A scientific hall of mirrors: Hampshire College alum pens novel rich in ideas and atmosphere

  • Publishers Weekly calls “The Revelations,” the first book by Hampshire College alum Erik Hoel, a “mind-stretching novel [that] makes the grade.”

  • Hampshire College alum Erik Hoel, today a neuroscientist, has used his experience to fashion a novel about science and consciousness that also offers an intricate plot full of mystery and menace. Photo courtesy Erik Hoel

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2021

Erik Hoel grew up surrounded by books — literally.

His mother, Sue Little, ran an independent bookstore, The Jabberwocky in Newburyport, a shop that’s still going strong after nearly 50 years in business. It’s a place where Hoel says he spent countless hours, both as a little kid and later as a teen, when he worked there to help his mother — though he often got distracted from his responsibilities by some new title.

Hoel, a 2010 graduate of Hampshire College, has made good use of that experience. His first novel, “The Revelations,” has been getting good initial reviews — Publisher’s Weekly calls it “a dizzying, impressive debut” — and praise from some literary notables including Andre DuBus III.

It’s a novel Hoel worked on for years, even as he was pursuing advanced degrees in science, because he wanted to craft a story that was rooted in the ideas and concepts of science, specifically neuroscience and the study of consciousness. To that, “The Revelations” adds an intricate plot that includes a possible murder, experiments on animals that rile up activists, academic rivalries, a whiff of ancient Greek myths — and love.

“As a reader, I’ve always gravitated to novels about ideas, that take a kind of interdisciplinary approach to their topics and are kind of hard to classify,” Hoel, 33, said in recent call from his home in Mashpee, on Cape Cod. He mentions “The Secret History” by Donna Tartt, Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” and Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick” as some examples.

“I wanted to write a novel that would have neuroscience as its foundation but could also work as a murder mystery, as well as a look at what goes on in research institutions,” Hoel said.

Following graduation from Hampshire, Hoel earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then did postdoctoral work at Columbia University. Today he’s a research assistant professor at Tufts University, where he conducts theoretical and mathematical studies to explore the biological basis of consciousness. One goal is to try to understand how the brain generates subjective experiences.

With a laugh, he recalled writing on his application to attend Hampshire that his Division III project — the individual, independent study that Hampshire seniors must complete to get their degrees — might consist of a “science mystery that’s part of a larger, more conventional mystery. I thought that could be a cool Division III project, though of course I had no real idea then about how I’d pull it off. But the seeds were already there.”

Though his coursework at Hampshire quickly centered on science — growing up, he’d read a lot of science fiction and then nonfiction science books — Hoel did some fiction writing on his own. But he first began serious work on his novel as a graduate student and continued to set time aside to write as a postdoc and then as a Tufts researcher. He was also an Emerging Writers Fellow with the Center for Fiction NYC in 2017.

He’s used his experience in academia as the foundation for his novel, though he’s quick to say “The Revelations” is indeed fiction, with characters that are composites of real people and imaginary ones. There’s also a depiction of a fictional research center at New York University that’s based in part on his postdoctoral work at Columbia. And the central character of the novel, Hoel says, “has many of my experiences, but they’ve also been put through the blender of fiction.”

Understanding consciousness

“The Revelations” is built around Kierk Suren, a depressed and somewhat manic postdoctoral student in neuroscience who, after flaming out of a research program in the Midwest, takes a postdoc position at NYU. Kierk is part of a special scholarship program in neuroscience involving seven other postdocs, some of whom he quickly alienates through his abrupt and moody manner and his jaundiced view of conventional research methods in the field.

“Oh, you think I’m wrong, Mike?” he says to one of his colleagues as he bats away the other’s arguments. “I bet I could squash whatever petty worldview you have with one hand tied behind my back.”

The scruffy Kierk is obsessed with developing a new theory on how the human brain generates consciousness, one that he believes has yet to be fully explored. Though his intensity and abrasiveness puts some off, one of his fellow researchers, Carmen, a former professional model who ditched that work to study neuroscience, finds herself drawn to his intellect and unconventional ideas — and he, more gradually, is drawn to her.

But the researchers are quickly confronted with a new wrinkle. Following a drinking bout at a bar one night that leaves them all terribly hungover, they discover one of their colleagues has been killed after being hit by a subway train. Yet no one has any memory of part of what happened that night. Did someone put something in their drinks? And was the colleague’s death an accident, or something worse?

Hoel does a good job of sketching the jockeying for position in these upper reaches of academia, the kind that might conceivably get a top researcher bumped off: Two tenure-track slots at NYU will be awarded to the top two postdocs in the neuroscience group. Carmen in particular is suspicious of the colleague’s death and enlists Kierk’s help in further investigation.

Another subplot involves possible lobotomies being given to local homeless people by someone doing secret research at the NYU center. Meanwhile, a primate research lab that’s part of the program becomes the target of increasingly aggressive animal rights activists after photos of a decapitated monkey in the lab become public.

Hoel says he worked for a time with primates while he was at Columbia, testing their responses to brain stimuli, and did not enjoy the experience. Animal research, he notes, “can be a pretty dark thing, even if it’s a big part of furthering scientific understanding, and I wanted to make that part of the narrative. My goal was to put that out there and show the picture from both sides.”

He also draws a complex picture of Kierk, who grapples with a sense of failure, and an in-depth one of Carmen, showing the different approaches both took to arrive at NYU. Kierk is also a writer, given to furiously scribbling in notebooks in a stream-of-consciousness style, and Hoel says he’s created a bit of a self-portrait in that sense.

“You have to be a little crazy and monomaniacal, a bit obsessed and romantic, to write a novel,” he said with a laugh.

The characters in “The Revelations” debate the meaning of consciousness, different types of research and other scientific ideas in scenes that require close reading by those not familiar with the subjects. And at times the novel takes on an almost hallucinogenic quality, with a sense of foreboding.

But Hoel also brings sly humor to parts of the book, in which those intellectual discussions become more like drunken college bull sessions. In one scene, a well-lubricated Kierk infuriates a pretty grad student in literature who’s interested in him when he dismisses her choice of reading material.

In addition to technical writing for scientific journals, Hoel has published essays and short fiction in a variety of publications, including The Atlantic. He says he has a nonfiction book about consciousness under contract and is also working on second novel that, broadly speaking, “is about Burning Man and the meaning of life.”

“I’m always going to make time for writing,” he said.

Hoel’s website is erikphoel.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.