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In the Terror House of Mirrors

The Unknown Terrorist: A Novel by Richard Flanagan

Reviewed by Sarah Kerr
New York Review of Books

[Ed. Note: This review discusses the context and contents of two books: The Unknown Terrorist: A Novel and The Reluctant Fundamentalist]

1.

Certain oft-heard criticisms of President Bush's policies seem rich, too, with potential implications for literature. There is the call, after seven years of awful decisions based on faith, to reembrace realism. There is the frustrated insistence that words and how precisely and intentionally we use them matter: see the War on Terror, with its battle cry against a metaphor instead of a strategic military target. Two recent novels, meanwhile, bring us news from countries that have been dramatically affected by that war. Though they are quite different, both novels take up the weightiest political questions of the day, and allow themselves the expression, not always deemed permissible in fiction, of anger about recent events. Both would thus seem to be firmly "reality-based." Yet they're also fascinated by reality's seeming relativity, its elusiveness -- or at least our tragic difficulty in apprehending it.

What if, besides the facts usually gathered under the category heading "reality," we were to consider something that is real but not so easy to measure: the experience of human beings as they walk down the solitary paths of their lives? All those lonely paths, dimly lit, zigzagging through a forest of myths and images from the local culture. For the climate, imagine conditions half helplessly inherited, half neglectfully or malevolently shaped by some government or other; for the weather, think of winds of trade, often gusting, and a drizzle of corruption. Barriers of class and status line the banks as each path continues onto the smaller, now unpredictable and infinitely varying features in the landscape: the individual's store of lived memories, lessons taught well or badly by parents, independent resolve or weakness, open-mindedness to other points of view or the lack thereof, love if the person can find it, luck either good or fatal. I am speaking allegorically here; there is in fact no walk down any path in either of these novels. But on a certain level these books also speak through allegory. Through it they try to capture that place where two clashing tones in contemporary life -- a cartoon bluntness and a complexity that feels too vast to master -- meet, and the fragile subjectivity of one person lines up with the drift of a nation.

It was not a given that the latest novel from the Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan would hew closer to the cartoon end of things. Until his new thriller, The Unknown Terrorist, came out last spring, Flanagan was best known in America for his third novel, the sui generis, formidably inventive, passionately Tasmanian Gould's Book of Fish, which conjured a dense, strange world from a few scraps of fact. In the nineteenth century, an Irish convict named William Buelow Gould was shipped to Van Diemen's Land -- Tasmania's name before Australia became a nation, back when the place, despite its physical splendor, was a brutal island penal colony. By the time he died, this obscure, actual Gould apparently left behind some intriguing paintings of fish. In the novel's prologue, a roguish modern-day narrator in the port city of Hobart visits a junk shop, where he claims to pull from a box the tattered remains of Gould's illustrated journal. Thereafter, we're plunged in medias res into the nineteenth-century man's scribblings. Gould describes his horrific captivity and picaresque escapes. The tale twists and wanders in a way that feels right for an "authentic" discovery, but also deals in the patently fantastic. At one point, Gould gets transformed into a stoic, all-seeing fish.

Readers are left to wonder: Is this a late, earnest entry in the genre of magic realism, or a hoax perpetrated by the modern narrator? The almost hectoring force of the novel is to make such questions feel merely literary, and therefore beside the point. Flanagan's distinctive, if also occasionally wearying, trait is his moralism, didactic without apology. He writes against colonialism -- of course. He also sends up the presumptuous Enlightenment thinking that rationalized this prison state into being. Near the end of the novel, writing in the voice of Gould as fish, he gives the final sermon:

Ask me -- after all, if you can't trust a liar & a forger, a whore & an informer, a convicted murderer & a thief, you'll never understand this country. Because we all make our actions with power, & the mass of us would sell our brother or sister for a bit of peace & quiet. We've been trained to live a life of moral cowardice while all the time comforting ourselves that we are nature's rebels. But in truth we've never got upset & excited about anything; we're like the sheep we shot the Aborigines to make way for, docile until slaughter.

American readers, accustomed to the neuroses of American myths about innocence and individualism, may have to work a bit harder to take in Flanagan's point: here is a New World origin myth with a map of blind spots and secret shames wholly different from ours. To cast themselves as happy rebels, Flanagan argues, European-descended Australians have had to bury those early memories of fear, despair, and control by petty despots. Social problems and corruption have been tolerated in the name of getting by. Getting by has become a basis for national character -- albeit boosterishly tagged with the more appealing name of good cheer.

The charge of Aussie avoidance lies at the heart of Flanagan's deeply pessimistic new novel. Compared with the risk-taking of Gould's Book of Fish, it feels at first like airport newsstand material: an almost vulgarly commercial thriller set in a modern-day Australia that has gone jittery over the threat of terror. Yet the novel aims to provoke from the start, with a dedication to David Hicks, the Australian held for several years at Guantánamo. Since its publication Hicks has, after a long legal fight, been released to Australian custody; one assumes Flanagan meant to protest the precedent of an Australian national being detained for so long so far outside the protections of the Geneva Conventions, and not to endorse Hicks's alleged pre–September 11 involvement with the Taliban. The book opens with a short first chapter that reads like the out-of-fashion prologue to a nineteenth-century novel. Disarmingly sincere, Flanagan sets out such themes to come as the legacy of Jesus, Nietzsche, and Chopin's Nocturnes, the last of which offer great solace -- but also, he tells us, foretell the heroine's death.

In the next chapter we meet the heroine: real name Gina Davies, allegorical nickname the Doll. Her path to Sydney began in the western suburbs, which tags her according to the local snobbery as lower-class and a striver. She is twenty-six, has dark "woolly" hair and a malleable prettiness, works wearily as a pole dancer at a high-priced strip club, and medicates her sadness with sedatives. Her training in the culture of Australian prejudice is decent, but she has let it go lax; out of habit and not because she cares, she might occasionally utter a remark about "Lebs." But in the culture of consumerism, the woman excels. The main pleasure she permits herself is self-destructive splurging on handbags and shoes.

The Unknown Terrorist opens just after breaking news has swept across Australia. A plot to blow up Sydney's Olympic stadium has supposedly been disrupted. Vagueness in this tidbit's sourcing and specifics hasn't kept it from ballooning to fill the twenty-four-hour news cycle. Having introduced the Doll, Flanagan shifts scenes to a mansion luncheon of powerful media types, politicians, and corporate consultants, all Olympians of self-advancement and insincerity. Among those jockeying for status is the news anchor Richard Cody, an Armani-wearing grotesque. Reckless with boredom and bullying, he announces that "the era of sentimentality is over," and "this is a good world....We have prosperity, beautiful homes...but there is irrational evil lurking out there." He natters on until everyone at the table is "hot-wired to his images of conspiracy, fanaticism, horror. He could feel himself cheering up."

At this point, American readers might think we're on familiar ground. Not only do we have a conscienceless media contingent with dangerous power to goad national opinion -- that contingent is presided over by the most famous Australian of them all. Still, Australia's situation is its own. The country is currently in its fourth term of rule by the Liberal (center-right) Prime Minister John Howard. Legislation granting the government greater detention powers on the basis of less proof has passed in recent years to outcry from civil libertarians. The tourist bombings in Bali hit closer to home than September 11; proximity to Asia, the pull of global trade (both legal and not), and debate over the handling of asylum seekers seem further distinctive factors. That Sydney also might exhibit qualities which look to the outsider like dynamism or self-confidence matters less to Flanagan. For there is still that legacy of denial, and mediocre corruption, and settling for getting by. With his plot Flanagan attempts to knit all these together, in the style of a paranoid 1970s movie.

For that to happen, the Doll must head to her fate. At Sydney's raucous Mardi Gras she dances steamily with a computer programmer named Tariq. When she goes back with him to his pretentiously decorated apartment for sex, she's unknowingly photographed by a surveillance camera in the building's lobby. Soon enough Tariq stands accused as the stadium bomber on the run (falsely, on top of which he soon shows up murdered, though as a drug mule he was not quite an innocent). The footage of them together becomes available to the vampire Richard Cody, along with a catastrophically ill-advised video once made of the Doll at her strip club, reluctantly performing an Islamic-themed strip act she was ordered to do by her boss. It's enough to make her look like a national traitor. And, not worse but more attractive to the media: a sexual psycho who cries out for hand-wringing diagnosis.

But the Doll still has blinders on; she's never in her life thought about the rending of the civic fabric by national security hysteria. The trouble she's in does start to bring out the natural human generosity and yearning for connection that she's been suppressing for years. But in the long chunks of the novel that she spends wandering the streets of Sydney, what she sees is mostly a phantasmagoria of emptily gleaming affluence and social neglect. And like the nineteenth-century Wil-liam Buelow Gould on his journey, she deals with characters who feel like allegorical ambassadors for erroneous, even possibly evil worldviews. One of these is Frank Moretti, a wheelchair-bound client whom the Doll visits each week for a private dance appointment. A go-between for trafficking (both drugs and humans), he's become rich enough to collect Miró. Unlike most characters here, Moretti actually has a smidgen of self-knowledge locked away in a corner of his heart, but life for him has shrunk down to a fetish. In private he keeps a disturbing collection of relics of twentieth-century evil: trinkets from victims of Stalin, a bloodstained machete from Rwanda's genocide, a gun from Srebrenica.

The novel's other walking allegory is thankfully a bit less broadly conceived: instead of the sins of a violent century, she must stand for Australian likability and its flipside. The Doll's slightly older best friend is a big, maternal, New Age blond woman named Wilder. Somehow authoritative and ditzy at the same time, she tries in her way to help the heroine in need, but if you listen closely, the nostrums she dispenses are a cagey evasion. She talks a game of fierce loyalty to Australia's Labor Party (center-left and, until a recent resurgence in the polls, notably weak) but has mostly kept her distance from current events.

The outlines of the plot, Flanagan writes in the afterword, were suggested by the 1974 Heinrich Böll novella The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. In that book, too, a lower-class woman endures a drab existence, fending off crude male aggression and nurturing pathetically modest but still, in a rigged society, unrealistic hopes for her future. Then one day she's arrested, on possibly manipulated evidence, for consorting with a reputed terrorist. It's interesting to see what Flanagan has chosen to update. Böll's heroine was a maid, primarily though not exclusively at the private home of a self-regarding, radical-chic bourgeois couple. The Doll is the weary seller of her faked arousal in the impersonal sex industry, risky to its practitioners and irresistibly profitable to its operators, with a changing global cast of colleagues and clients. Böll's pointed satire of the sensationalist conservative newspaper Bild Zeitung extends all too well to the media of today. But in the background of Böll's novella there was still a surviving hypocritical veneer of prudery, enforced by watchful gossip. The Sydney the Doll lives in is anonymous and awash in garish imagery, with invasive cameras as gossip's replacement, and news channels and Web sites to broadcast the images around the clock.

It's an out-of-balance, hyperstimulated environment that seems to have developed a certain resistance to irony. Or maybe it's Flanagan who has the resistance. This is parody that runs on cynicism and heartfelt disgust but very little humor; one is reminded of a fifteenth-century painting of worldly, cackling priests passing out indulgences, the hems of their robes aflame. Like that painting's artist, Flanagan does not feel confined to a straight realist style. There are moments of florid expressionism (in a scene that could come from Erich von Stroheim's silent film Greed, the Doll lies naked on her bed and covers her body with cash). Late in the novel there are movie flashback revelations of prior events, such as the news that the Doll was diverted years ago from a possibly happy path when her baby died. There are abstract motifs of a human community forgetting what's human and taking on aspects of a hive. With the exception of a sentimentalized Greek cop and a briefly met bureaucrat, hardly anyone in the novel expresses any kind of ambivalence about Australia's hothouse overreactions and the scapegoat sacrifice of the Doll.

One of the bafflements of the last six years has been the impotence of the legions who do pay attention and disagree, and whose disagreement makes no difference. Flanagan drains out the complexity of this confounding situation. On the other hand: in the weeks after reading The Unknown Terrorist, as I saw news briefs or heard stories about the overhyped capture of a clearly ineffectual terrorist, or the multiyear sequestering of some detainee, or the trace of the plutonium that poisoned Alexander Litvinenko showing up at a London pole-dancing club, pondering complexities did not seem the only proper response. One can want more interiority in a novel, more ambiguity, tact, smoother craft, more curious analysis of the problem before the handing down of judgment, and greater leeway to think for oneself. One can want these qualities and also feel how little Flanagan has to say about terror threats that might be real, not a manipulated invention. And still, one can recognize that his methods name a callousness at loose in the world today, a luridness, and a widespread helplessness before them both. If only they were the product of his imagination.

2.

Far from seeming bothered by the literariness of literature, Mohsin Hamid appears to savor it. Ambiguity starts out as the delicate organizing principle of his novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. By the end of the book it has turned into the disturbing payoff. Hamid is a youngish writer born in Pakistan and educated at Princeton. He worked for a time as a New York finance consultant before quitting to write, and eventually moving to London. His first novel, Moth Smoke, centers on a young man from Lahore, intellectually gifted but stranded in a mortifying class limbo. With his military father dead, the young man's career depends on the intercession of people he's reluctant to ask for help. Jealously, often numbed by drugs, he watches as his rich, heedless best friend goes off to America, picks up a cosmopolitan sheen, and returns home, likely headed for a career of high-status corruption. Though the novel's construction feels scattered, it has energy and shrewd observations of contemporary urban Pakistan. In it we learn, for instance, how young Muslims flout their temperance laws, police fear the military, and how for all but the rich, air conditioning arbitrarily shuts down.

Hamid's new novel builds similar elements into a more elegant form, through which he weaves a steadier tension. At the center of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is another promising, frustrated son of Lahore. His name, Changez, sounds as allegorical as the Doll's, but according to interviews with Hamid the name refers obliquely to Genghis Khan, conqueror of Muslims, rather than to a concept of change. He comes from a once-elite family (how elite and how trustworthy a witness he is on the subject hover as questions), and is more painfully aware than anyone around him of his fragile standing.

Still, Changez has clearly tasted privilege, and for much of the novel, though only twenty-five years old, he describes in nostalgic past tense the chance he once had to claim that privilege for life. He attended Princeton. After college, in a kind of finance-world version of Top Gun, he beat out the competition to work at a small, famously ruthless Manhattan consulting firm. His job was to study the fundamentals of client businesses, sometimes in the States and sometimes in farflung foreign locales, and then to advise them on which segments of their business (and so, indirectly, which employees) to dump. Also he was in love, a love that seems to have been only fleetingly, distractedly, and limply half-returned by a beautiful Princeton classmate named Erica.

When we meet Changez at the novel's beginning, in a café in the historic Lahore district of Old Anarkali, he has put the American period decisively behind him. To tell this story, Hamid has chosen an unusual structure. The novel will be a long monologue by Changez. To be precise: it will be Changez's half of a conversation, broken into chapters, with an American visitor to Lahore who is never named, directly pictured, or given a voice. Changez strikes up the stranger's acquaintance on the novel's first page. By the second page he is displaying a solicitousness that could be read as either generous and eager to show the best side of Pakistan by treating this representative of America like a VIP, or else controlling and potentially hostile:

Come, tell me, what were you looking for? Surely, at this time of day, only one thing could have brought you to the district of Old Anarkali -- named, as you may be aware, after a courtesan immured for loving a prince -- and that is the quest for the perfect cup of tea. Have I guessed correctly? Then allow me, sir, to suggest my favorite among these many establishments.

The odd formality of Changez's speech here gives a sense of the novel's lightly applied brush of the surreal; the idea of tea seems a winking nod to classical tale-telling with its opening invitation to sit for a while. And here already is the mild unease we'll be made to feel throughout, not quite knowing the intentions of Changez -- or the intentions, for that matter, of his conversation partner. Has this apparently coincidental meeting been plotted by one party looking to catch the other unawares? For just a split second, Hamid lets pass through the reader's mind a couple of nervous-making scenarios. Could Changez have somehow drifted out of sympathy with the US to such an extent that he wishes America harm? Or perhaps that's the suspicion of the nameless American, whom Changez describes at various points as possessing a bulked-up chest and the hardened face of a man on a mission and wearing a suit with a bulge in the inside jacket pocket that could theoretically be the outline of an undercover agent's gun.

But maybe we the readers are the ones who jump to conclusions; maybe the book is intended as a Rorschach to reflect back our unconscious assumptions. In our not knowing lies the novel's suspense, which is skillfully kept close to but never crosses into camp (although Changez's fussy, persistent invitations to stretch out this companionship for a few more hours did once remind me of the sketch several years back on Saturday Night Live in which a half-mad mustachioed Christopher Walken talked into the camera attempting to seduce an unseen woman).

Maybe Changez just really wants to talk. And maybe what he has to say could be seen as somehow representative of what the many thousands of people like him from all over the world, people who have lived in and adored but grown disenchanted with America, might say if they had the chance. His memories are certainly rich with symbolism for us to unpack. There is Erica, blond and athletic, with family wealth that pays for her idealism, a winning but insensitive habit of emotional directness, and an unconscious power, for which she doesn't take responsibility, to injure when she withdraws her attention. Further loading up the parallel to America today, Erica was once strong and hearty but after college grew weak, depressed, absorbed in uncertainty since the death of a beloved boyfriend.

In any case, the thinness of her character doesn't really interfere with the qualities one savors after finishing the book. At his best Hamid makes interesting, occasionally electric use of a thematizing intellectual imagination, bringing to life some frisson of history almost as a stimulating professor might. Changez really falls for Erica, for instance, while they are traveling with a group -- in Greece, that crossroads of East and West, where the origins of democracy sing in one key to America, and the depth and the proud, gloried longevity speak in quite another key, but just as intimately, to Pakistan.

So, too, when Changez travels for work. One of the most revealing moments in the book is a seeming throwaway. Presumably hours into his monologue, after he has been treating his tea companion to a long chain of sensitively described, often pedantically well-informed observations and memories, he mentions a trip he took for the financial firm to the Philippines. While on the job there, he marveled at Manila's gleaming business district:

I expected to find a city like Lahore -- or perhaps Karachi; what I found instead was a place of skyscrapers and superhighways. Yes, Manila had its slums; one saw them on the drive from the airport: vast districts of men in dirty white undershirts lounging idly in front of auto-repair shops -- like a poorer version of the 1950s America depicted in such films as Grease. But Manila's glittering skyline and walled enclaves for the ultra-rich were unlike anything I had seen in Pakistan.

To envy Manila and interpret its poverty through the lens of Grease! This is an intelligent, educated, well-traveled, even philosophical man. That does not exempt him from foggy thinking, and an insecurity that converts before it can even be registered into a kind of nostalgia. In fact, Changez displays multiple provincialities here. One has Lahore as its comfortable frame of reference; another luxuriates in the arrogant, sealed-off, denatured bubble of international finance. And then there's the third, generic, global dimension of popular culture. It's absorbed, spongelike, through hit movies and owned at this point by anyone who wants to stake a claim.

What prompted Changez to leave America? It was while in Manila, he tells the American, that he saw the news of September 11, and "despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased." Responding to the American's apparent agitation at this, Changez reassures him that he felt great sympathy for the suffering victims:

But at that moment, my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack -- death on television moves me most when it is fictitious and happens to characters with whom I have built up relationships over multiple episodes -- no, I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.

Eventually, the affair with the ever gloomier Erica over, angered by the bombing of Afghanistan while the formerly backslapping colleagues at his firm are disturbed by his increasingly erratic work and the new beard on his face, Changez seems almost to fade away from the States, to dematerialize, a flamed-out cosmopolitan, rather than to actively leave. The long afternoon and night in Old Anarkali wind down, or perhaps wind up, to the murkily opaque revelation by Changez of what he's doing today. He teaches at a university in Lahore, and has become a mentor to dissenting students -- part of a network advocating a drawing back from America and its influence.

And how far does this go? Changez's verbose explanations invite multiple, clashing interpretations; though we can't hear or see the American, we sense his tension. Hamid literally leaves us at the end in a kind of alley, the story suddenly suspended; it's even possible that some act of violence might occur. But more likely, we are left holding the bag of conflicting worldviews. We're left to ponder the symbolism of Changez having been caught up in the game of symbolism -- a game we ourselves have been known to play. We're deep into the house of mirrors of stereotypes that seems so key to the experience of being alive now. Once the province of the provincial, now so hard not to resort to in order to organize mentally a chaotic world. Unjust, yet such stereotypes are not always devoid of truth. Not ordinarily great friends of the novel, but then we live in interesting times.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Reluctant Fundamentalist
    Used Hardcover $7.95
  2. Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in 12 Fish
    New Trade Paper $16.00
  3. Nocturnes New Trade Paper $9.99
  4. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum Used Trade Paper $3.50
  5. Moth Smoke
    Used Trade Paper $7.50




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