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The Tenth Muse

A Novel

by Catherine Chung

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung X
The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2019, 304 pages
    Apr 2020, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Michael Kaler
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About this Book

Print Excerpt

Chapter 1

THERE IS NOTHING AS INTRIGUING AS A LOCKED door. Which is why in 1900 when David Hilbert presented the first of his twenty-three unsolved mathematical problems in his address to the Second International Congress of Mathematicians in Paris, he changed the course of scientific inquiry, and thereby the course of the world. Twenty-three locked doors to beguile the foremost minds of his time: twenty-three locked doors to stand in front of and circle throughout the century. To this day, twelve of these problems remain unsolved. In my youth, I dreamed of scaling the heights myself and drawing forth a solution—as gleaming and perfect as Excalibur. One day, I told myself, I would open one of Hilbert's fabled doors—join the honors class of mathematicians who have conquered one of those twenty-three problems, whose names will be known throughout time.

I've lived long enough to know now that no matter what one's contributions, one falls in and out of favor. Even Hilbert, even Einstein. For now, I am in the amusing, slightly awkward position of finding that while my reputation is on the rise—my actual presence, my opinion, my thoughts, are less relevant than ever. I'm invited less and less to participate in things that involve actual math. Nobody asks me to advise or work with them anymore.

I suppose everyone is waiting for me to die. Certainly no one expects me to be on the cusp of a new discovery. But here's a secret: I've recently found a key to a door that has long been hidden, a mystery I feel I was born to unravel. And not just any mystery, but a door that could lead to the solution of part of the eighth and most famous of Hilbert's problems—the Riemann hypothesis, which predicts a meaningful pattern hidden deep within the seemingly chaotic distribution of prime numbers.

I've told no one yet because I know that until I have all the evidence in order, I'll be laughed at—the same as if I suddenly announced I'd fallen in love. At my age, all passions look foolish to outside eyes. If I were a man, it'd be different. I don't mean that as an admission of envy, but as a statement of fact. Because who has time for envy anymore? The days speed by so quickly, gaining momentum with each passing month. The fear that I'll die before I get to the end fuels my work, and I wake with an urgency that feels like an echo from youth—a reflection of the desperation I felt in my early years when I feared I'd miss my chance.

Perhaps this is why I dream more and more of people from my grad school days, my old competitors and colleagues, my professors, and especially Peter. In my dreams, everyone is dying. They lie down one by one in perfectly ordered graves that proceed along a straight line, head to toe, forming a road that points at the horizon. I ask them where this road leads, and each time I ask my question, they smile and reach up to close their own coffins, shut their eyes, and die.

Good-bye and good riddance, I'd say, if the dream ended there, but then I notice that the closed coffins have numbers and symbols on them, and the string of them forms an equation strangely familiar to me—one that I know the solution to. So I walk up and down, trying to figure it out—whether I should be walking in the direction of the heads or the toes, whether what I need to find is the beginning or the end, until I realize that no matter what, in the line of infinite coffins that stretches out to the ends of the earth, one coffin is missing, and it is mine. And then I know that the missing piece of the formula, the key, is my death, and that I will lose the answer in completing it, and I wake up furious, and cursing, and filled with a terrible grief.

All my life I've been told to let go as gracefully as possible. What's worse, after all, than a hungry woman, greedy for all that isn't meant to be hers? Still, I resist. In the end we relinquish everything: I think I'll hold on, while I can.

Excerpted from The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung. Copyright 2019 by Catherine Chung. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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