Conspiracy lit is hardly known for concision. Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is the brilliant exception in a subgenre more usually exemplified by such triumphs of cabalistic overkill as Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy, Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. So, if nothing else, David Grand’s first novel, Louse, manages to pack a peck of paranoia into an unusually breezy if beguiling 255 pages you could easily whip through in a couple of hours. Which is a funny thing to end up appreciating about a novel-length religious allegory concerning identity (who is Louse?), metaphysics (in what sort of world does Louse reside?), and the nature of God (is He nothing more than a really bad boss?). Indeed, the Kierkegaard and biblical epigraphs signal heavy business ahead, and it takes about one sentence, with its reference to “the Resort Town of G.,” to realize we’re in Kafka kountry (at times Louse reads like a writing seminar assignment to “construct a fiction in the style of Herr Kafka”) with all the godless anxiety you’d expect.
The title character, Herman Q. Louse, is the one-dimensional, gray-flannel-suited personal attendant
responsible for delivering a regular regimen of painkillers to senile Herbert Horatio Blackwell, the “Executive Controlling Partner” in the Resort Town of G. Modeled glibly on Howard Hughes, as we learn from the “untold story” revealed in “hidden authorized screenplay notes,” Blackwell is a hygiene-obsessed former airline and film mogul who has retreated to the penthouse compound whose sterility Louse is charged with maintaining. Blackwell, with the aid of evil Dr. Felonius Barnum, has conscripted a small army of corporate zombies from among the gamblers who have lost their shirts in the casinos below his headquarters. These losers, Louse among them, must now work off their debt to the resort under strict contractual conditions in a parody of corporate culture that’s neither as all-encompassing as Wallace’s tennis camp and recovery facility nor as absurd as Pynchon’s Yoyodyne Inc. Motivational jargon valuing “interdependence” and “forward thinking” spur them toward their goal, the construction of a more exclusive resort called Paradise, where the elect among their minions will be
allowed to retire.
As in any corporate environment, paranoia runs amok in the Resort Town of G. Rumor mongering and voyeurism are strongly encouraged in this gnostic dystopia, with anonymous sex and gambling privileges the rewards of faithful service. Punishment is meted out publicly; one long, grueling scene depicts a woman forced to cheer along with her fellow employees as they collectively view a videotape of Felonius Barnum torturing her. Life under the gaze of the Executive Controlling Partner, Grand suggests, consists of darkness, pain, and forgetfulness on the one hand and the promise, or chance, of transcendence— who can or cannot enter Paradise— on the other. Grand combines the biblical testaments into a theological mishmash in which Calvinist notions of who will or will not be saved butt against Yahweh’s harsh punishments and fickle rewards. Is Paradise a throw of the dice or a merit promotion?
As every X-Files fan knows, the only thing creepier than a suspected conspiracy is a sanctioned conspiracy— the secret knowledge they want you to uncover in order to deflect attention away from the real plot, which shimmers on the horizon like a desert mirage. Louse contains conspiracies within conspiracies so convoluted that the book’s final pages whip past in an absurd whirl of revelations as Louse learns who he
really is and what he represents to the organization at large.
“Is it God’s cruel joke?” asks an exasperated Louse. “To hide my consciousness as he has? To let it be played with in such a perverse fashion? Should any animal have to endure such uncertainty in one given time?” Yes, the authorial God rears his head here, too. All writing is in the nature of a conspiracy hatched by a committee of approximately one. The trick is to make the reader truly care about the conspiracy the author is foisting. Louse has plenty of interesting ideas, but ultimately lacks urgency. Although his immortal soul is at stake, Louse is merely a mystery wrapped in a strangely unengaging enigma. Successful conspiracy fiction’s paranoid undertow sucks us in either by mapping dark, overdetermined connections between familiar events and personages (as in Whittemore’s and Wilson’s work), or by lending mundane existence an uncanny hue (Kafka’s termite art). Grand’s ambitious stab at conflating these two seemingly disparate strategies may actually have been doomed from the start. Then again, perhaps that’s just what he wants you to think.