September 2012

James Orbesen

fiction

The Constant Heart by Craig Nova

Our universe is theorized to have begun in the Big Bang. All matter and energy, the very foundation stones of the physical universe, was compressed into an infinitesimally small, infinitely dense and powerful point. From this: expansion. Outward it all shot with an unfathomable explosive force, constantly pushing the boundaries of existence. In the wake, particles cooled and congealed and the stars and planets formed. Yet, the Big Bang still carries on, pressing outward and expanding the horizon of reality to the infinite.

Such grand dances out among the cosmos are integral to understanding the internal movements of Craig Nova's latest novel, The Constant Heart. Following the story of Jake, an astronomer from upstate New York who is haunted by the memories of a lost love from his youth -- the rebellious and troubled Sara -- The Constant Heart tackles the problems of connection, manhood, and the cosmological quandary and implications of dark energy and universal expansion.

You see, the universe is not just expanding is all directions but is doing so at an ever-increasing rate, like a foot pushing a car's accelerator slowly to the floor. While the universe continues to claim more territory from nothingness, its constituent parts are actually under the influence of a repulsive force. All matter exhibits gravity. It is a natural inclination for particles to come together and combine. Yet some other force is overriding this natural urge for connection, preventing the isolated "atoms in a void" -- Jake and Sara's mutual observation of existence from their studies of physics as teenagers -- from coming together and finding peace.

This repulsive force that prevents connection is dark energy. Little understood, difficult to study, let alone observe, and the subject of Albert Einstein's greatest self-assessed failing, the cosmological constant, dark energy touches everything. It subtly influences and alters the course of matter in the universe, directing it away from its counterparts. Jake wrestles with this problem, attempting to understand the power of dark energy that bedeviled Einstein -- indeed, a portrait of Einstein hangs prominently in Jake's home office -- while a sudden collision irrefutably alters his own path through time and space. Essentially, how do things come together when so much works against that from happening?

Nova creates a suitable literary universe to mirror the movement of heavenly bodies that chiefly occupies his protagonist's time. Scenes transpire slowly, unrushed, letting readers experience the slowly decaying orbit that defines the characters' lives. Jake lives halfheartedly, afraid to break away from his connection with home, despite an absence of opportunity there. This places distance between him and his graduate school sweetheart. Sara is caught up in a lifestyle slowly suffocating her, on the run from defrauding those with the potential to cause her harm. Much like the cosmos, a different quantity of time must be used to measure how events unfold.

But Nova's universe is also one of sudden, abrupt collisions. Violence happens quickly, abruptly, and with little warning, much like the collision of asteroids or comets that travel at speeds reaching the quintuple digits. A quiet scene in a Radio Shack, where Jake goes to buy a TV for his long-distance girlfriend's grandmother, is shattered by the intrusion of a desperate gunman. A trek into the wilderness for a fishing expedition at Furnace Creek turns cat and mouse hide-and-seek that ends with a sudden stabbing and death.

All these instances of violence bring about a connection, however, rather than a sudden retreat. Dark energy's repulsive nature is momentarily overcome due to the intensity of the moment. The gunman's threat reunites Jake and Sara, back in their hometown for the first time in years, after not seeing each other since adolescence, a seeming coincidence. The sacrifice Jake's father makes with a hunting knife puts the two men closer together during the father's fading moments. Jake inadvertently stands up his girlfriend, forcing her to wait in an empty house for hours, which results in an explosive release of sexual passion and the possibility of a coming birth.

Hovering over all this drama are Einstein's ghost and the cosmological constant, which informs how fleeting these momentary connections really are. Einstein's general theory of relativity, a breakthrough in scientific inquiry, did not account for a stationary universe. Indeed, given Einstein's work, an endlessly expanding existence was more likely the case. Such an idea must have struck the genius as unfathomable. The possibility of not existing in a static universe, one where gravity would eventually win out and bring all things back together once more, could not be swallowed. Therefore, Einstein devised the cosmological constant, an equation whereby the universe was assumed to possess an innate energy field, akin to atmospheric pressure, that would hold the disparate "atoms in a void" together. The constant was reckoned to be the Super glue that held the shattered vase of the universe in place.

But even the greatest minds can stumble and fall. Edwin Hubble, of the namesake telescope fame, shattered Einstein's constant with the discovery of red shift and the subsequent understanding that, yes, the universe is not only expanding but seems to be accelerating faster and faster due to some unseen force: dark energy, which not only influences the movements of galaxies and planets but also the atoms within our very bodies. The universe's destiny is to not crunch back together from gravity but, rather, to fly apart into a soup of unconnected and isolated particles.

These implications imbedded in Nova's text can cause the reader to feel that any connections made are tenuous and transitory. Sara and Jake grow up together and embark on the beginnings of a love affair, only for her to be suddenly snatched away to a juvenile detention facility. Their connection later in life rekindles this affair slowly, but it ultimately flies apart once more as she leaves Jake's orbit. Even Jake's girlfriend, Gloria, drifts in and out, only returning with the news that a child is on the way. The especially close relationship between Jake and his father is just as fleeting, with one meeting his end before long.

However, the page mimicking astronomical fact does not make for the most engaging read. The book is aloof tonally, and methodical, but that can just as easily slide into plodding and cold. Those decaying orbits mentioned earlier are just as likely to be slow slides. The sudden points of contact never reach the heights that they could. Moments of intensity in a cosmologically plotted book need to feel like brilliant supernovas illuminating empty space, rather than the slow fizzle that happens here. While the lives of the characters on the page exhibit a sure and steady hand, the events that incite them to come together suffer from a lack of explosiveness -- often being drawn out -- that would justifiably shake Jake, Sara, and the rest from their stasis.

Perhaps the best example of this can be found in Jake. While he wrestles with the implications of his profession, he also deals with what it means to be a man. He says:

It's about time someone talked about what it's like to be a man now, and how even the term "man" has become a dirty word. What you think or feel as a man when you are not a rapist, a thug, a wife beater, a cheater, arrogant, an elitist, not infantilized by video games, but a man who wants to do the right thing, no matter what, and not to whine about those times, which everyone has, when things are tough.

His answer seems to come from his upstanding father who, faced with an unfaithful wife and a mildly numbing job, always strives to do the right thing. Even in the face of a terminal illness, Jake's father remains committed to doing the right thing. Yet that becomes a sense of passivity. Both Jake and his father are constantly actors in other's dramas. Their goodness seems to be a result of inaction, rather than action, content to let events run their course. While this leads to a sense of the two men as safe harbors, it is also troubling that the implication of actually doing the right thing is not actually doing anything at all.

Perhaps it is not doing anything and letting love express itself that both men cling to. Love can be that which brings all things back to the center. However, Sara, Jake's real love, abandons him. His role model, the father, is also dead. Gloria, pregnant, has returned, but her role has been largely incidental and the connection between her and Jake seems to have the sheen of a college romance well past its prime.

Cosmological facts override the text. The disparate "atoms in a void" remain just that. Despite a few touching encounters, nothing sticks. Like the opposite of the Big Crunch that Einstein hoped for, whereby all things return to their start and set the stage for a second Big Bang, The Constant Heart emerges as all things flying apart. Dark energy wins, like it will in our universe. But we can dream and aspire past such realities. Look at Einstein. What we know now may not always hold to be true later on. Nova's book ends with a whimper, rather than a bang, but doesn't have to.

The Constant Heart by Craig Nova
Counterpoint
ISBN: 978-1619020238
336 pages