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Surveillance: A Novelby Jonathan Raban
"Raban has already proven himself as a great writer in his previous books. And some of his characters in this latest effort are interesting. But his problem is that they all do the same thing. It's a one-dimensional setting playing host to one-dimensional characters. The result is a poorly developed novel that feels like a political lecture." Anya Yurchyshyn, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
Synopses & Reviews
In the not-too-distant future, national identity cards are mandatory, and America has become obsessed with intelligence-gathering. The government's scrutiny is omnipresent, civilians freely indulge their curiosity on the Internet, journalists pursue their investigations with relentless determination, and children both snoop on their parents and manipulate new technologies.
In Seattle, the unfulfilled actor Tad Zachary now performs mostly in the Department of Homeland Security's fictional disaster scenarios, while his friend and neighbor Lucy Bengstrom struggles to support her eleven-year-old daughter, Alida, on a freelance journalist's meager income — with their landlord providing additional threats. Then Lucy is assigned to write a profile of August Vanags, a retired professor turned best-selling author with his memoir of a childhood ravaged by World War II, but the validity of his account grows questionable, even as Lucy and Alida are charmed by both Vanags and his lonesome wife.
Everyone here is under surveillance or conducting it, and at risk of confusing what might be true for what actually is — a distinction not easily honored in a time of personal stress and widespread panic, when terrorist attack and literary fraud lurk around every corner. With precision and compassion, Jonathan Raban captures not only a peculiar period in our ongoing history but also a rich variety of lives caught up in fault lines that reach throughout society.
"In the year 2010, the Department of Homeland Security hires actors and homeless people to perform in disaster drills staged on the roadways of Seattle with actual vehicles and explosions. Concrete barriers, barbed wire, spycams and roadblocks are among the measures the government has taken to counter the terrorist menace. Congress has just passed a law instituting a biometric national ID card. In... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) his home on Puget Sound, August Vanags, author of a best-selling memoir about his childhood during World War II, serves a wild salad made of dandelion leaves, chickweed and nettles to the freelance journalist writing a profile of him for GQ. 'You've got to scavenge now,' he tells Lucy Bengstrom. 'You rely on supermarkets for your food, you're going to go hungry any day now. Do you have any idea how incredibly fragile the infrastructure of this country is — how easily it can be paralyzed by the enemy?' Yet 'Surveillance' is not an exercise in dystopian fiction — or at least not the kind that sends stick figures wandering through a post-apocalypse landscape. Seattle, where English-born Jonathan Raban has lived since 1990, is still standing in his third novel; indeed, the nicely detailed, realistic narrative describes engaging, three-dimensional characters with old-fashioned attention to their personal histories and individual psychologies. Better known as a nonfiction author, Raban views his imaginary protagonists with the same sharp-eyed yet compassionate understanding of human foibles that enriched 'Old Glory' and 'Bad Land,' chronicles of his encounters with the people and places of these United States. Vanags may talk like a Montana survivalist or (more often) a hard-line neoconservative, but he's also a garrulous charmer who tells Lucy to call him Augie and takes her 11-year-old daughter, Alida, kayaking. Alida, a math whiz who wishes people were as comprehensible as equations, alternately holds her mother at bay with preteen sullenness and rushes toward Lucy with childlike effusiveness — a vertigo-inducing seesaw familiar to any parent. Lucy is a warmhearted, generous woman, kind to Augie's slightly dotty wife, yet shrewd enough to employ her abilities as 'a good listener, a human sponge' to her advantage as a journalist. Tad Zachary, an actor who reluctantly makes his living performing in disaster scenarios, irritates best friend Lucy when he spouts left-wing cliches ('You think you're living in a democracy, then one morning you wake up and realize it's a fascist police state.'), but he's more than a sloganeer. Still grieving over the death of his partner, Tad becomes uncomfortably aware that his righteous outrage is beginning to feel more like 'demonic possession'; late in the story, he consults long-neglected Buddhist texts in an effort to tame his anger. Even Tad and Lucy's horrid landlord, Mr. Lee, an illegal Chinese immigrant intent on gentrifying their ramshackle apartment house with the profits squeezed from his parking lots, prompts our reluctant sympathy in a single, squirm-inducing scene. He proposes marriage to Lucy, twice his age, who responds with incredulous laughter instead of gratitude. Humiliated and infuriated, he makes plans to destroy the building that he dreamed would transform him into the 'elite player' beloved of the self-help guides he devours. Raban wisely chooses to focus on his characters' personal conflicts, leaving the creepily plausible near-future world they inhabit to simmer as a backdrop to their confusions, disappointments and resolutions to do better. Instead of dire warnings about impending doom, he offers unnerving snapshots: Alida reacting with 11-year-old glee to the news that her sixth-grade classmate is responsible for a worldwide computer virus ('We're all getting counseling! It's amazing!'); a baseball stadium evacuated after 'a man "of Middle Eastern appearance" had been spotted hurrying out at the start of the seventh-inning stretch.' There isn't much actual plot here, aside from Lucy's halfhearted pursuit of clues that Augie's memoir may be a fake, and the author will undoubtedly infuriate some readers by leaving every story line in midstride as the book ends. Not this reader, however. The final pages of 'Surveillance' are scarily beautiful, and it's possible that the forces Raban has unleashed will overwhelm these characters. Yet the primary emotion this oddly touching novel inspires is not fear but satisfaction, the sense of completion bestowed by a gifted writer who explores the human condition with tenderness, empathy and rueful wit." Reviewed by Amy Alexander, author of 'Fifty Black Women Who Changed America.' Her reviews appear monthly in The Washington Post Style Section.Terry Hong, a media arts consultant for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American ProgramCarolyn See, who can be reached at www.carolynsee.comPatrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.comWendy Smith, author of 'Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.' Her essay on Michael Herr's 'Dispatches' appears in the spring issue of the American Scholar., Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] well-realized novel....A coolly delivered portrait of the Wired Age, when paranoia rules and truth is at a premium." Kirkus Reviews
"[A] well-imagined tale of terrorist-obsessed America in the very near future....Raban's characters, not the futurist setting, are the real focus of this engrossing novel." Booklist
"Post 9/11, everyone watches and is being watched...In Raban's black and brilliant portrait of his adopted city, all kinds of sinister forces filter and manipulate the truth. A wonderfully ironic, disturbing take on the un-privacy of modern life." Kate Saunders, The Times (London)
"Raban is deadly serious in his portrayal of a country running scared, but he also has a taste for sly social comedy: His ear for idiom is well-nigh faultless, be it the ironic locutions of Seattle school kids or the braying tones of a haughty Englishwoman, and his character-sketching is precise and assured." Anthony Quinn, The Daily Telegraph (UK)
"The novel's air of mystery makes this an intensely involving read. You can sense the increasingly tangled relationships racing headlong toward a crash." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Surveillance is full of the kinds of long, drawn out dialogues about democracy and civil liberties that have graced many a classroom, even quite a few dinner parties, but sound absolutely ridiculous when written down." San Antonio Express-News
In the not-too-distant future, national identity cards are mandatory, and America has become thoroughly obsessed with intelligence-gathering. With precision and compassion, Raban captures a rich variety of lives caught up in the fault lines that reach throughout society.
About the Author
The author, most recently, of Waxwings and Passage to Juneau, Jonathan Raban was born in England and since 1990 has lived in Seattle. His honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Heinemann Award of the Royal Society of Literature, the PEN/West Creative Nonfiction Award, the Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association's Award, and the Governor's Award of the State of Washington.
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