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29 June, 2007

Sleepless in Seattle

By Amitava Kumar


Title: Surveillance

By: Jonathan Raban

Buy from Amazon.com

I have just finished reading Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance. I recommend it highly not because it is a political novel (which it is), not because it is a smart novel (which it is), not also because as a political novel its smartness lies in throwing open the question of politics as well as representation (which it does, unlike say, Jay McInerney writing about 9/11). Not because here’s a major writer who blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction (a line that reveals goosebumps if you touch it right). And not even because the protagonist has a bright, young daughter (which she does, and I’m all for bright daughters and the joy that they bring), but because, living as I do in a world that is marked not only by the war on terror but also by little, irritating stuff like readers’ reviews on Amazon, I’m delighted to find that Raban has much to say about the former and also a little about the latter.

Read the book to get a sense of the first. But for the second, here’s a sample: “It seemed to be a part of the house rules at Amazon that to praise a book you had to manifest an exaggerated physiological response—laughing till you cried, cracking up, weeping buckets, or, as a woman from Akron, Ohio, claimed, wetting yourself, choking for breath, depriving yourself of sleep, as if readers were competing for some emotional dysfunction award.”

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First RaveOut that made me groan.  The book might be good, but this is just poor editing!  Surely you can do better.

Posted by Sumant on Fri, June 29, 2007 at 4:56:02

Yeah, didn’t like the RaveOut much.

Posted by Anirudh on Fri, June 29, 2007 at 6:36:53

Sumant’s “made me groan” was good, very much in line with what Raban is talking about. Can’t Anirudh do better? Slightly more physiological? “Gave me a slight headache?”

Posted by Amitava Kumar on Mon, July 02, 2007 at 2:16:12

More like: “made my eyelids droop”. :)

Posted by Anirudh on Mon, July 02, 2007 at 1:00:29

Jonathan Raban’s Seattle-based novel, “Surveillance,” is an amalgam of disparate elements: It shows a post-9/11 world whose inhabitants are living in a perpetual state of anxiety. Terrorism is an ever-present threat and government leaders are scrambling to be “prepared,” as if this were even remotely possible. A second element is the touching relationship between a journalist and single mom, Lucy Bengstrom, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Alida, who is math genius. Lucy and Alida are very close to their neighbor, Tad, a gay actor who is keeping his AIDS under control with medication. Tad is a paranoid left-winger who trolls the Internet for evidence that America’s freedoms are being undermined by right-wing megalomaniacs. He and Lucy often argue vociferously about politics, but Tad loves Lucy and he takes his role as Alida’s surrogate father very seriously. The final element is Lucy’s encounter with an elderly man named August Vanags, whose blockbuster bestseller about his boyhood during World War II is about to be filmed. Lucy snags an in-person interview with Vanags at his island home, and she soon develops a warm friendship with August and his wife, Minna.

Raban’s handles the Lucy plot line perfectly. She is a fiftyish single mother who adores her daughter but fears that her child is starting to drift away from her. Tad and Lucy’s new landlord, Charles Lee, is a slimy, greedy, and insensitive boor, and he makes for a loathsome villain. Lee considers himself a businessman on the rise, and he listen obsessively to self-help tapes about how to become rich and masterful. Yet, he is completely clueless about the social niceties and lives a pathetically lonely and isolated existence. All of these characters’ lives interconnect in various ways, and the reader becomes invested in their destinies: How will Lucy’s fondness for Vanags and his lovely wife affect her ability to write an objective story about him? Will Charles Lee’s plan to make his building more upscale result in Tad and Lucy’s eviction? Are Tad’s wild theories about government conspiracies simply the ravings of an individual with too much time on his hands, or does he have an insider’s knowledge of what is really going on?

Raban is a solid author with an excellent command of descriptive writing and dialogue. He does a marvelous job of showcasing the climate and culture of Seattle and its environs, and there are lovely interludes when Lucy’s daughter and Vanags bond with one another while chatting, kayaking, and exploring the beach. Because she likes August and Minna so much, Lucy is perturbed when she suspects that Vanags’ book might contain more fiction than fact.

“Surveillance” will garner the most attention, however, for its bizarre finale. Not only does the author spring an unpleasant surprise on his readers, but the outcome has little connection to the rest of the novel and provides no closure. This is a shame, since this book had a great deal of promise and Raban could have done so much more with the material that he had set up so carefully. Unfortunately, the conclusion undermines all that has gone before, and it is likely to leave readers more frustrated than satisfied.

Posted by google on Mon, May 19, 2008 at 11:24:07

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