What if? It is a hypothetical that haunts us all, in various ways. The inkling that life could have somehow been better, with just a small twist, is a haunting idea. What if my life hadnt turned out like this? What if?
Eric Beck Rubins compact, claustrophobic novel The School of Velocity revolves such a what if: classical pianist Jan de Vries is increasingly obsessed with Dirk, a charismatic childhood friend with whom he lost touch years before. Jan and Dirk met at high school in a tiny Dutch town and immediately hit it off. But in between all the hallmarks of a laddish friendship headlocks, shared girlfriends, dabbling with drugs something darker lurks. Theyre too aware of each other, too codependent. The relationship is sporadically sexual until graduation, when Jan leaves to study music in Maastricht and Dirk heads to the US to do something undefined and grand. Decades later, Jan obsesses over how life might have been different if Dirk had stayed in touch.
Everyone has a Dirk, Rubin says. Almost everyone has that best friend. And I dont know too many that survive into adulthood. I have a Dirk, a friend who left my life, and I never figured out why. It is the favourite thing I hear from readers: I knew someone like Dirk, I know that friendship personally, Ive had a brush with that. That makes you realise youve conveyed something fairly universal.
Older Jans life is, in many ways, attractive: he is a renowned musician, subsidised by his lawyer wifes career, living a comfortable life in Maastricht. But as he becomes increasingly haunted by Dirk who is a mostly absent figure in the narrative Jan is plagued by auditory hallucinations, an overwhelming cacophony that constantly plays in his head.
In the striking opening scene, Jan sits at a piano in front of an audience and realises the music in his head is too loud for him to play under. But part of him rejoices at this punishment: And though I am suffering as badly as I ever had, a small part of me dances in a kind of ecstasy.
Rubin, 37, lives with his wife in Toronto, where he works as a professor of architecture and design at the University of Toronto. He didnt follow the usual path of modern novelists he didnt do an MFA and avoided English at school but he is a prolific reader and wrote the novel over three years, during which he was working on his dissertation at Goldsmiths in London. The project was a pleasant distraction from the horrors of academic life. I saw everything I despise about academia in one space, around one table. I couldnt live that life.
He looks embarrassed when I ask who his favourite writers are. I am very hesitant of sounding pompous no, more pompous, he smiles, before listing Nietzsche, Georges Perec, Hannah Arendt, Imre Kertsz. The funny thing is, the more I think about writing, the less Im up with contemporaries. I find myself going back in time. Its not like all past work is great or that all great works survive but these survived because they still have something to tell us.I wanted a reader to always feel like they needed to know more ... author Eric Beck Rubin. Photograph: Scott Norsworthy
Named after a series of repetitive exercises for practising scales, the narrative is as precise and methodical as its title. The School of Velocity is a taut novel that builds tension to thriller level. Tellingly, Rubin says he focused less on plot and more on drive. I wanted a reader to always feel like they needed to know more, he says.
From the very beginning, the reader knows Jan will see Dirk again, decades later, but the outcome of this reunion becomes all the more ambiguous as the end comes closer. This may sound naive but I never thought of either of them as gay or in a same-sex relationship. Were they best friends? Enemies? Lovers? I didnt want to answer any of these questions. Instead, they tread a dangerous middle ground between all of them: you begin to suspect both men are torn between kissing and killing each other.
What I wanted was to talk about a relationship between two men that did not have defined limits. I didnt want them ever to clarify what their friendship was, Rubin says. They love each other in every way possible physically, intellectually, socially. And I didnt want to narrow it and label it in any respect.
When it came to the final scene, Rubin physically shook as he wrote. I was so with Jan, I was no longer in control. Im not calm enough to look at this book with the requisite distance. Is that a good quality for an author? He thinks it over. Well, it gave it a certain energy that I think transfers to the reader. But, my God, there was a lot of redrafting.
When he submitted the manuscript, people didnt get it. One editor called it a novel about a closeted male, which Rubin disagreed with, while some agents told him to add 100 pages or that readers would not read a hopeless book. It is facile to suggest people wont read a book without hope, he says. This is not a hopeless book. No matter how dark it is, I dont think any work of art that is not cynical can be called hopeless. But that was the attitude. He makes a bewildered face. But you know what? People will have gotten to page whatever by that point.
Only a little over 200 pages, Rubins book is relatively short, a tradition he admires he names The Following Story by Cees Noteboom and Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler as favourites. Conversely, I also like a big piece of meat, he says, listing Shadow Country, A Suitable Boy and A Fine Balance as well. His next book, a multi-generational family epic, is going to be a beast.
He also occasionally toys with writing a sequel from Dirks perspective, but for now he is enjoying talking to people who read the book. He even quite likes it when people get angry with Dirk. Lets be frank, I thought people would say This is too weird, I cant relate, because of the sexual dimension between the two characters, he says. But everyone that says something to me that is gratifying because it means theyve engaged with my book. Its not strange, its wonderful.The School of Velocity by Eric Beck Rubin is published by One (12.99). It is available from the Guardian Bookshop for 10.65.