Beat by Aaron Thom
In the near future, scientists determine that every individual has a unique and predetermined number of beats that their heart can endure before failing. “The Discovery” leads to great shifts in culture and policy under the shadow of the monolithic Heartbeat Management and Reduction Association, which gains a monopoly in much sought-after lifestyle, career, and relationship consulting services aimed at reducing heart rates and thus extending lifespans. Aaron Thom’s novel, Beat, charts the decades-long trajectories of a cast of motley characters – each connected through the Association – as they grapple with the implications of the Discovery and the new quasi-dystopian world order on their personal quests for happiness.
With a premise full of promise and intrigue, Thom’s novel suffers under its execution. A questioning of the new order begins so early on that a suspension of disbelief must be entertained to swallow the pervasive obsession with heart rate that saturates culture, politics, and personal relationships throughout the novel. The story’s pseudo-intellectual pretenses and affectations quickly become burdensome – from the onset, we are barraged with a surplus of rehashed information and arguments that dictate the world rather than letting us feel and believe in it, quickly lending the novel an overly didactic approach at the expense of much-needed subtlety. The result is stilted rather than rapturous; Beat often reads more like an elliptical series of essays with a thin patchwork of novel skin stretched across it. This narrative is riddled with characters that appear and dissolve like specters in a hazy dream, awkward scene transitions, confusing or missing temporal and geographical details, and clunky attempts at a crisp literary voice. Most irritatingly, several characters seem to switch names and even genders mid-passage with such persistent reoccurrence that it becomes impossible to tell if it’s actually all a daring and chafing sci-fi pretension – jarring with the narrative’s otherwise vanilla straightforwardness – instead of just a pathological error in the health of the novel.
Beyond these frustrations, Thom’s novel glimmers with potential. The very nature of the subject matter easily creates the feelings of anxiety and hysteria that plague Beat’s new society – you can’t help but find yourself worrying about your own beats, too – and warmly invites the philosophizing and moralizing that define Thom’s approach to the subject matter. Although it diffuses, the homophobic vacuum created by the unaddressed rejection of heteronormativity during the first half of the novel is genuinely exciting. The novel’s concepts are commendably clever and well-informed – keenly aware of the dynamics of science and society. There are many meditations on some powerful truths throughout, complemented by some authentically compelling images and ideas; when Beat attempts to capture the charm, richness, majesty, and mystery of life, there are some moments of real beauty – metaphysical, eerie, and quaint (a haunting discovery in the now-sunken city of Venice springs to mind). The power and fertility of Thom’s intellect and imagination are confirmed, and the reader is left looking forward to what he can cook up next as he refines his literary technique.