Saturday, December 8, 2007

Jonathan Raban's "Surveillance" Book Review

Finally, a novel in which the protagonist checks Amazon reviews as part of her research. Lucy Bengstrom, a Seattle journalist interviewing a Holocaust survivor and wondering about the veracity of his best-selling memoir, thinks as she skims its nine hundred Amazon reviews: "It seemed to be part of the house rules that to praise a book you had to manifest an exaggerated response-- laughing until you cried, cracking up, or, as a woman from Akron, Ohio, claimed, wetting yourself, choking for breath, depriving yourself of sleep, as if readers were competing for some emotional dysfunction award." (204) I admit only to staying up late last night, and reading the book thus in two sittings. It flowed faster than I'd expected, and as I had only eighty pages to go at the point I had briefly separated my awareness from the page, I finished it summarily.

Emotionally speaking, happiness remains a will-o'the-wisp for Lucy and her daughter Alida, their neighbor Tad a bitter aging gay actor, August Venags the memoirist and his wife Minna, and Charles Lee-- an Asian immigrant, half-comic and half-sinister as his attempts to woo Lucy as he buys the apartment flat she, Alida and Tad occupy. Without giving away the climax of the novel, he puts notices in the tenant's mailboxes: "Notice of Demolition," and this phrase can stand for this story, set about five years from now. Lucy happens to be the same age I am, so reading this caused me a considerable amount of identification with her! Often, the travails of a writer make for thinly disguised agonies of the real writer of a novel. However, British-born transplant Raban, who I knew only for his early travelogue that I enjoyed twenty-odd years ago, "Arabia," integrates easily his adopted city's Seattle setting into a plot rich in character rather than description. That is, instead of focusing upon the natural beauties of the Northwest, he usually limits his omniscient, indirect first-person narrator to convey what each of the personae I listed above see of this city and the nearby islands.

What they notice tends towards the grim. Global warming leads to torrential rain and spring heat waves. In a clever detail, cars leave the engines on for the air conditioning as they wait for the ferry as a security check holds them up; on the ferry a short time later, Alida gives a thumbs-up to the boat's sign boasting its soybean-powered fuel!

The novel, in a scene that I admit weakens the novel's beginning and almost caused me to abandon it (until Charles Lee's entry made me pause and give it a second chance, overall earning more a low four stars or a high three as I think this incident weighs the book down in its early stages), begins with Lucy nearly involved in and eyewitness to a fatal car accident on the way to interview Augie the Latvian child grown U Dub professor and now retired political analyst. Now, most people would take the day off, beg off their engagement (even if it was hard to arrange that meeting with a famous reclusive author), and recoup. But, Lucy heads off with apparently less trauma than one'd expect, and while this may parallel her own brush with death to the many such close encounters attested to by Augie, it appears too contrived. The rest of the novel gathers momentum, as Lucy and Alida befriend Augie and Minna, and as Tad finds himself employed in dramatic enactments of staged emergencies indistinguishable from real attacks that the feds stage without warning in a near-future when neither side has won the war on/as terror.

Augie and Tad although they never meet provide the two polarities about the rationality of this war, and Lucy, although clearly the NPR listening liberal that one would expect of a writer who contributes to "The New Yorker" and "GQ," has therefore a chance to channel both views for the reader. Tad haunts the Net and convinces himself of conspiracies hatched by the Pentagon; Augie passionately defends a neo-con perspective that demands the fight for democracy and thus NPR's own demographic's choices means that eternal vigilance must be the price of freedom. Raban allows Augie's view to be conveyed through Lucy, while Tad's paranoia comes directly from his own mind: a clever touch that keeps the ideas of this novel alive.

The novel does not end tidily, to its credit. Near the final episode, as Lucy continues to wrestle with the truth of Augie's account, she begins to compose the profile on the enigmatic man's tale. "There'd be no bottom to this piece, no key to the 'real' Augie, no problems solved, no pseudo-urbane assembly of Augie in legible, transparent form on the page. Rather, readers would find themselves in the same position as the writer-- perplexed, fascinated, engaged, and sometimes repelled by August Vanags-- just as aware of their own shortcomings as she was of hers, aware that features and surfaces unregister themselves, and that like the writer, they must not conclude." Many reviewers, outraged at the novel's sudden end, may have failed to notice this foreshadowing on pp. 242-3, only a few pages from the dramatic conclusion.

I, too, would welcome a sequel. All the characters will be missed by me. But I am not sure if this would violate the narrative "rules" that the interviewer Lucy and the autobiographer Augie have themselves set up, not to forget the episode of Finn's freaking-out, so to speak.

While this novel may tilt for some more to a novel of ideas, or an Augie and Tad as mouthpieces to express the conflict we share in fighting a war against an often undetectable enemy in a time of sudden disaster, Raban is to be commended for keeping us all off balance, just as his Seattleites find themselves at the climactic event.

How better to finish off a novel about unpredictable times, when despite all the surveillance done personally or governmentally we must remember with a deus ex machina or a quick sharp shock how frail a human body is against the whole wide world? All of these topics, even if imperfectly integrated, attest to human frailty. Raban intentionally or subtly has proven how fragile are the electronic networks as well as the human connections in this novel of a time nearly identical to our own, as Amazon readers and reviewers!

(Posted, of course, to Amazon US today.)

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