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Spycams in Seattle

21 September 2006

10:40 AM

21 September 2006

10:40 AM

Surveillance Jonathan Raban

Picador, pp.327, 16.99

Five years on, and the 9/11 books begin to mount up: we’ve had Philip Roth doing it as historical allegory in The Plot Against America; John Updike doing it as a thriller in Terrorist; Jonathan Safran Foer doing whatever it is that Jonathan Safran Foer does in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; Ian McEwan’s Saturday; and now, Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance. You can already hear the sound of university critics drawing up the reading lists for their ‘Post- 9/11 Fiction’ courses: undergraduates, pay attention to what follows.

Raban’s book should certainly be required reading rather than a secondary source. Among American novelists (he was born in England but emigrated to the USA in 1990) Raban has written at perhaps the greatest length and arguably the greatest depth about the consequences of the destruction of the World Trade Center and the Bush administration’s never-ending War on Terror. In his 2003 novel Waxwings he produced what one might perhaps call a pre-9/11 book, and earlier this year he published My Holy War, a collection of his essays on homeland security and related subjects. Surveillance should be read as a companion piece — a sequel even — to these books.

Lucy Bengstrom is in her late forties, a journalist doing features for magazines. She lives in Seattle in an old apartment building with her daughter Alida, and across the hall from her friend Tad Zachary, a gay actor who is ‘scraping by on residuals, commercials, voiceovers, PSAs, vilely written parts in spec indie movies at two hundred and fifty dollars a throw, management-and-training films, the rare gig as MC at a corporate junket, and the interest on the proceeds of his mother’s house in Portland, Oregon’.


Lucy is commissioned by a magazine to write a profile about August Vanags, a professor of history, who has written a bestselling book, Boy 381, purportedly about his young life as an orphaned child in Nazi Germany. Lucy begins to suspect that Vanags may have faked his account — is he for real, or is he her own creepy little Binjamin Wilkomirski?

Vanags, Lucy and Tad are all typical Raban characters, complex and convincing in their subtle connivings with each other and with themselves. Readers of Waxwings will also be delighted to herald the return of the extraordinary and ever-resourceful Mr Lee, literature’s favourite Chinese illegal immigrant.

No one is perfect, though, of course, and there is the occasional glitch and slip in Raban’s smooth and silky prose. His grasp of girl-teen American culture, for example, is perhaps not all it could be: he manfully attempts the idiom, but gets the language just ever so slightly wrong. ‘They were discussing the new boyfriend of their favourite girl singer, Jessica King, who’d broken up last year with Dustin Kavanagh and was now going out with Steve Kunz, drummer for Deadly Nightshade, the Goth band.’ That sounds like somebody’s dad busking it to me — Dustin Kavanagh? Deadly Nightshade? A touch of the Terry Wogans?

The novel does not conclude entirely satisfactorily either — the wheeling out of the final deus ex machina feels like cannons being wheeled into a novel by Jane Austen — but this is mere plot and what really concerns Raban is clearly the vast hinterland of American life and its ‘spreading rash of concrete barriers, barbed wire, magnetometers, spycams, nondescript grey boxes that were supposed to sniff out pathogens in the air’. Of all the 9/11 books so far, Surveillance is perhaps the most disturbing because it offers scant comfort and no certainties. As Vanags cheerily warns, ‘Civilisation is always just twelve, maybe fifteen, hours away from barbarity.’ Discuss.


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