‘The Penultimate Conjecture’ by Leonard Michaels

Michaels, Leonard 1999

The Penultimate Conjecture by Leonard Michaels, 1999

The magic trick:

Suggesting, through the character of Chertoff, that the reader’s likely reactions to Nachman’s plight are devilsh

Oh, Nachman. Always so torn, so paralyzed. So very, very frustrating.

Fortunately in this story the reader has Nikolai Chertoff. He stands in to represent our likely feelings and words for Nachman, urging him to action. What is interesting about this: the Chertoff character is kind of portrayed as the devil. Is he promoting justice or selfishness?

Which of course extends to the reader. It is nice to have a character there to voice our thoughts. But are we forces of good or ill? Hmmm.

And that’s quite a trick on Michaels’s part.

The selection:

“There is room for more than one mathematician, Chertoff.”

Chertoff grinned. “Sure, sure. You’re in the same field, and you do the same work.”

“But why not? Like Newton and Leibniz, maybe five other mathematicians also discovered the calculus. Plenty of room.”

The greenish, yellow eyes narrowed with laughter. As Chertoff’s head tipped back, his sharp, prominent teeth pointed at Nachman.

Nachman laughed too, though with imperfect delight. Chertoff’s comments had touched a nerve. In truth, Nachman’s feelings on Lindquist were darkened by thoughts of himself. He should’ve taken the risk. He should’ve been more like Lindquist, more manly.

What do you think about this story? As always, join the conversation in the comments section below, on SSMT Facebook or on Twitter @ShortStoryMT.

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