Review by: KEN KORCZAK
As soon as I read the last sentence of THE THOUGHT DIAL an image of William Blake’s painting, “Newton,” popped into my mind. I replied to the chummy little daemon who likes to communicate by sending pictures into my brain: “Yes, that’s it. I see what you mean.”
I’ll explain this in a bit, but first take a look at Blake’s painting which I have posted here to the right.
Now I’ll fill you in briefly about this short story by Canadian writer PAUL VITOLS. On the outside it would appear to be a classic coming of age story featuring a pimply-faced teenage boy grappling with all the common elements of the strife and struggle of that age.
John Pulkis is in love with the girl who sits next to him in science class. He wants to ask her out but is mortified at the prospect of getting shot down. He comes up with a plan for a way to leverage his proposition – and I don’t want to give away too much – so I’ll just say a key element of this leveraging tactic goes awry.
He then develops a highly scientific strategy to solve this problem.
John Pulkis is enamored with hard-core material science. One of his idols is ultimate rationalist and noted skeptic, the late astronomer Carl Sagan. John also likes to noodle away on complex math equations in his spare time, such as massaging the Drake Equation, a probabilistic argument that predicts the likelihood of life in the universe.
But John’s scientific plan fails utterly. And then, something strange happens. The perfect solution to his problem falls spontaneously into his lap from an unlikely and unscientific source – in fact, not just unscientific — but an airy-fairy, New Agey, paranormal kind of trick that would make a “real scientist” gag!
And yet the hocus-pocus happens to work beautifully where the mighty reductionist scientific method failed!
Okay, so I’ll stop there except to also remind the reader that a lot of other stuff happens in this yarn as well. There’s more delightful fun than there is science, actually. For example, John is really into the Doobie Brothers and Elton John. (Obviously he was 16 around the same time I was in the mid-1970s). He goes to dance parties, has friends, an annoying sister.
Now here’s the thing: I read all the other reviews of the Thought Dial posted on Amazon and Goodreads. It seems that not a single person caught on to what this story is really about. They all took it for its surface value, that is, the story of a teenage boy working through a simple plot involving an attempt to solve a problem and get a date with a girl.
But the author’s choice of title should have given everyone pause. Sure, the actual encounter with The Thought Dial is just a few paragraphs and seems incidental, but it’s at the crux of the story.
To explain why, I now I return to Blake’s unusual painting of Isaac Newton.
Blake was an English poet, painter, and print maker, but he was also a mystic who throughout his life was subject to fantastic visions. He saw angels in farm fields hovering over workers, apparitions, demi-gods, nature spirits, elementals. He could communicate with dead people.
Blake was one of the last true hermeticists – his kind were being drive out of existence by men of hard science. The ultimate personification of the rational, empirical scientist is Isaac Newton. Blake understood this and so created the oddest depiction of Newton ever painted.
In Blake’s painting, Newton is portrayed as a man mesmerized by measurement – even while his own physical body appears inextricably intertwined with nature. Blake saw the mindset of scientific inquiry as, “reductive, sterile, and ultimately blinding.” Blake wrote: “He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only.”
So, the way I see it, this is what really is going on in Paul Vitols’ story. It’s the same dynamic. John Pulkis is so taken with numbers, graphs, charts and the scientific method he has unwittingly sabotaged his own heart’s desire – the need for love. Nothing is more irrational and impossible to measure than love. Thus, what helps him move toward his goal is “supra-rational” — esoterica and magic – encountered in the form of The Thought Dial.
Okay … huh? … wait a minute … my daemon is whispering in my ear again … What? Yeah, uh-huh, yeah, yeah, hmmm, yes, I see …
Um, well, my brain critter says I should discuss that odd “bloodless” scene that John Pulkis experiences in his high school science lab. I’m afraid I must overrule my daemon in this case, however. It would be best for readers to get their own copy of this ingenious short story and discover for themselves the marvelous layers of meaning encoded and intertwined within what only appears to be a simple coming of age story.
ADDITIONAL NOTE: Please see my review of another Paul Vitols story here: LOST KINGS
Ken Korczak is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: BIRD BRAIN GENIUS
All NEW: KEN’S BOOK REVIEW SITE ON FACEBOOK: REMOTE BOOK REVIEWING