Books » Book Features

Home Front

Surveillance: getting the picture (or not).



Snapshots, nothing more. ... They wouldn't add up, wouldn't form a narrative, because the narrative ... would lie elsewhere. ... [T]he piece would be about the comic intricacies of the chase, and its ultimate futility."

Those are the words of Lucy Bengstrom, a free-lance journalist hired to write a magazine profile of an elusive author, but the words might as well describe the strategy of Lucy's creator, Jonathan Raban, in his new novel, Surveillance, which does indeed trade in "snapshots," "comic intricacies," and "ultimate futility."

Is it, though, the post-9/11 novel that British reviewers have already dubbed "required reading"? Not by a long shot, and here I am, an admirer of Raban's essay work and especially his understanding of contemporary world events inside the pages of The New York Review of Books. What's the problem, then, with Surveillance? Precisely those snapshots, comic intricacies, and ultimate futility.

For "snapshots," start with Lucy. She's in her late 40s and the mother of 11-year-old Alida. Alida's father, a high-powered East Coast lawyer, was a one-night stand, and his name was Edward Something -- "something" because Lucy doesn't know. She never asked. And he's not in the pages of Surveillance. Chalk it up to a narrative that lies "elsewhere." As is the full story behind Lucy's murdered father, who was an agent for the Bureau of Land Management in Montana. As is the full story behind his murderer, a guy with a bone to pick with the feds. As is the full story behind Lucy's difficult mother, who once accused her daughter of having the personality of a piece of blotting paper.

Blotting paper? So be it -- the better for Lucy to soak up the subjects of her magazine profiles and the better for Lucy to get to the bottom of her latest focus, August Vanags, a right-wing history professor who's penned a memoir of his boyhood spent witnessing Nazi atrocities in Central Europe. The memoir's a best-seller, but is the book (and its author), in fact, a fraud? Lucy's beginning to wonder, but she's feeling less like a reporter and more like a "spook."

Spooking, spying, suspicion ... the theme runs throughout Surveillance. The setting is Seattle not far in the future, national IDs have been issued, the Department of Homeland Security regularly runs response exercises to staged terrorist attacks, and the star of the fake show is often Tad Zachary, a gay, HIV-positive but healthy (or is his doctor lying to him?) actor who happens also to be Lucy's neighbor/best bud and Alida's substitute dad. But Tad is on a tear as a late-night trawler of foreign Internet news sites. He's just waiting, no, eager to see the U.S. president and his administration "blown to atomic dust or drowned in a sack." The crime? The president's making a mess of the Mideast (not to mention his playing loose with the Constitution and the environment), which makes him, in Tad's view, a true terrorist.

And then there's Charles Ong Lee, who isn't a terrorist, but he's up to his own shadiness. He's the owner of the apartment building where Lucy, Alida, and Tad live, and he's ready to make a killing by demolishing the building and replacing it with a real cash cow: a garage, to add to the chain of parking lots he already owns. What's he doing in this novel? Faking his identity (again according to Tad), spying on his thieving employees, and putting the make on Lucy, who laughs in his face (a "comic intricacy"?). Why Lucy also spends most of Surveillance ready to reach for the nearest wine glass Raban never explains.

Just as you'll have to take Raban's word for it when disaster strikes in the closing scene of Surveillance. Some reviewers are calling the ending a real shocker. I'm calling it a cop-out. Or is the author playing with "ultimate futility"? Better for you to turn to nonfiction: Jonathan Raban's essays on post-9/11 America, My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front. There the snapshots add up to a narrative, and the narrative isn't elsewhere: It's on the page, drawn from the headlines, darker than fiction.

Add a comment