A Novel of Paranoia With Too Little Trust of Readers
A Contrary review by Frances Badgett

Jonathan Raban's Surveillance explores the uncertain territory where many found themselves after Sept. 11, 2002: the territory between being irretrievably changed by the collapse of the Twin Towers and returning to baseball games and jobs and sit-coms. Raban chooses Seattle as a geomorphic and psychological background for hypervigilance and paranoia, with its natural threats, its unpredictable volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Raban lapses into place names a little too readily, trading brand and business names for a meaningfully and vividly drawn background, but for the most part, Seattle, far from Ground Zero, comfortable in its liberal, anti-governmentalindividualism, serves the book well.
        The central questions of Surveillance are the central questions of post 9-11 America: who are we, and who are they? In a nation that had Mohammed Atta in rental cars in Maine and in cheap motels in Florida, a certain paranoia seems warranted, possibly even prudent. It is here that Raban plugs the reader into his story most effectively, but ultimately falls short. His characters feel conspiracy and suspicion swirling around every unanswered question, every mysterious identity. But each event, from car wrecks to casual transactions on public transportation, is so heightened and laden, that many turn out to be red herrings, deflating and cheating the reader. Part of this is intentional. Raban wants the characters to be over-cranked in their paranoia, and he wants the reader to see the irony of her imagined crises, while the real crises loom in the background. The overall effect on the book is that of reduction, as if Raban is afraid of taking himself, or his story, too seriously.
The protagonists, Lucy and her best friend Tad, are each obsessed with finding clues through observation. As a journalist who specializes in profiles of the semi-famous and famous, Lucy questions the life story of her newest subject, an alleged Holocaust survivor. Tad, living with HIV, obsesses over the misdeeds and horrors of the Bush administration. Lucy's daughter Alida observes these adults with similar intensity, distilling human relationships into algebraic equations in desperate need of balancing. Raban risks seeming false as he explores Alida’s pre-teen world — the most false note sounds when Tad and Alida turn their obsessive gazes on each other, in what feels like a failed and vague nod to Nabokov, complicated by Raban’s cheeky admission that Alida is just three steps down the palate from Lolita. But Raban succeeds in pulling Alida out of a pre-teen stereotype and shaping her as a strong character. Particularly evocative is Alida’s mantric repetition of the phrase “elimination, substitution, intersection,” which lends its cadence to the whole novel.
The best moments in Surveillance occur when Raban marries his own capable, incisive observation to his winking, dark humor. The comically menacing landlord, Charlie Lee, frequently bursts into Lucy’s apartment unannounced (and almost always at meal times) and offers to put up security cameras, secure Lucy's bookshelves, all the while sizing Lucy up as a potential wife. In one of the best passages of the book, he lists her qualifications: citizenship, good secretarial skills, good homemaker, the care with which she takes care of her old Fiat Spider, and the eerie “best asset: an insufficiency that he could smell on her like mold.” Tad, meanwhile, discovers that Charlie is not really who he pretends to be, but in trying to bend Charlie into a preconceived conspiracy theory, Tad manages to be both right and wrong about Charlie. The characters’ misconceptions about one another rescue the novel from pretentious over-earnestness.
But if what works about Surveillance is this swirl of eyes and ears, of Google searches and spy cameras, what ultimately fails is Raban’s reluctance to drill deeper into the world of the characters. Everything exists so clearly at the surface, Raban leaves very little mystery for the reader to uncover. Raban plants the Bush administration and terrorism and viruses into so much dialogue and into so much scenery that he undermines a more effective subtext of  unsolved equations and mysterious circumstances. There is much to like in Surveillance, as it departs from an Office of Homeland Security mock disaster at the beginning and moves toward real disaster at the end. But Raban spends so much of the middle explaining that the ending arrives if not wholly anticipated, at least flat and unmoving. If Raban had trusted his readers’ intelligence with a bit more mystery, Surveillance would have been a stronger book, more laden with portent and excitement.

Frances Badgett is the fiction editor of Contrary.

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by Jonathan Raban
2008, Vintage
commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | winter 2008

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