Surveillance by Jonathan Raban

Claudia Smith Brinson
McClatchy Newspapers

Surveillance explores real, imagined problems of homeland security.


Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN: 0375422447
Author: Jonathan Raban
Price: $24.00
Length: 272
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-01

It's approximately the day after tomorrow in Seattle. Everyone hides layers of secrets -- just like today. And everyone is under scrutiny -- just like today. And everyone is terrified of terrorism -- just like today.

It's time to apply for your national identification card. And don't be too upset about the explosion down the block; that's just Homeland Security staging one of its dress rehearsals.

Tad Zachary is the bus driver with blood pouring from his ears in TOPOFF 27. Rescued from the overturned school bus, he will go on to play "Psychotic Homeless Man Disrupting Work of Rescue Team, then Dying Amputee, Man Having Coronary, and -- the one he seriously dreaded -- Man Being Dug from Rubble."

A professional actor, Tad earns $1,000 a day while the Red Cross, the National Guard, FEMA and local firefighters, police and officials tie up traffic, frighten (or annoy) civilians and get bad reviews from Washington.

Tad is neighbor and best friend of Lucy Bengstrom, a free-lance magazine writer. She has an assignment from GQ to interview August Vanags, author of the memoir Boy 381, soon to be a Steven Spielberg movie.

Vanags, a history professor, has described in a Huck Finn voice the World War II refugee and labor camps he survived, at a time when "wild children roamed over the landscape like packs of rats."

Lucy quickly doubts Vanag's authenticity. "The crafty, vulnerable little European ragamuffin in Boy 381 had turned into a dapper little American retiree." Is he a fraud or a smart, adaptable survivor?

Alida, Lucy's teen daughter, thinks her mom drinks too much. She's keeping a log. But then at school, spy cameras are mounted over doors, and Alida only half-jokes that microphones are hidden in the bathroom walls.

Math-whiz Alida hopes her record of her mother's activities will allow her to turn her mother, and thus other people, into algebraic equations because "she was dumb at human beings."

Author Jonathan Raban engages us to instruct us; he is very good at this. These characters are complicated, likable but flawed, so we worry about them and the state of affairs they -- and, likely, we -- are enduring.

Augie -- after all, he's been there -- warns of the apocalypse: "Used to be, only states had the armies and the hardware to go to war. This is the first moment in modern history when a bunch of private individuals have the power to take down a state."

Tad whose partner died six years ago, who fears (may have) AIDS, expresses suspicion. He knows he is "in hate" with his government.

He scours the Internet each night, reading newspapers and blogs and forums, following theories and rumors, "tapping out intelligence on the latest mendacities and misdeeds," tracking "codes, portents, plots, chicanery."

Lucy, like many of us, talks herself into and out of her worst suspicions. Raban illustrates this wonderfully with a car wreck she witnesses.

Raban does so again with the arrest of an Algerian only interested in sports, his car contaminated by a ferry's security inspectors. The man of "Middle Eastern appearance" is arrested leaving a Blue Jays-Mariners game; a woman dies of a heart attack in the stadium evacuation; his brother's house is raided, the children put into protective custody.

But Lucy, who witnessed the ferry contamination, thinks that, much like the FBI SWAT team, "she had no evidence at all." So why bother to speak up?

Obviously, Raban is not shy in using his authorial voice or his characters' thoughts and actions to say what he thinks of manufactured terror: "How could you explain to a child that `homeland security' meant keeping the homeland in a state of constant insecurity?"

He expressed his dismay earlier in My Holy War, a 2005 essay collection critical of measures abroad and at home.

Here, he is smooth and delightful and thought-provoking in describing our near future. He makes points about real versus imagined problems in multiple ways: Alida's views on cigarette smoking, her classmate Finn's hacker adventures, daily crime, coastal cities' multiple vulnerabilities, the homeless, landlord Charles O. Lee's horrific illegal passage into the U.S., Charles O's entrepreneurial plans for his future and Lucy and Tad's apartment building.

The ending is big and bad and troubling, so be warned. Raban is true to his point and his desire to make you think, so be warned. You may not forgive him, but he succeeds in his purpose: a wake-up call.





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