feet long on each side, in the Egyptian desert. His purpose—for which nine hundred thousand Arab laborers are toiling night and day in advance of a June 17, 1894 deadline—is to demonstrate human intelligence to the people of Mars and “petition for man’s membership in the fraternity of planetary civilizations.” (14) There are, as you might guess, complications.

Kalfus offers a staggeringly intelligent re-imagining of what have become out-dated scientific principles; the entire novel is steeped in an intellectual world that no longer exists. He has exhumed an entire and extinct intellectual worldview, one that arose in the early years of what has become the secular era heralded by Friedrich Nietzsche, among others. With God dead or busy or indifferent or away on business, humankind has been forced to make meaning in other ways and attempt to find connectivity to other things, even Martians.

Although things don’t go especially well for Thayer, by peeling away the twentieth century, Kalfus was able to imbue the novel with a lovely optimism missing in most contemporary fiction even though it never shies from the difficult questions about colonialism and imperialism. In addition to Equilateral, Kalfus is the author of two story collections, Thirst and Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies and the novels The Commissariat of Enlightenment and the National Book Award finalist A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.

He answered a few questions via email in late February.

Andrew Ervin: Equilateral is enlivened by a lovely kind of optimism that the twentieth century may have beat out of the scientific community. Because the novel’s so rich in its understandings of geometry and symmetry and construction (among other things), my first question is about form: how did you decide on its shape? Why does it have thirty-two chapters?

Ken Kalfus: The 32 chapters don’t have any numerological significance, and I hope you didn’t spend too much time looking for one! I can see how a book like this may invite some speculative search for symmetries and hidden formal structures. While there are certain geometries to the relationships in play, in fact the story grew more or less organically, and I wrote every chapter with the desperate desire to make it work, and make the story hang together as a whole.

AE: I’m reminded of John Aubrey’s description of Thomas Hobbes’s first encounter with Euclid:

“He was 40 years old before he looked on geometry; which happened accidentally. Being in a gentleman’s library, Euclid’s Elements lay open, and ‘twas the 47 El. libri I. He read the proposition. ‘By G–,’ sayd he, (He would now and then swear, by way of emphasis) ‘By G–,’ sayd he, ‘this is impossible!’ So he reads the demonstration of it, which referred him back to such a proposition; which proposition he read. That referred him back to another, which he also read. Et sic deinceps, that at last he was demonstratively convinced of the trueth. This made him in love with geometry.”

Mathematics and literature often make uncomfortable bedfellows, yet Sanford Thayer fully appreciates the aesthetic beauty of geometry and sees in it a vast potential for improving the human condition. How did the idea come about? What amount of research was involved?

KK: I love the Aubrey story, dramatizing that electric moment when a geometric proof suddenly reveals itself to describe a fundamental truth about the structure of reality. Hobbes has just fallen upon the Pythogorean Theorem—a good excuse to use the word hypoteneuse and a truth about the relationship between the sides of a triangle that comes up time and again in my novel. The philospher’s delight and the work of my novel rest on the notion that this theorem is true for all men and women, whether British or Hottentot, and true from one planet to the next. Thayer is convinced that a common knowledge of mathematics will allow us to share not only ideas between planets, but feelings of beauty and love too.

I’ve always enjoyed math, which isn’t the same as being good at it. One of my many pleasures in the pursuit of this novel was relearning my high school trigonometry (SOHCAHTOA!) and then performing some basic equations, for the dimensions of the triangle, the amount of sand being excavated, the positions of the planets in 1894, etc. I bought myself a decent compass and  spent a lot of time on this, hunkered at my desk, filling in pages and pages of calculations, in many of which I did something like forget to carry the 1.

AE: Why do you suppose we have such an endless fascination with Mars?

KK: Since the 19th century, we’ve thought that if there were life elsewhere in the solar system, Mars was the place for it. It has solid land and an atmosphere, its climate is almost temperate, and astronomers like Thayer thought they discerned magnificent artificial waterways crossing its surface—which recalled the great terrestrial canal projects like Suez that had seized the public imagination. This was also the century in which European explorers heroically traversed the Earth’s most forbidding deserts, making the Red Planet’s parched landscape seem more familiar and more attainable.

Mars still drives us crazy with promises—witness the strong public interest in sending astronauts there, something whose cost is not justified by the scientific benefit and which is unlikely to happen in this century. The planet is passing behind the sun this spring but will reappear in our morning sky in a few months, a steady beacon for our hopes for interplanetary companionship.

AE: That need for companionship strikes me as a natural result of the newly (or relatively newly) secularized world of the late 1800s. Many of the tensions you’ve written about here—the colonizer v. the oppressed, West v. Middle East, scientific certainty v. faith—are of course still in the news. Do you buy the argument that historical fiction speaks more about the time it’s written than the time in which it’s set?

KK: I’m not sure my novel qualifies as historical fiction, since the central event is so far removed from anything that ever happened, but these historical themes were very much on my mind as I wrote Equilateral. The epic, generations-spanning struggle between the First World and the Third is the central question of our era. Meanwhile, the real news of this century may prove to be the discovery of alien life. Both these preoccupations led me to Equilateral. I don’t think writers can ever escape the moment in which they write, or that readers would want them to.

Your comment that the secularization of society has increased the need for companionship is an interesting one. I would say the need has always been there: that’s why human beings invented religion in the first place.

AE: What’s next for you? How quickly do you transition between projects?

KK: I’m always thinking about my next project, and I’m currently finishing a new collection of short fiction that will be published next April. The book’s anchored by a novella that fictionally reconstructs the events of a catastrophic weekend in New York, during which an international finance official sexually assaults a hotel worker. The story’s title is “Coup de Foudre.”

AE: Finally, what are the 2013 books you’re most excited about?

KK: In a short story frame of mind, I’m looking forward to reading Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. I have Lynn Coady’s new epistolary novel, The Antagonist, waiting on my pile—it looks very funny and very compelling. Also, I’ve gotten an early look at Allison Lynn’s novel, The Exiles, which comes out in July. The first few pages are gorgeous, and the writing is intensely felt. I hope to get to them, soon or eventually. There’s so many good books out there, I always feel I’m playing catch-up.