By Dr. Erik Hoel, Ph.D
The Overlook Press; hardcover, 368 pages; $27.00
Erik Hoel received his PhD in neuroscience from the University of Madison-Wisconsin. A 2018 Forbes "30 under 30" for his neuroscientific research on consciousness and a Center for Fiction Emerging Writer Fellow, he sis a research assistant professor at Tufts University. Previously, he was a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University in the Neuro Technology Lab, and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
In this stunning debut novel, Hoel takes an intense look at cutting-edge science, the search for human consciousness, and human connection.
The story is centered on Keirk, who was once a rising star in neuroscience and is now homeless, broken by his all-consuming quest to find a scientific theory of consciousness. When he's offered a spot in the prestigious postdoctoral Francis Crick Scholarship Program at New York University, he decides to rejoin society and vows not to self-destruct again.
However, instead of focusing on his work, Kierk becomes obsessed with another project - investigating the sudden and suspicious death of a colleague, Atif. The search for truth brings him closer to another postdoc, Carmen Green, and their list of suspects grows. There is a sense that something sinister may he happening all around them.
The Revelations is written in muscular, hypnotic prose, and not unlike its main character, is ambitious and abrasive. It is bursting with ideas, ranging from Greek mythology to the dark realities of animal testing, to some of the biggest unanswered questions facing scientists today.
Hoel writes of Kierk in the aftermath to Atif's death: "Kierk wakes up fully aware and feeling an urgent need to move. Rising, flipping sheets onto the floor, he does a set of exercises until he is panting red. Breathing deeply in the bathroom light he looks at himself. He's always been able to put on muscle quickly, filling out his frame to its natural proportions. Patting his taut stomach he goes to shower. Under the water he soaps himself, pausing when he gets to his hip. Its bruise is in full bloom, still painful from his collision with the turnstile, and it is only then that he remembers everything that had happened over the weekend.
Kierk limps his way to the CNS, an occasional hand going down to check his hip. Upon arrival he finds the halls eerily busting, graduate students and technicians waiting for the animal elevators, the professors and administrative staff energetically popping in and out of rooms in what all seems a rude assault on mortality. It was as if Atif's death had never occurred. Karen waves at him as he walks in, as does Carmen, but she doesn't get up from her computer. His hip is so bad that he nearly lets out a yelp when he sits at his desk. He checks his email and, besides the unanswered one from Atif's mother that he avoids opening again, finds only a bland departmental missive detailing a 'tragedy among the staff.' It goes on to give a short biography of Atif and express its deepest condolences. He spends a while looking up the few short articles pertaining to Atif's death on local news websites. There is nothing on there that Carmen hadn't told him, just a low-resolution close-up of Atif's grinning face. There is no mention of the police, or any investigation.
The picayune events of the day pass him like flotsam; his hands move by themselves, doing without doing. It doesn't feel like he should be working. It's this feeling that eventually draws him inexorably to Melissa Goldman's lab. There he finds a more muted atmosphere. Only a few hundred whispers float over the maze of cubicles and computers. Atif's desk has already been cleared. On it is a cardboard box with ATIF written on the side. Inside there is a stack of printed-out documents, a small wrist cast for carpal tunnel syndrome, a numver of pens, a set of headphone, a framed picture of an older woman - it must be Atif's mother, who is smiling manically with her arm around a younger Atif in a graduation robe, both of them on the long and well-kept lawns of Oxford, romantic Gothic buildings soaring behind them on that bright summer day. Kierk takes one of Atif's pens from the box.
He's also extracting the stack of papers when Melissa Goldman, wrapping a scarf around her shoulders as she exits her office, catches sight of Kierk and approaches him with a questioning look on her face. As she does Kierk is thinking about what it must have been like to find the bomb materials outside her house, leering and obscene in her driveway out in the suburban wind.
Kierk gestures to the box. 'This for the police?'
'Actually some university employee is going to send it home. They said they'd be down about twenty minutes ago. You're one of the Crick Scholars, right?'
'Yeah, hi, I'm Kierk Suren.'
'So you knew him?'
'I was one of the last people with him.'
'I'm sorry. I only heard last night, I packed up his effects. I've never done anything like this. What a sad thing.'
'Listen, I'm sorry, but I was working with Atif on a project-'
'Oh, the one with Carmen?' Melissa says. Kierk opens his mouth, closes it again.' Because Carmen already looked through this stuff for those notes.'
'Sorry, I should've mentioned, I just talked to her, actually, and she wasn't sure she had gotten everything of relevance. You know, making sure.'
'Well it can't hurt, go ahead, just don't actually take anything. I have a meeting to get to.'
As she leaves Kierk quickly scans the room, looking at the other workstations, some of which are occupied by the stooped forms of graduate students. Then he's striding through the lab surreptitiously snatching up printed-out documents from the various unoccupied desks, keeping an eye on the door and the seated lab members, a few of whom glance at him, and he seriously nods back at them, and in a minute he has a stack about the same size of that in the box. He replaces one for the other, and with Atif's documents under his arm he walks out with purpose. He passes two people in the hallway. One is pointing the other toward the lab - 'Atif's workstation was down there' - and Kierk, not looking up, hurries out into the stairwell.
He goes up a few flights. Pausing, he thumbs through the documents, which from a brief perusal are mostly just science papers but contain, to Kierk's surprise, all of his papers as well, which Kierk raises his eyebrows at and smiles, pride mixed with melancholy."