Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
The initial chapter of this debut novel has the narrator, Jan de Vries, a successful piano accompanist, collapsing on-stage during a performance. Then, a few days later, he is packing his bags to leave the apartment where he lives with his wife, who is away at her mother’s, to go “home.” The reader eventually does learn what Jan means by “home,” but why he is doing this is more complicated.
The first half of the book is a long flashback to Jan’s adolescent relationship with his friend Dirk Noosen. They meet in grade 9 at an arts high school—Jan in music (he plays piano), Dirk in theatre, where he directs and acts. They almost immediately become fast friends. The relationship is intense. The two are seldom apart, with Jan often sleeping over at Dirk’s house. But as soon as they head to university they essentially lose contact. Jan stays in the Netherlands, while Dirk chooses to study in the US. After a few years Dirk starts sending an annual postcard from locales all over the world relating his impressive theatrical achievements. But after ten years, those also stop.
Meanwhile Jan has first tried to succeed as a solo performer, but didn’t earn enough to support himself and his wife, Lena. Luckily Lena, a busy lawyer, gladly supported them both. Then at one point, Jan’s agent suggests becoming an accompanist. Jan is at first reluctant to take second billing, but over the years he grows into the role, acting as a stable foundation and frequent guide for the spectacular, but sometimes erratic musicianship of headlining musical performers. Now that he is successful, Jan and Lena live comfortably in the city of Maastricht. His frequent travels mirror her long work hours. The marriage is childless by choice, but mutually adoring. The years pass.
As a musician, Jan’s head is filled with sound constantly. He really no longer needs a score to perform, he remembers so much music. He can recall pieces from the distant past and play them flawlessly. In his forties, though, something changes. Unwanted sounds have begun to intrude into his mind. They start as a distraction, become an annoyance, and now are an affliction. They assault him constantly and have come to interfere with his performances. Their din overwhelms everything else. He cannot hear himself play, whether at rehearsal or, increasingly, in performance. He makes mistakes, a lot of them, and he knows other musicians have noticed. He consults specialists, but they come up with nothing. He hides the truth from Lena as long as he can, but finally has to admit that something is wrong. He simply cannot play anymore.
A chance conversation with an old classmate informs him of Dirk’s current fallen status, from theatre star to schoolteacher. A few months later, Jan decides to find him. The reason is unclear. Is this love? And is this love gay? Is where Dirk lives “home”? Or is this yearning just nostalgia for a simpler time where others took the lead?
Like de Vries, his creator, author Eric Beck Rubin, is a virtuoso. In School of Velocity, his first work of fiction, Rubin impresses at almost every turn. His writing is entertaining and inventive. The scenes are often vivid, with fascinating, unpredictable details. The description of Jan’s playing and his relationship to music is particularly captivating. The reader is totally immersed into the passion of musical performance.
But Rubin is a first-time novelist, and inevitably has his weaknesses. Like many virtuosos, he frequently falls into the trap of letting speed and dexterity subordinate depth and emotion. The reader, like Jan, is caught up in Dirk’s intensity and unpredictability, but occasionally scenes just fly by mechanically, seeming to consist mostly of a listing of activities rather than engagement in them. And despite several very affecting moments throughout the book, the characters remain largely distant. Early on, minor characters appear as essentially just names, while the action flows only around Jan and Dirk. Yet even that intense relationship is presented as a given, not a process, and, for the reader, Jan and Dirk stay at arm’s length.
Given the disparity between their respective home lives and parental attitudes, one might have expected Jan to find a good deal of Dirk’s behaviour off-putting or at least uncomfortable. And certainly the sexual activity, if nothing else, might have created some confusion. But Rubin tends to present the pair’s escapades matter-of-factly, as if Jan didn’t expect anything else. Jan seems to just go with the flow, without reflecting on anything, just letting Dirk take the lead.
Adolescence is a time of active, even obsessive confusion, rebellion, self-absorption, and self-expression. Rubin stands back from that. The reader is given much vivid description and quirky dialogue, but gets little insight into why the friendship is the way it is. Rubin describes what happens but does not have Jan really reflect on what one incident or another means for him personally. Likewise, Dirk himself is a bit of a hyperactive cypher, entertaining, but removed. At one point he thanks Jan for keeping him “on track,” but the reader is as puzzled about the comment as Jan is. At the end, the mature Dirk is a very different person, and one is left wanting to hear him speak about where his life has gone. But the book ends before he can.
These are, of course, quibbles. Rubin is clearly a very talented writer, and there is much in School of Velocity that provokes serious thought as well as entertains. So be forewarned: expectations for his next work are high.
School of Velocity is published by Doubleday Canada.