Synopses & Reviews
The Secret Service agents guarding the vice president steel their nerves to a multitude of dangers every day. When he runs for the top spot on the Democratic ticket, however, their personal lives may just be the biggest obstacle to keeping him safe.
Wry, muscular Vi Asplund is the daughter of an atheist insurance adjuster who took the young Vi and her brother, Jens, to the grisly accident scenes he covered. This tolerance for the macabre follows Vi into her career as an agent, and into Jens's development as the software designer for a gorey video game. Chief-of-detail Gretchen Williams fights to keep the team in order, while Agent Tashmo, a veteran presidential guard, reflects on the glory days of the Reagan administration.
As the primary approaches, these intense men and women balance their own lives with that of the vice president. An astounding novel of survival and absurdity, Big If casts a sharp eye on America today.
"A thrilling corrective to fiction's phobia when it comes to the subject of gainful employment, so lamenters take note (unless you'd prefer to go on complaining, in which case, by all means, horseman, ride on!) ... Big If
takes in the lives of an assortment of characters, most of whom are part of a team of Secret Service agents assigned to protect an unnamed vice president campaigning in a presidential primary in the late '90s (any similarities to Al Gore seem to be purely incidental)." Laura Miller, Salon.com
(read the entire Salon.com review
PRAISE FOR BIG IF
"He has created a thoroughly original universe . . . With his second novel, Costello enters the big leagues of American fiction."--Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review
"Each page of this governmental novel comes alive with intelligence, comedy, and inside dope."--Jonathan Franzen
"A supremely funny and engaging novel of great seriousness about family life, about the American small town under the influence of global forces, about the fear of death . . . Costello has done it, with energy, brilliance, and the shifting intonations of a great improv actor in the realm of lasting truths."--Vince Passaro, O Magazine
About the Author
Mark Costello worked as a federal prosecutor for five years before writing his first novel, Bag Men, under the name John Flood. He lives in New York.
Reading Group Guide
Q> Lloyd Felker has written a series of "fifty-seven seminal white papers," known as The Certainties, that outlines protection strategies for every possible scenario (p. 53). In a sense, these papers are like the computer code Jens writes for his computer game Big If-both are written to direct a response to anything that might happen. But when Felker begins to write scenarios that seriously compromise the iron-clad concept of the protection "Dome," the government shuts him down and burns the evidence. Likewise, the creators of Big If are stymied when players begin to get too powerful and threaten to undermine the anarchic nature of the game (p. 160). Do you think that a series of scripts, or memos in the case of the Dome, could truly be iron-clad? Is human nature something that can be anticipated? What are other examples in the novel where characters are taken by surprise by the actions of others? Q> Jens is in charge of monster logic for the computer game Big If. He created Big If's first monster, Hamsterman. When he is instructed to write a monster named Monster Todd, that is "a boy of fifteen, slouchy, acned, callow, carrying a backpack like any skateboard kid" (p. 144), he finds every excuse to avoid it, including making the visuals of Big If more menacing than ever before (p. 164). Why do you think he is so resistant to writing Todd? Why is it easier for him to write an algorithm for a more realistic shadow than to write a diabolical monster high school student, even when the world he's writing is completely artificial? Does it too closely reflect real life? What would Jens' father Walter, the moralistic atheist insurance adjustor, think of Jens' confusion? Q> The three central women in protection in the novel, Vi Asplund, Bobbie Taylor-Niles, and Gretchen Williams, have widely different backgrounds and lives. What drew each of them into the Protection Service? Is there a quality they all have in common? Q> Tashmo and Lloyd Felker are longtime friends, even as Tashmo has an affair with Felker's wife, Lydia. Why does Tashmo discontinue the affair? Why does he fetishize other men's wives? Do you think he would ever leave his own wife? Does his wife's infidelity contribute to Felker's disappearance? Q> Big If ends in a very unconventional way, where the ending is not readily apparent. What is Mark Costello saying about the state of reality and the novel? What is your opinion on a novel's (or any medium's, for that matter) ability to mirror reality? How real do we want our entertainment to be? Or is reality too mundane to be entertaining? Q> Politics is, of course, the main reason for the Protection Service of the government, along with its helper application ThreatNet. Elected leaders have systems to identify threats, and bodyguards to defend them from radical and unbalanced elements among their own constituents. Yet, Costello never gives a name to the very person the characters are protecting: the vice president as he runs for president. Nor does the VP make much of a direct contribution to the novel. Why does this leader remain in the shadows? What do you think Costello is saying about authority? What is he saying about government bureaucracy? Q> The VP's lead man, Fundeberg, insists on putting the VP in hazardous situations, and Gretchen Williams, the chief of his protection, allows herself to be manipulated into situations that compromise the welfare of her charge. She does this because she claims she is weak from eating too much (p. 55), but this reasoning cannot be the whole truth. What is Gretchen's ultimate reason for allowing Fundeberg to put the VP in nearly untenable situations? Is she merely being practical about what all this is about-politics? Q> Protection, in many ways, boils down to walking with the person you're protecting, scanning the crowds for potential trouble, and, ultimately, taking the bullet if trouble does occur. Tashmo and Felker were both on Reagan's bodyguard team when John Hinckley shot him. Why do they consider this the golden age of protection? Why do Tashmo and a few of his colleagues from that time relive their moment in the sun by trailing Hinckley (pp. 114-118)? Q> Religion, or moral authority, is a major theme in the novel: Jens and Vi's father is an atheist insurance adjustor who is the clearest moral voice in Big If; Gretchen's mother believes unwaveringly in God to the point of being swindled by her own minister; and Costello's description of the creation of the sun in Big If (p. 294)-all delve into questions of faith, God, and morality. Who, or what, is the ultimate moral decision maker in Big If? Are Big If's creators god-like in Costello's descriptions? What does it mean if the very creators of Big If can be fired? If God does not exist, how does humanity decide what is morally right? Q> Peta, nurturing and patient, is aware of her skill to placate clients-to bring them to the edge of sanity and back-in an effort to find out what they really want. She believes in voting, she believes in God, both with a clear-eyed practicality that lets her question their validity without loosing faith. When compared with the other characters, do you find Peta to be a convincing character? Why did Costello include such a conventional character in his unconventional story? Q> Many parallels can be drawn between Big If and Don DeLillo's novel White Noise. But where White Noise is concerned with history and how we remember it, Big If explores the present and the impact of paranoia on public and private life. Do you think that Costello's representation of an overly paranoid world inhabited by extraordinarily ordinary characters is accurate-does it reflect the real world? What about since 9/11 and the war on terrorism, when Americans are no longer as assured of their safety? Do you think we can be too paranoid now? Q> Walter Asplund is an insurance adjustor. When Vi and Jens are old enough, he takes them on insurance adjusting trips all over the state. He is well-liked and respected for his work, but his open, often defiant atheism is a source of tension with his community in Center Effing, New Hampshire. His most bald, most public act against God may be that he habitually crosses out the word "God" in the slogan "In God We Trust" on currency, sometimes amending it to say "In Us We Trust" (pp. 11-12). Why is this little bit of defiance so consternating to his New Hampshire community? How do Jens and Vi deal with the hardships and taunting that their father provokes? Q> Gretchen left Los Angeles with her son, Tevon, because she never wanted him to see his city burn, (p. 52) which is later referred to as "her closet Caliphobia." (p. 53). Is she voicing a legitimate reason for leaving LA, or is it a convenient excuse to escape other problems? What is she trying to make up for by spoiling him? Does Gretchen feel worthy of respect? Would you say her primary motivation is fear? As a comparison, what is Jens and Peta's relationship to their small son? Do the limits they set and the rules they impose on Kai (p. 143) mean they love him less? Q> The Certainties, written by Felker, are the protection division's instruction manual-a set of documents that tells them how to handle any protection scenario-or so they thought. But when Felker writes new scenarios (called the Sensitives) that undermine the Dome, the government panics and orders him to stop (p. 72-74). Why does the government shut him down? Why does Felker prefer to be guarding a real person rather than writing more memos? In the end, is the paranoia of protection and the whole body of the Dome justified, in whole or in part?
Copyright (c) 2003. Published in the U.S. by Harcourt, Inc. Reading Group Guide written by Andrew Ayala