Blind Speed, Josh Barkan. TriQuarterly. 304pp, $21.95
To appreciate Josh Barkan’s rambling novel, Blind Speed, a rudimentary knowledge of physics is useful. Isaac Newton’s famous laws of motion will suffice: 1) A body at rest tends to remain at rest whereas a body in motion tends to remain in motion. 2) Force is the product of mass times acceleration. 3) For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Newton’s principles nicely elucidate the mechanics behind an apple falling from a tree; surprisingly, they also provide a fitting framework for considering Barkan’s novel.
Paul Berger is the tragicomic protagonist of the story. Although he knows little about the subject of physics, he is an expert when it comes to inertia. Paul is in his mid-30 and is an atheist. His life is a mess, and, as envisaged by Newton’s first law, tends to remain a mess. He likes to go with the flow of things. The side effect of such fluidity is that he gets swept up in and swept aside by both the small details and big events of everyday life.
For a time Paul played drums in a moderately successful band. The group unexpectedly broke up. Paul drifted into a teaching career at a community college where his area of interest was American Studies. After seven years, Paul was denied tenure because he had not produced a single work of scholarship. He had become paralyzed by writer’s block after composing just 45 pages of a planned book. There would be no finished book or even a completed journal article. His failure to focus, his absence of willpower, and his lack of production are portended by Newton’s second law of motion. With no force behind his efforts, Paul becomes weak and verges on failure.
Eventually, Paul latches on to a job as a night security guard. His luck there is no better than as a writer. Paul is kidnapped by a group of ecoterrorists who attack the facility that he is entrusted to protect. Newton’s third law—call it the literary equivalent of irony—is corroborated.
Paul’s failed careers are matched by his dismal personal relationships. He has two older, celebrated brothers who set the family bar impossibly high. Cyrus is a rich attorney who is a professor of law at Harvard and a candidate for Congress, and Paul has ample reason to be infuriated by his successes: although sparkling and successful on the surface, Cyrus is morally corrupt. Paul’s other brother, Andrew, worked for NASA and dreamed of becoming an astronaut. He perished in the airplane that crashed into the Pentagon building on 9/11. Paul lost the good brother and is jealous of the remaining one.
Paul has a girlfriend, Zoe. They have lived together for six years. She is a former actress who now works as a nurse. Shortly before they get married, Zoe is accidentally shot, but she recovers. On the day of their wedding, Paul discovers that his soon-to-be wife has been sexually unfaithful, and soon after the wedding Zoe loses her ability to tolerate Paul’s malaise and lack of motivation in pursuing a career. They separate.
Much of Paul’s melancholy stems from a palm reading performed by a guru (nicknamed the Buffalo Man) who foretold loss and death. The prophecy weighs heavily on Paul, and he becomes convinced that nothing can alter his fate.
It is hard to feel sorry for such a pitiful protagonist. Paul’s woes and whining are exhausting. He is portrayed not as a man punished by an inability to escape his wretched future but rather a guy not especially interested in directing his own destiny. He is convinced that fate must always trump personal choice. For poor Paul, entropy is an element of ordinary life, not some abstract scientific concept. Uncertainty and randomness accompany every action, and there is no way to minimize them. Whether Paul wants them or not, consequences come from every action and inaction. For him, the choice between being proactive or passive hardly seems worth the effort.
Predictably, velocity occupies an important place in Blind Speed. After all, speed is thrilling, addicting, and liberating. Moving fast may be alluring but it is also numbing. It affords Paul temporary solace—”In the speed he didn’t have to think”—yet it has a propensity to obscure a person’s vision and promote recklessness. When characters in the story act too quickly, they risk catastrophe and a breakdown.
Blind Speed is slowed by some stylistic problems. Barkan must like italics because he employs them excessively. The narrator attempts to be chummy but comes across as ingratiating. The novel is pregnant with platitudes; in an ostensibly serious novel one would hope to find messages with slightly more heft than those found in fortune cookies:
We can know the medicine but find it impossible to swallow.
The river flows only one way.
Try to find accomplishments in smaller things.
It was necessary to take risks to overcome failure.
It is the desire of every man to know his fate, even if he does not want to know it.
The book does focus on some weighty matters: risk, failure, devotion, self-worth, and uncertainty. The story poses two disturbing questions: Why do people so readily inflict pain on one another and themselves? How much of life is just mirage? Still, the novel remains a jumbled work of literature. The ending is unsatisfying. The plot has plenty of loose ends. It is not a good sign that the most intriguing character is the dead one—Paul’s brother Andrew.
Blind Speed is a sluggish read. The physics is solid. The story is not.
Tony Miksanek is the author of two collections of short stories. He is a coeditor of the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database sponsored by New York University. He teaches literature and writing at a community college in southern Illinois.
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