Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Who's watching you?

The latest novel by Jonathan Raban takes its title and narrative from a very contemporary theme: Surveillance.

The novel follows the entwining stories of several characters living in and around Seattle in the "post-9/11" world. The central character, Lucy Bengstrom, is a journalist specialising in interviewing famous subjects. Her latest is August Vanags, a former university professor now feted for an autobiography of his childhood in Second World War Europe. Lucy lives with her daughter, Alida, a high school student coming to grips with the world. Their neighbour, Tad Zachary, is one of Lucy's best friends and acts as a surrogate father to Alida, but he harbours a deep resentment of the post-9/11 changes to the political landscape, venting this in online conspiracy theory forums. Finally, Lucy and Tad find the fabric of their world upset by the arrival of a new owner for the building they share, a Chinese immigrant with plans.

As the novel progresses, Lucy and Alida gain entry into the home life of Vanags, while through her investigations Lucy gradually comes to suspect that his biography is actually a work of plagiarism or fiction. Meanwhile, as Chick plans the expansion of his property empire, and the removal of his current tenants, he decides that marriage to Lucy (completely undiscussed with Lucy) is a necessary next step. Tad, suspicious of Chick's plans for their building, uses his internet skills to investigate Chick's origins and legal status.

As with his earlier novel, Waxwings, the novel is extremely well written, and successfully embraces the different narrative viewpoints. In fact, it's going great guns until, suddenly, it finishes. The novel moves from "full speed ahead" to "dead stop" in about 15 rather unconvincing pages. All of the novel's threads are suddenly wrapped up, disregarded or (almost literally) swamped by a deus ex machina. While there's a sense in which this event is perhaps fitting (i.e. an overwhelming natural event overshadows the lives of the protagonists), it mostly feels like the author had reached a final publishing deadline.

I've consulted with C and with JA, who've also read the novel, and they too found its sudden conclusion both surprising and unsatisfying. Especially given that the novel was proceeding very promisingly just 20 or so pages earlier. So, for all its quality, a rather inconclusive and faintly negative review from me. I'd love to know what Raban was thinking.

As an aside, although not billed as such (at least on our copy), the novel is apparently part of a loose trilogy, started by Raban's previous novel, Waxwings. This shares a location and the present day setting with ''Surveillance'', but also the character of the Chinese immigrant, Chick. In ''Surveillance'' Chick has risen up the commercial foodchain, graduating from odd jobs to property management. Where next?

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