End-of-the-world sermon disguised as fiction

Review Novel

February 04, 2007|By Richard Eder | Richard Eder,Los Angeles Times

Surveillance

Jonathan Raban

Pantheon / 258 pages / $24

Cross Lincoln Steffens on the Russian Revolution ("I have seen the future and it works") with Pogo ("We have met the enemy and he is us"), and you pretty much come out at Jonathan Raban's new novel. "I have met the future and it's the enemy and it's us," in other words. This is the dystopian theme of Surveillance, a current that does not so much run beneath the fiction as flood it. The compass virtually pre-empts the ship, eclipsing such features of an ocean trip as sunlight on cobalt waves, storm clouds on black ones, salt air, flying fish, seasickness and the onboard affair.

Surveillance is a kind of summum malum of contemporary American civilization: a scouring compendium of the evils, blindnesses and vulnerabilities behind the choices that fashioned its power and prosperity and that threaten their imminent collapse.

Raban, best known for essays and books of reportage - such as Old Glory, an account of a trip down the Mississippi, and Bad Land, a study of the vanishing life of the Great Plains - has also written several novels. On the whole these have been less successful, and the same is largely true of Surveillance. Some of its indictments are provocative; many are somewhat worn - though not dismissible on that account, for the path to the better mousetrap is well-beaten. Not dismissible but, for the reader, rather flat. The main novelistic problem, though, is that all but one of the major characters serve chiefly to deliver the indictments. Additionally, though (a useful satiric touch), they embody them.

The British-born author has set Surveillance in Seattle, where he lives. The time is a very near future, whose features are only slightly stepped up from today's. The war is still on, and even more misdirected; domestic anti-terror measures have increased to the point where roadblocks and searches are universal and national identification cards are mandated.

(In a nicely absurdist sequence, armed agents so thoroughly ransack a Canadian of Middle Eastern descent on his way into a Mariners game that they deposit a whiff of ammunition on his clothing. When he leaves the stadium in the middle of a disappointing afternoon, he is searched again and the residue prompts the evacuation of 30,000 spectators. One dies of a heart attack.)

The novel's three principal characters form Raban's equilaterally triangular target. Tad Zachary, gay and HIV-positive, is an actor who performs in Homeland Security films depicting terrorist-inflicted catastrophes. A perpetually enraged leftist, he spends long hours in the blog world, swapping charges against the U.S. government for its fascism, corruption and international atrocities.

August Vanags, the Latvian-born author of a bestselling Holocaust memoir, is a vociferous libertarian whose charm and wit suggest a concealed degeneracy. Lucy Bengstrom, a freelance writer and single mother, is the wishy-washy intellectual, ready to see all sides of every question. (Her naively sophisticated openness got her impregnated in a one-night stand with a glibly sophisticated lawyer.)

Assigned by GQ to write a profile of Vanags, Lucy visits his home on an island above Seattle. Ostensibly a recluse, he is avid to talk about himself, explaining that the reclusiveness is a PR gambit devised by his publisher to increase sales (one of many minor corruptions inserted among the major ones by Raban, who is particularly sharp on the writing trade). A series of weekends follows, marked by good food and wine and prodigious talk by Vanags about American self-indulgence, decline and reluctance to impose proper order upon the world. He speaks in arresting paradoxes - even his cliches are polished - and Lucy finds her journalist's skepticism weakening even as questions arise.

Was his concentration-camp story a hoax, as a furious Amazon reader's entry claims? Lucy can't bear to think so; neither can she dismiss the accusation. Her solution is to attempt a fashionably ambiguous "in search of" story with no conclusions, but she loses heart and the story sags. And what about Vanags' warm paternal attention to Lucy's scratchy preteen daughter, Alida, who blossoms under his attention? He is infinitely persuasive - but then, the devil has the best lines.

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