It’s been theorized that the human brain operates like a biological supercomputer, essentially getting its messages across through the chemical equivalent of binary code. But for West Spencer, the quadriplegic protagonist of Cylin Busby’s Blink Once, communication through binaries proves to be a formidable process. Through the impressively medically-accurate but not overwhelmingly technical exposition, West orients himself with his locked-in syndrome; he is strapped to a hospital bed, unable to move or feel anything below his eyes. The darkly mysterious beauty from the next room over, lonesome Olivia, relinks him to the world of communication with characteristic efficiency: “She stared hard at my face, like I could answer. ‘Just blink once for yes and twice for no,’ she sighed, exasperated” (7). And through this simple system of “trues” and “falses”—and Olivia’s stealthy visits to his room—West and his patient neighbor develop their own bond, in parallel to the former’s struggle to reintegrate his damaged networks: between his mind and body and between his thoughts and the verbal community—his visitors, hospital staff, and of course, the “girl with huge dark eyes” (5), Olivia.
The protagonist’s immediate openness to considering supernatural explanations for some of his eerie hospital experiences sends the reader on a refreshing and generally convincing departure from the paranormal fiction convention (i.e. following the characters on a drawn-out journey toward accepting the paranormal). In fact, the investigation itself is all but inconsequential. Rather, Blink Once prioritizes the states of West’s sentience over his credulity, challenging the meanings of “consciousness” and “agency” within different dialogues. Like from the individual contexts of social relationships and social issues. Even though the book centers on the pains West and Olivia take to surmount the quite different impediments segregating their feelings from their emotions from their forms of expression, it also seriously but non-didactically attends to hot topics like the ethics of euthanasia and the definition of “living.”
Through the duo’s struggles, a largely (and understandably!) unvocalized romance gradually kindles between the pair. But how this romance so suddenly heats up from flame to wildfire is still a little lost on me. Two facts do help undercut any resulting misgivings: first, West and Olivia are, indeed, young adults (and so, as per convention, prone to such dramatic cases of spontaneous combustion). But more importantly, they genuinely, almost eerily instinctively empathize with one other’s thoughts and feelings even before the other can expresses them—whether via frown or double-blink: “We don’t have to talk and I know what you’re thinking. You don’t have to say a word” (75). However the rapidity of their fervor still remains one of several instances where I felt that the novel tended to drag on certain complications only to haste—albeit affectively and effectively—through their cruxes. I personally wish that the first two thirds of the book were quicker-paced (or at least, for the space given, that they introduced a more diverse assortment of plot events and/or interpretations through West’s eyes), and that the last third were a bit more fleshed out. In terms of plot, some of the loose ends left untied in the resolution do serve central themes:accepting uncertainty, dealing with the non-universalizability of “reality,” etc. But I would have been happier if these necessary loose ends were better developed, their uncertainty further reflected upon. In particular, some of the world-building mechanisms would have been okay left unexplained if they weren’t left unaddressed.
That said, I especially admire Busby’s technique of introducing West’s impressions and attitudes as intuitive or “given,” then later rewarding the reader for taking these opinions for granted by validating them with his ongoing observations, like when he takes note of his nurse’s gapped teeth and “that made [him] instantly like her even more than [he] already did” (18). This instant affection eventually takes on real meaning for the reader as the nurse’s characterization augments, verifying West’s seemingly cursory judgement. Similarly, insofar as the narrator, West, is comfortable enough to relate the events delineating the structure of his not-so-subtle homosocial/homoerotic relationship with his friend Mike, Busby succeeds in capturing the sequence of these moments as pure observations—and conveying their ensuing awkwardness—without explicitly developing West’s interpretations of them like she does for his other, less ticklish experiences.
Without a doubt, the story arc of Blink Once will appeal to fans of romance fiction. But I feel that the content will resonate more with readers interested in ghosts and mysteries, in consciousness and the surreal. West and Olivia supersede their role as a star-crossed couple, delving into questions of interconnectedness and self-expression and “soul mates” on a dramatic scale, but from a young-adult perspective relatable by readers who may be faced with some form of the same questions. While West provides the focalization and narrative voice, one should note that Olivia’s dialogue comprises the excerpt, Olivia’s description precedes West’s in the insert, and Olivia—sans West—inhabits the cover, which suggests that the novel targets a specifically female YA audience, even though I believe the novel’s exploration of communication and community, and ultimately competency, to be universally useful. It’s a shame that the marketing didn’t seem to have invested in attracting male readers; while the unconventional premise proved a poignant vehicle for the “love” moiety, it also wove a consistently interesting narrative (for either gender, I believe). Altogether a great read if you’re looking for a more mentally exfoliating kind of romance.
While there may be an infinity of questions lacking yes-or-no answers, 1s and 0s remain the indivisible elements from which we may begin to address them. According to Blink Once, once a true connection between two psyches is constructed, these irreducibly simple bits of language can themselves compose an infinitely complex meaning. West must learn to apply this realization in order to truly feel the gravity of his petition when it comes his turn to implore Olivia to fulfill their mutual understanding and blink once—to say “yes.”