Fifty Mice is suffused with the paranoia of a country turned upside-down by the events of 9/11 and its aftermath, namely the increased powers of Homeland Security and government agencies under the authority of protecting the many in potential sacrifice of the few.
Living in a haze, with no ambition or sense of direction and unable to make commitments,
bored telemarketer Jay Johnson is on his way to a pickup game of basketball with friends when he is literally kidnapped from the platform of an LA subway. Jay awakens in shackles
and is informed that he is now in witness protection, soon to be ensconced in a secure location on the island of Catalina, off the coast of Southern California, for his own safety.
Surrounded by FBI personnel (notable for their ironic names like John Q Public
and Jane Doe), Jay--now “James,” a name he refuses to use--is purportedly living in a cottage with a “wife” and “child”: Ginger and Helen, respectively, the eight-year-old daughter unable to speak. Forced by circumstances to accept the current state of his existence and surrounded by attentive agents masquerading as neighbors and townsfolk, Johnson remains inwardly rebellious if outwardly compliant, set on escape from this Kafkaesque misadventure.
Pyne frames the events of Jay’s bizarre capture in broad daylight and his reactions to his dilemma as a frustrated, impotent target of a design beyond his experience or understanding.
He is a man whose life is to be endured, captured in a bell jar, watched and controlled, without the ability to reach or contact the world from which he has summarily been erased. The crux of the kidnapping, the true reason, remains obscure and without explanation.
Apparently Jay has seen something of great import. His captors are patiently waiting for his memories to resurface so that Jay can confess what exactly he has witnessed. Unable to remember clearly any of his recent activities, Jay is haunted by vague memories, dreamlike sequences of a stripper/mermaid he carried drunkenly in his arms on dark night, a memory that has all the substance of a dream rather than an actual event.
The tragedy of his youth only makes his task more difficult. His past has long been relegated to the subconscious, a world he has survived by sheer force of will and the denial of emotion. Even more bizarre, Jay cannot shake recurring thoughts of the casual discussions he shared with a former workmate in a testing laboratory, Manchurian Global.
The two friends ruminated on studies of mice trained to react to specific stimuli in a controlled environment--much like the situation in which Jay now finds himself.
This unknowing, this sense of being a mouse in a maze, terrorizes Jay and compels him to risk escape at any cost.
Pyne keeps the reader as confused as Jay, perhaps more so, as it is clear that the protagonist is repressing critical memories that may hold the key to his current situation. But it is his helplessness in the hands of government agents, the crippling sense of impotence, that permeates the novel. Jay becomes convinced he is bait in a larger scheme that gives this novel the ominous overtones of reality in the age of terrorism. Jay may escape his maze with some sense of resolution, but Big Brother has arrived in force, flexing its muscle--and opportunities for abuse--on every page.