Jonathan Raban
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Buy *Surveillance* by Jonathan Raban online

Jonathan Raban
272 pages
February 2008
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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"Democracy is the line that forms on the right" is an appropriate catchphrase for this thought-provoking novel set in post-9/11 Seattle. Surveillance is very much a contemporary tale about the war on terror and the politics of fear as five varied characters each struggle to cope with their differing perspectives on the modern world.

Indeed, paranoia seems to be everywhere, with the government always on alert and massive simulated terrorist attacks constantly conducted, sometimes even shutting down half the city. Adding to this sense of urgency is the fact that Lucy Bengstrom is anxious to write an article for GQ magazine on childhood holocaust survivor August Vanags and the effects of his book, Boy 381.

Meanwhile, Lucy's eleven-year-daughter, Alida, a childhood genius, records her mother's movements on a laptop and remains haunted by her grandfather's murder, "shot to death like a character in an Agatha Christie book."

Across the hall from Lucy and Alida lives the HIV-positive part-time actor Tad Zachary, who when not lamenting the loss of his partner, Michael, is starring in these citywide terrorism exercises produced by the Department of Homeland Security.

Tad is also at heart a conspiracy theorist, and as he trolls the Internet late at night, he becomes certain that the American government is operating and indeed has always been operating - in a cesspit of reprehensible activity, factions meeting secretly to further their own private agendas.

Much of Tad's life has been furthered by his breezy conviction that this whole terrorism thing is a gigantic hoax perpetuated by a criminal administration on a clueless electorate. Along the way, he becomes convinced that his smarmy, bullying shyster Chinese landlord, Charles O Lee, is going to triple the rent and turn their beloved "Acropolis" housing complex into a multistory parking garage.

Lucy seeks comfort from all this in the world of Boy 381, "better to starve in the ragged costumes of faraway history than to think too much about the present." She and Alida visit August Vanags and his lovely wife, Minna, spending charming weekends at their island home and ultimately seduced by Minna's exotic French cooking.

When Lucy, however, discovers that August may have lifted a paragraph from someone else's book, her loyalty to this kindly and urbane man is thrown into doubt. Boy 381, she slowly comes to suspect, is a work of fiction, not fact.

As Lucy tries to unravel the mysteries of August's past, these characters play against each other, each positing the various political positions of today and all standing on somewhat shaky ground, just like the earthquakes that threaten to destroy Seattle.

Tad is angry - angry with himself, angry at the presidency, angry at the nation, "angry at the century, and at the Halliburton fat cats and the mad Christian zealots." August represents the other side of the coin. The warmongering survivor of Hitler's regime, August delivers a powerful rendition of what it's like to really live in an age of terror.

Author Jonathan Raban has a great ear for dialogue, and he flawlessly builds the tension with each chapter. Surveillance cautions with its themes of fear and government conspiracies and the fragile state of democracy made terrifyingly real.

In the end, Raban delivers a mirror image of our world and unsettling portrait of a country driven mad, a world that is "built on a jittery and uncertain ground," threatening to collapse under the weight of its own suspicion and fear.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2007

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