JUNE 26, 2018
ERIC BECK RUBIN’S School of Velocity is a novel about deciding, or even knowing, what the people we desire most really mean to us. It is audacious, reflecting in a subtle but also entirely serious way about who “the other” is, despite thousands of years of literature and philosophy on just this topic. Isn’t it funny, it seems to say, how impossible honesty and knowledge are, never mind a millennium ago, but right now, here, about this person? Is such-and-such a friend, an enemy, someone I idolize or want to sleep with? Do I want all of that at different times, however unspoken it should remain? And why, when I settle on a declaration, does the other respond partially or not at all?
Rubin seems to channel young T. S. Eliot’s style and sensibility, with a fatalistic concern for the unachieved and the myriad ways in which life’s minor tragedies color the whole of experience:
“I have been wondering frequently of late
(But our beginnings never know our ends!)
Why we have not developed into friends.”
I feel like one who smiles, and turning shall remark
Suddenly, his expression in a glass.
My self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark.
Whatever we think we know, darkness remains — a wonderful and weighty theme for Rubin to tackle in his debut.
The novel’s plot is simple enough. Jan, a young Dutchman, has his girlfriend stolen by Dirk, a loud schoolmate reminiscent of The Talented Mr. Ripley’s Dickie Greenleaf. Unexpectedly, the pair become best friends, Jan studious and awkward, developing over the years into a concert pianist; Dirk brash and subversive, becoming a gifted theater director and teacher. Girls start to come second in their relationship, until they lose touch and Jan meets Lena, with whom he moves in for a life of erotic and affectionate contentment.
Of course, that is hardly the end of it. We learn that Dirk is no Dickie, his eccentricities masking another reality; and that Jan is sometimes a struggling Ripley, but more often simply a lost man. The questions he can’t leave alone always return to Dirk, not, devastatingly, to Lena, and the longer his riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma continues, the more his composure falters. At the novel’s most memorable moments, he is quite unable to play the piano, an inner acoustic dissonance disturbing him to the core. By the time the men are middle-aged, what had seemed so easy and attractive in their youth turns out to be misremembered, misunderstood, and misguided, making it all the more compelling, if also corrosive, in the present.
Rubin is remarkably accomplished for a first-time novelist, although School of Velocity is not without its faults, one in particular that lingers. On the one hand, the style is self-assured, Jan’s narration mixing the clear and the unclear:
I put my hands to my ears and listened as a circle of music formed around my head. I listened to this circle as if it were a recording. When the recording ended, I went back to playing, this time louder, more aggressively […] I wanted to make a recording that would go on indefinitely, to create a fortress of sound […] Outside it was dark. I was still alone.
Although Jan is not exactly likable, he’s no threat either; nor does Dirk turn out to be either a villain or a saint. The story flows easily from thriller (psychological antagonism), to crime drama (will one of them kill the other?), bildungsroman (boisterous boyhood drifting into unsettled manhood), existentialist musing (alienated men not understanding anything, least of all women), to a tale of infinite regret. And it achieves all this without losing its internal unity, suggesting possible outcomes while concluding in a way that throws the story wide open again.
On the other hand, School of Velocity reads more like a Rachmaninoff prelude than, say, a Tchaikovsky symphony. It is polished and sophisticated, undercut with sufficiently troubling undercurrents to make it more than merely decorative or forgettable. And yet it also tends toward the anticipatory rather than revelatory. It sets a strange relationship before us, and well made though it is, it does not attempt to reorder the world on a grand scale. Of course, this may sound unfair, and in some sense it is: it is as unjust as saying that every composition should have the heart-on-sleeve beauty, intense alienation, and profundity of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. And yet, one cannot help but feel Rubin himself would value the latter more than the former.
Unfortunately, the novel can tend toward the logical, even clinical. The plot can feel too neat as it unfolds over the years, with its episodes somewhat schematic: Jan surprised by Dirk’s brazen theft of his girlfriend; the pair’s first friendship, meeting of parents, and visits to each other’s houses; the final school year and sudden separation of ways; Jan’s faltering then steady career and relationship with Lena; and finally Jan and Dirk’s peculiar reunion. One thing follows the other as tick follows tock: one never has the impression Jan as narrator, or Rubin as author, will stop and double back, or go deeper when it might seem out of place but nonetheless fascinating. One can forgive faults in structure, if the reason is something intangible or inspired, damn the consequences.
Ultimately, Rubin’s debut invites comparison with the things it sidesteps so carefully. It is easy to imagine the novelist thinking this himself, as though he made himself a promise to go for larger works as soon as he got one success. Such a thought may be easy to disguise, and even though it won’t be found anywhere precisely, it remains everywhere ambiguously. As if, in fact, School of Velocity — elegant, tragic, and strange — knew it could be more, Rubin desiring as much. And yet, in the end, he decided against going too far. One can but hope he will go further, and soon.