Adel Abeda (and Rika Zorne), The Velocity of Inertia. London: Bloomsbury, 2019. Pp. 237. ISBN 978-1-4742-9927-5. $20.99.Reviewed by J. Moufawad-Paul
There are times when a novel’s mythology precedes its publication. Adel Abeda’s The Velocity of Inertia is precisely this kind of novel and, as such, it is difficult to review. Edited and rewritten by Abeda’s wife, the critically acclaimed photographer and poet Rika Zorne, the literary presentation of Velocity is beyond reproach; you cannot read this book without being impressed by its style. But Zorne’s participation in the publication contributes to its mythology since the awareness that every sentence of Abeda’s draft was rewritten by Zorne immediately makes the reader suspicious of the quality of the original manuscript. Moreover, it reminds the reader of Abeda’s absence and the fact that the authorial void might be more interesting than the novel.
To date, all of the glowing reviews of Velocity have refused to directly address its pre-existing mythology. It has been compared to an eclectic and contradictory list of influences: Wind-Up Bird era Murakami, Bolaño, Borges, Sriduangkaew, Samatar, Delany, Carter, and even Pessoa. In all of these reviews, the real life story behind the existence of Velocity is rarely addressed. When it is addressed it appears in the odd throwaway sentence. Largely it haunts each and every review. Which is why I think it is worth examining.
As Zorne claims in her introduction to the novel, Abeda mysteriously vanished at some point last year. Although the police and some journalists have implied that Abeda chose to disappear and start a new life because his wife began to entertain numerous women lovers, Zorne argues in the introduction that this was an arrangement Abeda had accepted for years preceding his disappearance, that they had an open marriage, and the official police interpretation was a “chauvinist justification for the fact that cops are competent only when they are pursuing their true function, defending the ruling class.” (iii) Already we are presented with a mythology that is as interesting as any novel.
Then there is the fact that Adel Abeda already possessed some notoriety in academic circles. His doctoral thesis, the result of a joint PhD in mathematics and physics, is the only book he would see published before he vanished. This book, The Dialectics of Mathematics and Physics (oddly subtitled “the science of science”), is a strange work of theory now relegated to obscurity. Dialectics was originally released with a small but significant fanfare, thanks to some of its initial endorsements, but was quickly pushed to the margins. Within a year of its publication Dialectics would be denounced in multiple journals. For example, a former colleague of mine wrote a rather damning review that concluded: “At least it’s not like reading Derrida, because you get the sense that Abeda knows what he’s talking about. The problem, however, is that when I read Derrida I want to know what Derrida means because the prose is somewhat engaging. Whereas with this book I find myself woefully bored.”
That Abeda’s Dialectics began with two epigraphs from Marx and Engels only made this work more obscure: was it mathematics, physics, or social science––what the hell was this mad project? “We know only a single science, the science of history,” was the first epigraph. And the second was: “Where speculation ends, where real life starts, there consequently begins real, positive science, the expounding of practical activity, of the practical process of the development of humans.” These epigraphs perhaps contributed to the book’s obscurity. Although there were some––including myself––who bought Dialectics because these epigraphs promised a social theorization of the so-called “hard” sciences, others dismissed the book because they felt the epigraphs “politically tainted” a scientific monograph. There was a small audience of readers who were also fans of Alain Badiou who initially thought this book was the next chic theory, a bridge between social theory and science, but who became even more confused with Abeda than they had been with Badiou. The book seemed doomed to vanish, just like its author.
So this is the mythology that precedes The Velocity of Inertia. There is the story of the author’s previous work and his disappearance. There is also the story of Rika Zorne’s abandonment by her vanished husband and the fact that, in the space of his disappearance, she chose to make Abeda’s unreadable attempt at fiction readable. In doing so, Zorne built the scaffolding of the mythology: barely anyone would have known or cared about Abeda’s disappearance had Zorne not used her credentials as a critically acclaimed artist, along with her proficiency in the written word, to push Velocity into publication. The question, then, is whether or not this mythology prevents us from critically apprehending or enjoying the book. The only way to think this question, though, is to engage with the novel’s central conceits.
The Velocity of Inertia is about characters who live at different levels of speed. More precisely, it is about something that Abeda/Zorne call “speed dimensions,” where parallel dimensions are separated by varying levels of velocity: particles moving at different speeds in one dimension were only in that dimension because they are moving faster––and thus moving through and around––the particles that composed a slower dimension, and so on and so on. That which moved faster than light was another dimensional reality and whatever moved faster than light in that dimension was yet another dimensional reality so that “universes were living on top of each other, transparencies upon transparencies upon transparencies; and none were aware of the existence of the other because they could not perceive the terms of velocity.” (25)
The story of this novel concerns someone from a higher dimension of velocity who is trapped in our dimension, stranded because of an unexplained freak accident. Because he is from a higher level of speed, he can move absurdly fast but not fast enough to return home. He spends large parts of the novel trying to return home, afraid that the slowness of the level to which he has descended will freeze him in time forever. He can never breach the speed of light in our dimension and thus is always pulled back into what his dimension understands as inertia. The fact that this character can move at a different speed from humans in our dimension leads to terrible restlessness. When he lived in his own dimension his speed was normal––it seemed to him as our speed seems to us––but stranded in our dimension he is possessed by a nervous velocity. A large part of the protagonist’s desire to go home is because he desires “the calmness of inertia.” (113)
At this point it is worth wondering if Abeda’s science-fiction conceits are generated by his training as a scientist. But The Dialectics of Mathematics and Physics is so opaque that it is nearly impossible for the layperson to connect Abeda’s actual scientific expertise with the novel he drafted and Zorne made readable. “The world is fragmented but it should not be fragmented,” Abeda writes in the introduction of Dialectics: “It seems to be always marked by fissures, fragmentations, and particulars that require specialization. We must fight against a system that breeds over-specialization.” A strange claim to make at the beginning of a book that was so over-specialized as to render itself arcane to anyone who did not possess doctorates in both physics and mathematics. Therefore, is it worth speculating whether The Velocity of Inertia is an answer to this contradictory claim? It seems unlikely since the novel is largely about fragmentation.
As noted at the outset of this review, the story behind this novel’s existence overdetermines any attempt to understand it on its own terms. The most intriguing moments of The Velocity of Inertia are those moments where the reader cannot help but read Abeda’s current vanishment according to the novel’s logic, since the novel’s draft, as Zorne tells us in the introduction, was “left in the wake of Adel’s disappearance.” (ii) And it is precisely at the point in the novel where Abeda mockingly plays with Kant’s categories of phenomena and noumena that we are caught within his disappearance’s wake.
Midway through Velocity the protagonist is told a story by one of the mysterious characters he encounters on his search for a way home. This story concerns a world where things appear differently than what they really are and about “the terrifying absence” (112) of the latter category. As Zorne notes in her introduction, her missing husband’s “overwrought academicism” (ix) meant that he wrote this section according to the aforementioned Kantian categories and that, in the original manuscript, there was also “a rather unengaging philosophical exegesis.” (x) But the way in which they are retained and transformed by Zorne’s rewriting might still render the text abstruse: “We can never see the world as it actually is,” the character the protagonist encounters argues, “but only its appearance––as it is presented to us––so we’re always alienated from what is truly real. But imagine that unbeknownst to us the noumenal world, the world that we can never see, is slowly disintegrating and we are unaware that we are becoming stranded in appearance without foundation. A ghost world, a world that is only phenomenal with just the illusion of depth, and how would we ever know when everything that provides us with meaning begins to vanish if we cannot access the real?” (120) If this story is intended to be a metaphor of the protagonist’s loss of his home dimension, it is somewhat awkward since the categories do not appear properly analogical. Zorne might have eliminated much of her missing husband’s awkward prose, but a level of estrangement persists.
Such estrangement becomes more evocative as the Kantian story continues: the man in this story within a story goes out into the world and realizes that the foundation of reality is vanishing. Although he cannot see the noumena he learns to recognize the connections and discovers that only some phenomena are based on what actually exists. “Everything became unreal, like objects that exist without particles moving at high speed to produce these objects, horribly alienated. Nobody else could see what was happening. He began to search out those objects that he knew were not mere appearance. He decided that these were the only real things in the world: a fork, a teacup, an ashtray, a box of crayons, a Christmas ornament.” (124) This story within a story concludes when this man who can see behind “the veil of phenomena” (118) one day looks in a mirror and realizes that he himself “lacked the noumenal equivalent, that he possessed no real self, and finally understood that his attempt to save reality was meaningless. Because if his own connection to things in themselves was absent, how could he even trust that those objects he had saved were themselves real? He had vanished and, with him, so had the world.” (126)
One is tempted to read this Kantian story within a story as a clue regarding Abeda’s disappearance, particularly since it overshadows the rest of the narrative. We cannot even begin to read this novel without already knowing the background of the author’s mythology; Zorne’s introduction disallows a naive reading. The author has vanished and, along with his vanishment, so has his fictional world. But we also know that, according to those parts of The Dialectics of Mathematics and Physics that are not opaque, Abeda agreed with Quentin Meillassoux that Kant enacted a “Ptolemaic counter-revolution” against the Copernican Hypothesis. Hence The Velocity of Inertia’s use of Kant must be ironic even when it seems to tell us something about the mythology behind the book, namely Abeda’s disappearance. And perhaps it is okay that this fact conditions our ability to assess, or even enjoy, the novel. Without the novel’s publication we would not care about Abeda; without his disappearance we might not care about the novel. We might not ever get behind this novel’s phenomenal reality to what it would otherwise mean in-itself, but that is part of what makes it an intriguing read.