When a novel balances itself on the head of a pin, and when the complexities of that novel come to weigh as much as the pyramids, there is always the chance that the whole thing will come tumbling down to destroy the piece and end the suspension of belief. The longer the novel, the more intricate the complications, the greater the sense that now, just now, or at the very latest the next page, the plot will unravel and the machinations behind it all will be revealed. Broken cogs in a clock, the hand stuffed inside the ventriloquist's dummy.
54 has an even greater challenge, in that it was written by the Wu Ming collective, a group of five Italian authors working in tandem. Put it all together, and it could be a recipe for disaster. Happily, barring a few unfortunate mistakes, 54 is an entertaining, complicated novel that succeeds more than it fails.
54 draws on a complicated set of character interactions, the beginning of which seem to be ridiculously separate. We have Cary Grant, bored with his acting lifestyle, propositioned by the British secret service, the MI6, to travel to Yugoslavia to meet Tito about a movie. We have Pierre, a young Italian man who loves to dance and misses his father. We have a sentient television, known by the clever but strained name of McGuffin. We have drug runners, Italian mobsters, Russian spies, American FBI agents. The list threatens to become exhaustive during January of 1954 - for the book's name comes from the year in which it is set, 1954, a year when Joseph McCarthy was causing widespread panic and distrust amongst Hollywood entertainers and intellectuals in general through his Communist scares - but the novelists keep everything flowing. 54 is written within a tight, most forward chronological timescale, moving from the first of January, 1954 to mid-November.
The plot is split into two halves. The first involves Cary Grant's mission to Yugoslavia and the bizarre interactions that take place between himself and the other characters. Roughly half of this is devoted to Cary Grant's efforts in training his replacement and traveling to Yugoslavia, and half to Pierre. Scattered throughout are smaller chapters which don't seem to have much to do with anything, though they help tie events together during the first climax of the novel at the end of the first part and form the primary thrust of the second part. Grant is as suave and charismatic as one would hope; adding a nice touch to that is Pierre's fondness for the actor. The second half plays up the role of the McGuffin television set as it is shuffled from character to character, its importance a mystery until suddenly everything comes to an explosive conclusion. Pierre remains an integral part of the novel in the second half, though Grant falls to the sidelines.
For all that the novel seems focused on Grant and Yugoslavia, there is a strong emphasis placed on the state of Italy post-World War II. The characters shown are tired, worn, waiting. After the war, the world changed in ways that have made them uncomfortable. America is encroaching upon their lifestyles, and the promises of the revolution never really came to fruition. The Aurora Bar's - Pierre's bar - struggle to purchase a television (which is, of course, the McGuffin) for the upcoming soccer World Cup is pathetic and sad, yet entertaining and hopeful. There is a sense that the old Italy is seconds away from leaving, with consumerism, commercialism, capitalism and all those others -isms of which America is so fond of exporting, right around the corner. The dire specter of heroin also raises its head, though this functions more as a monetary device than any real social criticism.
Wu Ming means 'anonymous' in Chinese, a name the Wu Ming collective have taken because they wish to dissociate their true names from the celebrity and fame that comes with authorship. Who they are is not important; what they are writing is, or so the saying goes. It is interesting to note that none of the anonymous Wu Ming members are actually unknown - a cursory Internet search will reveal who they are - which strikes me as a more honest way of attaining the anonymity required. The chapters of the novel are often written in such a different style that it becomes almost a game to pick which member of the collective is responsible for which piece of text, and I would suggest in the future that a group of five translators tackle the novel, one for each author. As it stands now, Shaun Whiteside performs an admirable job in the translation, through the proliferation of words like 'crap' and 'guys' in the narrative text come across as somewhat jarring. Setting aside the translation, there is also a sensation that the ending runs on for fifty pages longer than it should have, for no real reason other than to tie up loose ends that could have easily been left alone to the reader.
54 suffers at times from writing that is too clever. Cary Grant, running around as a spy, picks up a James Bond novel and laughs and points out (several times) how it could never be a movie. Marlon Brando is commended on his acting ability - remember that Brando had recently come to the stage in the 1950s - yet a worry remains that he will end up fat and useless. The McGuffin television set is actually called a McGuffin - a name for a plot device which moves everything along while not really being a part of the story - which stretches everything a little too far for this reviewer's liking. However, these too-clever aspects aside, the novel is entertaining and worthwhile. The Wu Ming collective sometimes throw a little too much into the mix - why Russian spies? - but these daubs fail to take away from the grander picture, which is meticulously plotted, carefully orchestrated and wonderfully revealed. There is a lot happening in this novel, with countless references to and endless cameos by real people and situations, but a firm thread of plot does shine through. Readers who put up with the scattered beginning will find themselves immersed within an enjoyable, though complicated, read.