Books

Surveillance by Jonathan Raban

Claudia Smith Brinson
McClatchy Newspapers

Surveillance explores real, imagined problems of homeland security.


Surveillance

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

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.

Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

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(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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