They say newspapers are the first draft of history. And they say literature is news that stays news. This lightly speculative novel by Jonathan Raban—the Seattle-based Englishman, travel writer, and author, recently, of the post-9/11 political meditation My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front—falls somewhere in between, a kind of portmanteau of suspense narrative, psycho-ideological portraiture, and topical vignettes on issues from racial profiling to Pilates to computer viruses, none of which would be too far out of place as think-pieces in the pages of
The New York Times Magazine.
The scene is Seattle. The time, a near future, when national ID cards are imminent and the war on percolates as a state of permanent, low-level trepidation. The main protagonist is Lucy Bengstrom, a stuttering, single, moderately successful freelance writer for such slicks as The New Yorker and GQ who manages to pay her bills with balanced profiles of big shots like Bill Gates and Kurt Cobain, and who enjoys a decent relationship with her ‘tween daughter, Alida, a Green Day fan just learning the mechanics of irony. Living across the hall is Lucy’s best friend, Tad Zachary, a gay TV actor lately reduced to roles in emergency-preparedness demonstrations sponsored by Homeland Security, and whose credentials as a lifestyle leftist—former activist, HIV positive, an abiding love of losers that tends to segue into a love of losing itself—are fairly impeccable. Together, the improvised family unit enjoys a home life of appropriately stressed-out bonhomie, until the book’s slow-burning plotlines kick in, resolving into twin tales of, yes, surveillance.
One angle of observation tracks Lucy’s entrance into the world of her newest profile subject, August Vanags, a robust if reclusive bestselling Holocaust memoirist. As a former Nixon functionary and right-wing history professor, Vanags embodies many of the shibboleths we have come to associate with neoconservatism: its gooey, almost mystical idealism surrounding the good intentions of America, its obsession with appeasement in all forms, and its Cassandra-like pessimism regarding whatever bogeyman serves its current ends. In Vanags’s case, however, these tics are dignified by a childhood lived under Nazism, and when he speaks of political oppression it is with firsthand knowledge: “Civilization is always just twelve, maybe fifteen hours away from barbarity,” he says. “Doesn’t matter where you are—could be anywhere, could be Seattle—and less than a day is all it takes to turn a great city into a hellhole.”
During a series of visits to Vanags’s island estate on Useless Bay, Lucy is charmed by the author’s vast store of historical knowledge and his genuine affection for Alida, but she also comes to suspect that his memoir is perhaps not entirely true. Two passages flirt with plagiarism, she discovers. An aggrieved Englishwoman on Amazon.com claims he’s a fraud, and that her family harbored him in England as a child. Questions regarding his true identity continue to smolder, though they never quite combust.
At the same time, Tad is busy pursuing his own lines of investigation. Fueled by an almost sexual hatred of the current administration, he spends his nighttime hours trolling the Internet for new forms of political mendacity to feed his outrage. “…[F]ury sustained in him a disturbing feeling of intense well-being. Hatred of the president and his administration roused him to a kind of dizzy euphoria that he associated with the bizarre love affairs he’d had back in his twenties.” He was “in hate,” “and Tad, when truthful with himself, had to acknowledge that he liked being in hate. A lot.”
Tad’s obsession eventually shifts from the recesses of the daily news cycle to the private life of his and Lucy’s new landlord, the lamentably drawn Chinese entrepreneur/immigrant, Charlie O. Whoremonger, listener to business self-actualization tapes, grubby materialist, poor English-speaker, deluded lothario, Charlie O. seems largely to epitomize the less-evolved twin of Vanags’s Old World American Dreamer—except the Dream is no longer that of Freedom and Liberty, just easy wealth as a parking lot magnate. After a set of unpleasant encounters that might imply a coming eviction, Tad, in a stroke of Google-enabled deduction, convinces himself that Charlie O. is the thief of a deceased social worker’s identity.
There will be no great unmaskings here, though. No big gotcha or crossing of narrative streams. Rather, the final chapter sidesteps any pretense of closure by summoning an earthquake to future Seattle and stranding the characters in limbo, a move that intellectually might make some kind of sense—i.e. which fear will shape the future, that of global warming or that of terrorism?— but here feels expedient at best.
It is a pleasure to see an author (loosely in the manner of a Bellow or DeLillo) taking on characters motivated in some powerful way by political ideology. But in the end, Raban, a close, intelligent observer of current politics, seems to throw up his hands, and his effort to create a fictive realm any more dire or dramatic than the daily headlines slips from sight.