Pi in the sky
A new novel takes math team to a new level.
A murderer sets his target on Chicago, where members of a secret society convene in the former archbishop’s residence on North State Street. The North and West Sides of town have been without power for days, with the exception of this opulent State Street mansion. “Whole Fugees”—yuppie refugees—have staked claims in Lincoln Park and are fomenting riots. As much as Chicagoan Kevin Guilfoile loves his city, he sets it on fire in his latest thriller, The Thousand.
“There’s such an incredible history: on one hand corruption and tragedy and on the other rebuilding and hope,” Guilfoile says from his home in La Grange. “It’s a bottomless well of inspiration. I write about it for the same reason I live here.”
Guilfoile, former creative director of ad-design agency Coudal Partners, published his debut novel, Cast of Shadows, in 2005. In Shadows, a doctor clones his daughter’s unknown killer in hopes of using the clone as a map to track down the murderer. In The Thousand, warring factions of a cult devoted to the Greek mathematician Pythagoras track Canada Gold, daughter of the brilliant Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Solomon Gold. Ten years after her father’s murder, and ten years after his completion of Mozart’s famously unfinished requiem went missing, Nada returns to Chicago from Las Vegas to help a rich man ascertain its authenticity. Gold is specially equipped with a neurotransmitter, implanted in her brain as a teen ostensibly to calm her ADHD-induced seizures, that enables her to see and sense what normal people cannot, the same device her father used to complete the requiem. The device helps them uncover, possibly, the unifying link among all things, or as Guilfoile writes, “the language of music and numbers upon which all creation was based.”
Say Pythagoras and you’ll most likely get a theorem but Pythagoras was, according to Guilfoile, a genius and a reclusive cult leader who remains enigmatic because he forbade his students to write down his teachings. His followers wrote about his teachings decades, if not centuries, after he died.
“The parallels between that and Christianity are really interesting,” the Notre Dame grad admits. It was an old philosophy professor from N.D., Tom Morris, who turned Guilfoile on to Pythagoras. “Then there’s this split that really happened; there were basically fundamentalists who believed that what Pythagoras gave them was the word of God and the other group who thought, no, we have to go out and build upon what he taught us.”
The more progressive faction of The Thousand wants to save Nada from harm, both self-inflicted and otherwise, by removing the implant; the more fundamentalist group wants to stop her from understanding this language of numbers that, if it were known by the general public, would lead to the end of mankind. Both sides agree to that.
Comparisons to The Da Vinci Code are understandable, but The Thousand is less about the secret or the secret society than the dozen characters ensnared by it, characters strung out between the pursuit of power and self-preservation.
“One of the difficulties of this book is about how hard it is to know anything,” Guilfoile says. Despite the philosophical leanings of both thrillers, Guilfoile made his mark as a humorist on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and The Morning News, co-writing the best-selling Bush lampoon, My First Presidentiary. The humor is not lost in The Thousand, which has the sly repartee of people keeping secrets. The humor belies an inevitable unknowingness, according to Guilfoile. “What we know is a tiny little piece of the picture, and we’ll never know more than that. It’s important to continue that quest, but it’s important to admit that we’re not capable of understanding the real answers.”
Guilfoile reads Tuesday 24 at Borders in La Grange.