Guernica Magazine

Catherine Chung: The Vast and the Intricate

The author discusses the limits of identity, the power of ownership, and the narrative beauty of math. The post Catherine Chung: The Vast and the Intricate appeared first on Guernica.
Author photo: David Noles. Book image: Harper Collins.

Once upon a time, before I became a dreamy English major and a grown-up who writes for work, I was the daughter of a demanding Korean immigrant mother, raised from an early age on five sheets a day of Kumon. Instead of playing with other children, I became extremely good at math. This was a huge part of my identity—I was a mathlete; like, my main extracurricular activity was math—until I left home for college.

So when I met Catherine Chung and read her first book, Forgotten Country, in 2014, I knew—or rather, hoped—that we would become friends. Here was another Korean American woman who had lived and breathed math, then turned around and done the obsessive work of writing a novel. And not just any novel, but a novel about family and history and Korean American identity, a novel rich with gorgeous prose and deep emotional resonance. It spoke to me on every level.

In her exquisite second novel, The Tenth Muse, Catherine tells the story of a female mathematician who must untangle her personal history to solve the legendary Riemann hypothesis. With elegant language, Catherine reveals the narrative beauty of math. “We were at the heights, from which we imagined we could see everything—not just what we knew, but all the possibilities as well—a universal theory of everything, and its inverse: the collapse of science, of language itself,” she writes. “We were on the brink of understanding God, or killing him forever, we didn’t know which. Exhilaration and dread came together, and the knowledge that no great discovery can come without bringing an equivalent terror.”

I read this book with awe and emotion, and when I was done, I had some questions.

—Steph Cha for Guernica

Guernica: The Tenth Muse is a book framed by both storytelling and math. Math problems become parables; the story of a theorem becomes the story of several lives. I’m interested in how you use these two methods of describing the world, and how you see them playing off of and interacting with each other.

The physicist Freeman Dyson

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