Thursday, July 9, 2015

Review: The Capacity for Infinite Happiness, by Alexis von Konigslow

Can math help to explain our relationships? This question lies at the heart of Alexis von Konigslow’s bewitching debut novel, The Capacity for Infinite Happiness. Using two alternating threads, von Konigslow’s narrative explores how our social networks (the old-fashioned, offline kind, that is) can make connections across years and generations, and how they can draw us together as well as pull us apart.

The first thread, set in 2003, involves PhD candidate Emily Kogan, a budding mathematician who flees grad school to return to her Jewish family’s Muskoka resort. Emily is looking to use her left-brain math skills for a very right-brain reason: to map out the various interactions and connections contained within her complicated family history. The second thread, set 70 years earlier, puts a fictionalized version of Harpo Marx as a guest at that same resort. He is there on the lam from both a sputtering film career and the outside world’s growing anti-Semitism. As he gets embroidered in the Kogan family’s history, he comes to learn that there is more to the resort than what first meets the eye. Von Konigslow sashays back and forth between these threads in a kind of dream-like waltz, creating an expert call and response between her two narratives.

While the premise for this book may strike some readers as far-fetched – can we really boil down human relationships and family influences to a series of mathematical equations? – von Konigslow wins us over with both the sheer elegance of her prose and the scope of this novel’s vision. Harpo Marx is fully imagined here, and his experiences help to provide a buttress of plausibility; Emily, meanwhile, proves a worthy lead character for her thread, a woman with a sensitive eye and an open ear. Still, with so much of her story wrapped around her training and identity as a mathematician, one thing that felt missing from her section was, well, math. It would have been interesting to see some of Emily’s actual work – human connections and relationships rendered into math equations – on the page.  

But it is a small quibble in a book that gets progressively more engrossing with each passing chapter. The Capacity for Infinite Happiness explores the importance of history without fetishizing too much the notion of capital-P Past. For a novel concerned with the long-lasting mysteries of yesteryear, its story comes to us with a gripping immediacy.


  1. I just ordered it because of this review. (But don't get drunk with power, okay?)

    1. 10-4! I will continuing getting drunk strictly on alcohol.