More than a feeling 

Unlocking the past, one key at a time

Eugene Marten’s novel In the Blind is a focused exploration of grief and remorse, a shifting veil of hints, allusions and brief flickers of insight, a meander along a wavering path that finally resolves in clarity. Phrases emerge as a map to the central character’s psyche. Like a form emerging from fog, the string of experience begins to reveal a context, streets and strangers, echoes of the past and the blank page of the future. The urban landscape is an environment with the power to soothe and threaten; anonymity provides both safety and relief. Ultimately, the poetic language of In the Blind obscures even as it reveals.

The metaphor that acts as a hinge for the story is the key. A key can unlock. A key is a code that can be learned and duplicated. Just as a key provides an opening, a lock is a barrier. Locks can be re-coded, re-keyed. Locks can be finessed to open, or their central workings drilled clear through. There is also the point of contact represented by the insertion of a key, contact with a lock’s hidden inner workings. Once a lock is opened, a passageway to freedom presents itself and something is released.

In the Blind gives the first-person narrative of a man who arrives by bus in a Midwestern city on the shore of a large lake. He has been away for years. He has little more than himself and a past that clings to him like a shadow. He rents a room. He lucks into a job making keys in a hardware store:

“I knew being back was going to be strange, just not in what way. The streets were familiar but I no longer knew where they went. Everyone had a phone. I had to ask someone where City Hall was and heard myself stutter. That was something new.”

He has been locked up for the past six years. Yet it becomes evident that freedom requires something more than the absence of restrictive physical walls. He carries in him much of what holds him back, though he lives a pared-down existence that, for that reason alone, is relatively unencumbered. Still, things inside him—memory, empty spaces—act to weigh him down.

Through his work, he learns skills that give him the opportunity to resolve his issues with the past. It becomes clear that he made a fatal mistake, a horribly bad choice that resulted in his incarceration. At one point he reflects on auguries of the tragic event that would divert him from the course of his familiar life. “I do not believe in omens,” he begins, “but suppose you do. Suppose you’re the kind of person who interprets certain incidents and episodes as signs or warnings, though I am not.” He goes on to describe three disparate events that resonate as strong warnings that the man would soon come to see himself as dead wrong. Later, in the same style, he reflects, “Suppose your life was divided into eras. At the end of one you are slapping your wife in the parking lot of a seafood restaurant and arguing about who’s going to drive. At the beginning of another you are trying to learn how to breathe.”

“In the blind” is a phrase describing a way to work open a lock without being able to see inside. It’s done by feel, almost by intuition. Life is like working in the blind; the future is the lock and your action the key. A current of violence runs through In the Blind and illustrates the visceral finality of death, a symbol of something irredeemable, something that cannot be undone. Much of life operates on these principles of choice, action and consequence. Timing plays a part in whether events become commingled in chaos or harmony.

One choice, or a string of choices, can lead to a profound turning point. Such focal points are like locks for which action is the key. As with Pandora’s box, intent—conscious or not—is the key that opens the lock and sets in motion a course of events beyond anyone’s control. Again and again, In the Blind returns to the mystery of intermingled paths, to seemingly chance occurrences and to brooding silences from which irretrievable events emerge. The central character’s inevitable grief and remorse are never allayed. His sorriness is bone-deep, though not simpering. He has been responsible for the destruction of what he most loved. There is no real respite from this, no real solace.

In the Blind artfully succeeds on different levels because of its thoroughly associative quality. It serves to make the incomprehensible known, regardless of the manner in which events eventually play themselves out. It all just goes on: life, choice, struggle. It’s as if the message of the story is this: choose one thing or choose another, the consequences belong to us. They, in fact, become us.

Contact the critic: arts@missoulanews.com

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