The Unknown Terrorist

The New York Times led me to The Unknown Terrorist, a novel the reviewer mischaracterizes as “a fast-paced, sexually charged whodunit that suggests a far more complex reality.” Well: it might be sexually charged, and a whodunit, and suggest a far more complex reality, but it definitely isn’t fast paced. At least the first hundred—where I stopped—weren’t, and the novel should have started around page 60. Even then very little happens over the next 40 except a lot of interior commentary from the protagonists and annoying exterior commentary from the third-person narrator.

I gather from the tone of paranoia and uncertainty about large, sinister forces that Flanagan’s heroes fear, he is supposed to be recalling Philip K. Dick and his acolytes, including the cyberpunks, but he doesn’t do it as well as them and forgets that they always served up their anti-government sentiment with a strong helping of story that didn’t just intimate Bad Things, but showed how they did happen. Flanagan could too, and there’s a good novel that could have been written from The Unknown Terrorist’s base, and passages of very good writing could be salvaged. Those good passages make the novel more frustrating; Flanagan draws the linkages among money, sex, machines, technology, and economic forces together well, as when he implicitly compares a strip club to a casino. The good passages also have their problems—the amateur sociology behind the strip club scenes could have been much improved by reading Chelsea Girl.

The novel fails because of numerous reasons, including the many vague, portentous comments, as when the Doll sees a cloud: “It kept changing, like the world,” that have no payoff. Yes, we know the world is changing, and globalization means that Australian strippers can sleep with Middle Eastern computer programmer/maybe terrorists, and that governments overreact to terrorism, but that doesn’t mean we have to be hammered over the head with it in metaphors—or in place descriptions. The often clumsy attempts to establish a modern noir setting, where everything is plastic and fake instead of grim and dirty, and nothing is as it seems, fall flat. I keep returning to Dick because he invented and adapted the settings Flanagan wants to use. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has a strong setting that doesn’t detract from the plot—which begins on page one and stops on the last page, and in which philosophical musings are organic the topic.

I hesitate to condemn a book where so many of the technical aspects, like individual sentences, are right, but so many of the big ideas are wrong because most bad or mediocre books go the other way around: good ideas and plots poorly executed in sentences. Some details utterly wrong aside from the strip club, as when the narrator observes that “appliances were all of the best quality” and everything was white and gleaming in Tariq’s apartment. For the last ten or more years, the nicest appliances have been silver and steel colors, although over the last few years some designers have favored black. Mistakes like these stop me from reading and make me question the author’s knowledge concerning what he writes. The Unknown Terrorist is not worth reading, and I shouldn’t have given it 100 pages.

As long as I’m on the subject of Philip K. Dick, in the New Yorker Adam Gopnik published this essay. I don’t agree with all his (re)assessments, which, as others have noticed, he strains for at times, but even when I don’t agree he makes provocative points and packs a lot of ideas into very little space, as with, for example, this:

Dick tends to get treated as a romantic: his books are supposed to be studies in the extremes of paranoia and technological nightmare, offering searing conundrums of reality and illusion. This comes partly from the habit, hard to break, of extolling the transgressive, the visionary, the startling undercurrent of dread. In fact, Dick in the sixties is a bone-dry intellectual humorist, a satirist—concerned with taking contemporary practices and beliefs to their reductio ad absurdum.

If Dick is treated as a romantic, he’s only capital-R Romantic like late Blake, or in the sense of the ironic genre of Romance as begun by Conrad at the start of modernism. I can reconcile him being a bone-dry intellectual humorist and a romantic, but Gopnik treats them as separate ideas. This powerful and interesting essay, however, is worth reading even if I think some of it wrong, and it is worthwhile much like A Farewell to Alms, a book with loads of insightful premises that may not add up to the author’s conclusion. I love anything that makes me really think, even if I conclude that the author is wrong. Gopnik and Gregory Clark both more than accomplish that end.

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