Approaching His Limits

Numbers, failure and Josh Kornbluth

High school counselors would no doubt recoil at the thought, but those of us who were big fuck-ups in high school were actually the lucky ones. Unencumbered by any illusion of intellectual superiority when we trudged off to the hallowed halls of community college, blessed by no curse of high expectation, we were absolutely free to do . . . whatever.

Not so the poor saps at the top of the scholastic pyramid, the best and the brightest who, equipped with 4.0 GPAs and dazzling SATs, graduated to the Ivy League, the UC system, the prestigious private universities.

No doubt a few graduated with MBAs and are now making millions on the stock market or otherwise contributing to the common good. But I'm sure just as many couldn't hack it and wound up settling for less than they thought they'd settle for.

I hope at least three or four of them wind up like Josh Kornbluth.

Kornbluth is one of the most entertaining of the monologists who have helped make the '90s the theatrical decade of self-confession. (His one-man show, The Mathematics of Change, plays on Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.) But Kornbluth is a monologist, not a diarist. Less angry than Eric Bogosian and less intellectually exacting than Spalding Gray, Kornbluth is funnier than either. Although his shows are highly theatrical, his roots are in standup and sketch comedy. And the subject in his monologues isn't society: it's Josh Kornbluth.

As subjects go, it's ripe for satire. As the theme of The Mathematics of Change implies, it's Kornbluth's ability to see himself as a chronic failure that gives his material its unique gravity. His past monologues have described the trajectory of his failure as a legal secretary, a left-wing journalist and the hope of his father, an ardent Red who wanted his son to lead a violent communist overthrow of the United States.

Dad also plays a huge role in the biggest failure of Kornbluth's life: his desire to become a brilliant mathematician. Kornbluth applied to Princeton University in 1976, secure in the knowledge that he was destined for numerical greatness. On his personal statement, he scrawled the sentence, "I want to do math!" His father, a mathematician, had been telling him since age 9 that he was destined to be the world's greatest mathematician. Kornbluth—a nerdy, physically unattractive brainiac with serious shortcomings in the social-coping-skills department—bought into it big-time. But only for a short time. Kornbluth ran smack into the wall of calculus during his first semester at Princeton. He was unable to grasp the abstract leaps of faith necessary to handle higher math. It was a shocking revelation, a blow to the ego that Kornbluth, now nearly 40, says he has not completely overcome.

But Kornbluth decided as a college freshman to commit the closest thing to a sin in contemporary America: he gave up. Gave up on calculus. Gave up on higher mathematics. Gave up on all his father's dreams.

The world is a slightly better place for Kornbluth's surrender. Over the past decade, Kornbluth has charted his failures, obsessions and neuroses in a series of funny and revelatory autobiographic monologues; looked at collectively, they offer an alternative view of the success paradigm—Just Do It, No Fear, Xtreme anything—of the '90s.

The Mathematics of Change is a chronological look at the role numbers played in Kornbluth's life. There are the earliest encounters, when the numerals took on anthropomorphic characteristics (3 was curvy and sexy, 1 was fragile and thin like his mom, 9 had a big head and ruled imperiously over the others), and his checkered collegiate career. He takes on the personalities he encountered during school and uses a chalkboard to illustrate some of the dazzling math tricks his father taught him.

"I was really intrigued with the idea of doing a show in which I could bang on a blackboard and have chalk billowing around me," said Kornbluth from a Motel 6 in Santa Barbara. (He may tour the country with his four solo shows, but the Bay Area-based Kornbluth is still on the upswing of his career.)

Of his solo shows, The Mathematics of Change is Kornbluth's favorite because it was by far the most challenging. "A lot of the show deals with my love and terror of numbers, and I knew that was going to be a challenge to make work," he said. "Most people, I think, imagine mathematics as something that couldn't be further away from anything they would care about or be excited by. So I wanted to take stuff that most normal people view as scary or dry and imbue it with great emotion."

Kornbluth takes a few tangents in the course of his numerical journey. Most of those deal with the rather pathetic exploits of a college-age kid who just couldn't get a lot of things right. Like the time he accidentally injected himself with the cancer intended for a laboratory rat, or his eerie bonding with a catfish, or his physically challenged body's inability to pass the university's mandatory swimming test. But there's a strain of optimism in the show as well—and not just because Kornbluth eventually found the ability to laugh at himself. His failure at calculus wound up freeing Kornbluth from a fairly rigid, naive way of looking at the world.

"My world-view up to that time was—like my view of mathematics—all straight lines," he said. "Everything was black and white. But with calculus, you start to deal with curves, which is far more like the way life turns out to be. You get into the world and realize everything isn't made out of nice straight lines, parallelograms, and rectangles and squares. Building a bookcase isn't all right angles. You actually have to build it.

"It's like love and relationships. I just assumed I would go to college, wear a sweater with the arms hanging around my neck, and have a girlfriend who read poetry I wouldn't understand. . . . That happened eventually, but there were a lot of curves along the way."

Understanding those curves and realizing that you can't always negotiate them is what the show is about—what Kornbluth would call wisdom through failure. "In giving up with calculus, I had developed a way of letting go, in that I'd prepared myself intellectually and emotionally to finally understand [calculus]," he said.

Or so he thought. The happy ending of Kornbluth's piece would have him go back [to the subject] as a mature, wiser man and kick calculus' ass. "In the process of working on this show, I thought maybe I had just panicked in college," Kornbluth said. "Now that I am older and not pressured, I thought I could go back and realize I really was brilliant. But I hit the wall at the very same place. But I do feel I understand it better than I did before. . . . I think."

The Mathematics of Change at Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-4646. Fri., 8 p.m. $15-$18.

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