Film producer Simon Lewis was driving down Beverly Boulevard with his wife in 1994 when their car was broadsided by a van traveling at about 75 mph.
Lewis, then 35, had seen his biggest success with "Look Who's Talking," a comedy about a chatty baby starring John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and the voice of Bruce Willis. But after this accident his life would never be the same.
An hour after emergency workers reached the scene of the accident — the car had spun through the air and smashed into a tree — they found the bloodied Lewis and were surprised to discover he had a pulse. His wife was dead.
Pulled from the wreckage, he lay in a deep coma and had severe injuries: All but two ribs were broken, as were his pelvis, collarbone, both arms and jaw. His skull had been crushed. He'd undergone an emergency craniotomy to relieve the devastating swelling on his brain.
When, against the odds, he awoke, he and his parents came to realize how much damage had been done. He had lost a third of the right hemisphere of his brain, and his cognitive skills were impaired. It took a decade and a half of intensive therapy to recover, to the point that now he's ready to make movies again — an incredible story in itself.
But it doesn't stop there. The man he became is deeply changed. He's lost half his vision, and like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim In "Slaughterhouse-Five," he's become unstuck in time.
"I can remember events in the past with great vividness and clarity, but I can't put times to it. The past to me is one flat, beautiful canvas," he says. "If I were to ask you about your vacation last year, you would mentally be aware of turning back pages.... I wouldn't initially even have a concept of what last year means."
Usually when reviewers write "He says" in a book review, the quote has been transcribed and printed. In this case, you can actually hear Lewis say those words in an audio interview in "Blindsight." It's the latest installment from the Atavist, the build-for-iPad (and other digital devices) periodical. Launched earlier this year, this is the seventh piece published by the Atavist, which has looked at a bank robbery, a 1930s musician and the late basketball player Manute Bol; the multimedia format proved to be a perfect fit.
In "Blindsight," author Chris Colin uses the novella's length of words to tell Lewis' remarkable story. A touch on the screen highlights multimedia elements that enhance the telling of the story — video, audio, timelines, maps, photographs, even medical definitions.
Colin knew from the start that the Atavist was where he wanted to tell this story. He and its editor, Evan Ratliff, are experienced journalists; Ratliff is a contributing editor at Wired. They don't stick on the multimedia extras like rococo cherubs; instead, they're smart about using them to tell the story, to illuminate its strange corners.
For example, the title "Blindsight" comes from a rare condition affecting Lewis. Hold up a sheet of paper in the part of his vision where he is blind and he cannot see it. But he can identify its color — something that seemed preposterous to him, simply guessing, but somehow his brain has found a way to sneak the information past his blindness. To illustrate this remarkable phenomenon, Colin has included a video of a man who has the same condition: he is blind but walks through an object-strewn hallway, avoiding every obstacle. That isn't pertinent to what happened to Lewis, but it illustrates part of his story in a way that may have to be seen to be believed.
They don't even try, however, to create a visual illustration of Lewis' unusual perception of time. Although "flat time" is not a technical term, it is understood to be a condition of some people who have suffered devastating brain injuries. He can remember breakfast with a studio executive but not have any idea whether it was last week or before his accident, an almost impossible Hollywood handicap. But where we might see an affliction, Lewis sees his vision of time as being more correct now than it was before, giving him a new understanding of connection and consciousness.
"Lewis talks about consciousness a lot — the science behind it, common misconceptions, the plight of those living lower on the slope — but these topics blend seamlessly into macroeconomics, Obama or media trends," Colin writes. "Without a reliably coherent sense of time to provide order, his ideas sprawl."
Did Lewis' devastating injuries and new condition destroy his knack for creating big-screen Hollywood productions, or have they given him a way to return as a new, improved movie producer? That's the driving question in "Blindsight," which even as it chronicles his meetings with Hollywood players finds no easy answers.
There are many loose ends. The man who drove the van fled into the night and was never found. Lewis, a British immigrant, now lives with his parents in Los Angeles. Despite his remarkable recovery, he is relatively isolated. He cannot drive; imagine trying to, with the way he experiences time. If he had landed a major movie deal, that would provide a neat ending, but Lewis' life resists tidy conclusions.
The complexity of this novella-length nonfiction story dovetails perfectly with its multimedia elements. Sometimes they even serve as a counterpoint — Lewis' altered state resonates more deeply after seeing videos of the films he worked on in the 1980s — "Slipping Into Darkness" and "C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D." Lewis' story is sprawling and fascinating and is told with sensitivity and intelligence by Colin.
Published by the Atavist
$2.99 for iPad/iPhone/iTouch (multimedia)
$1.99 text-only on Kindle, Nook and iBooks