Surveillance

By Jonathan Raban

Pantheon. 272 pp. $24

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Reviewed by John Freeman


'In the last few years," Jonathan Raban wrote in a Guardian editorial last year, "most of us - even instinctive technophobes like me - have become practiced in the dark art of surveillance." The English expatriate, who lives in Seattle, went on to describe how Google enables us to give our dates a thorough background check. He expressed disbelief that the NSA's wiretaps of domestic phone calls caused so little outcry in America. We would pay for this erosion of our privacy, he warned.

If Raban's new novel, Surveillance, is to be believed, perhaps we've already begun to foot the bill. Set in Seattle in the present day, the book tells the story of Lucy Bengstrom, a freelance journalist on the scent of Augie Vanags, the reclusive genius behind Boy 381, a memoir of escaping the Holocaust. As Lucy cozies up to her subject, she falls under scrutiny herself. Alida, her precocious sixth-grade daughter, has taken to monitoring what she feels is Lucy's binge drinking.

All of the characters in this crafty little book are watching and being watched. And who can blame them? Raban colors in the margins of his stories with the kinds of details we've all become used to since the attacks of Sept. 11: the invasive baggage searches; the soldiers with automatic weapons standing stone-faced at train stations and bus terminals; the top-down reinforcement of the necessity for loyalty; the repeated messages, at least for a time, that another attack was imminent.

In interviews, John Updike said his recent novel, Terrorist, was once titled State of Fear. Here is the book that truly deserves that title. Raban's characters aren't just bombarded with messages of terrorism. There's the ever-present worry about global warming, the real-estate bubble, the war in Iraq, immigration, the Big Earthquake waiting to hit Seattle, rising health-care costs, and the nagging sensation that the news isn't telling them the whole truth.

Shoving all this information into a novel is tricky. What Raban doesn't put in the mouth of garrulous Augie he shamelessly assigns to Tad, a left-leaning gay actor who is Alida's godfather. Like more and more Americans, Tad has ceased to believe in the objective truth of the media, so he shops for it a la carte. Late at night, he visits French newspapers, Arabic sites, English tabloids and blogs. He knows the government can keep tabs on him, so he's determined to keep tabs on it.

Raban is a skillful, occasionally elegant writer, and he's very good at showing how a sensitive person can internalize and grow sour on a diet of this kind of news. But since this is a thriller of sorts, he also has to draw these ideas out into conversations. This means 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.

But, just when Surveillance makes you want to run for a 19th-century historical, it backs off enough to become engaging again. As in Ken Kalfus' recent 9/11 novel, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, the fear and agitation created by this environment of heightened alert bleed over into the relationships on display. Here is the cost, one presumes, to the state of surveillance America has signed on for. When one replaces the trust that society needs in order to operate with fear and suspicion, our most intimate lives begin to fray.

Surveillance is most effective in charting this development as it plays out between Lucy and her daughter, who drifts toward Augie as if he were the grandfather she never had just when Lucy needs to be creating some journalistic distance from him. The ground shifts again and tempers flare. "Weird, isn't it," Alida says after one argument blows over, "that nothing makes so many things happen? It's so important it really ought to have a different name."

But, of course, the nothing does have a name - and it is fear. It is the emotion that leads Tad to start investigating Lucy's landlord, who might be an illegal immigrant; it's the same impetus that causes Lucy to take seriously a claim against the veracity of Augie's memory. In search of a climax, Raban drives his novel over the precipice of believability, which is a shame. But the dark warble of his point lingers nonetheless.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.