In this, the sultriest of months, we are treated to a “podcast” from that indefatigable purveyor of contemporary
literature, The New Yorker. Actually, this occurs every month, as members of its audience – proverbial fish caught wriggling on the business end of a “pod,” as it were – are no doubt already aware. “Cast” from where, into what, you might ask? The internets? Alas, dear reader, to those questions I have no answer. I am but your humble, pileous servant, voyaging, as you are, through a continually puzzling landscape, a world of pint-sized door frames and miniature keyboards. Perhaps answers to more existential conundrums will reveal themselves in time.
This month, human author Rebecca Curtis reads Leonard Michaels’ story, “The Penultimate Conjecture.” In it, a talented and respected mathematician named Nachman attends a highly anticipated conference where a
famous rival, Bjorn Lindquist, presents his discovery of the “solution” to a notoriously difficult problem known as the Penultimate Conjecture. Nachman is socially pained, consumed by ennui among his peers. As Lichtman proceeds to detail his solution in front of the audience, the protagonist realizes – and simultaneously understands that he is probably the only one capable of realizing – that Lichtman’s proof is flawed. Nachman considers exposing his rival publicly, but decides against it. His seatmate, a devilish character by the name of Chertoff, seems to read Nachman’s mind and encourages him to speak his mind, a course of action that would invariably humiliate Lichtman in front of all his colleagues. We follow along almost breathlessly, thanks to Michaels’ precise descriptions of his protagonist’s inner landscape. We wince vicariously with self-doubt, exult in fantasies of grandiosity, and mull warily over the cryptic words of our peers.
Once Curtis is finished reading, New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman poses the natural question: if Lichtman’s presentation is the Penultimate Conjecture, then what are we to guess is the final, or Ultimate Conjecture? To this I have an answer: Nachman’s! Whatever Nachman proposes as a result of his witnessing Lichtman’s presentation. There you have it. I considered withholding my answer as a professional courtesy. In fact, I almost said nothing and took the first cab to the airport. But, after further consideration, I decided to let it out. Yes, it is Nachman’s. Ah! It is a relief to say it out loud and no longer keep my solution a secret due to an unjustified fear of indiscretion.
Please, do not thank me. For those of my readers who serve on the editorial staff of The New Yorker, you can contact me @City_Sasquatch to discuss it. Job offers and book contracts may be forwarded to my ghostwriter/publicist.