As in his 2003 novel, Waxwings (the first in a planned Northwest-set trilogy), Jonathan Raban's newest, Surveillance (Pantheon, $24), frames our city's social strata in snapshots lit by the current cultural climate. Then, it was the incandescence of the boom-and-bust cycle. Now, it's the stroboscopic flashing of the security state. With military checkpoints at the ferry terminals, mandatory biometric national ID cards, and a cranky-but-sympathetic character warning "this is World War IV," we naturally brace for a big catastrophe. Unfortunately Surveillance is a let-down in that regard, and many others, too. Raban's protagonist, Lucy, is a freelance journalist profiling (and distrusting) August, a retired UW prof who's written a best-selling memoir of the Holocaust. As she pursues rumors—on Amazon.com, no less!—that the Whidbey Island author fabricated his book, her gay BFF across the hall, Tad, finds evidence that their fishy Chinese landlord has stolen a dead man's ID. Meanwhile, Lucy's preteen daughter wonders why she's never met her father, questioning what her mother is hiding from her. Everyone has secrets. "The more friendly you get with a subject, the more you feel like a spook," says Lucy. "We're all spooks now," Tad responds. "Everybody's trying to spy on somebody else." You could say the viral outbreak in Waxwings was simple greed; here it's more like Google-noia, only the symptoms never raise Surveillance to fever pitch. Instead of discovering some great literary fraud, Lucy and her daughter merely grow fond of August, whose memories of surviving in the ruins of bombed-out Latvia as a child may contain the shrapnel of fiction. This charming neocon quotes Flaubert, Montaigne, and even E.B. White to her, while bitter, HIV-positive Tad warns Lucy of the creeping erosion of civil liberties—notions gleaned every night from Chomskyite Web sites. Puzzlingly, Raban's worrisome prophecy of a Puget Sound ringed by federal barbed wire gives way to a blithe indictment of journalism and a belated embrace of post-structuralism. That is: the unknowability of truth and the indeterminacy of the subject. Lucy decides she can't write a definitive, Janet Malcolm–style profile of Augie (befriend, capture, and betray), but instead resolves, "for these inconclusive times, it would be a topically inconclusive piece." Gee, the reader might reasonably ask of Raban, isn't it a little late to be getting all Roland Barthes on us? For a guy steeped in the traditional English novel, who writes such clean, direct prose (especially in his excellent nonfiction, like Bad Land), Raban's big idea here is shockingly stale compared to the pressing political reality in which he's so well versed. (See his 2005 collection, My Holy War, for his smart assessments of the McJihad era.) It doesn't help that Raban's characters are little more substantial than chessmen advancing the author's dialectical positions, black versus white. (So much for the rounded figures of the English canon he reveres.) You've got Tad the outraged liberal screeching in Lucy's one ear, Augie the gentle Jeffersonian whispering in the other, and the poor woman doesn't know what to believe. So she tries to write her story in gray, without taking a position or upsetting anyone. What a cop-out, both for Lucy and for Raban. Here we have an important, timely debate about national security in the age of terrorism, even if presented in schematic terms, and the best Surveillance can do is show how frightened, flawed people cling to one another in uncertain times? No one is what they seem, sure, but none of this has any consequence. In Raban's Uncertainty Principle, close examination undermines itself, scrutiny sews doubt, ardent conversation leads nowhere, yet everyone always knows the right wine to serve with the proper pasta sauce. Surveillance finely accretes Raban's observed details—like the way dogfish scatter beneath a kayak—without achieving any kind of synthesis. Thus the novel finally mirrors its flummoxed characters, but we expect more of a novelist than to simply throw up his hands, leaving his characters like dogfish chasing their own tales. email@example.com
Jonathan Raban will read at Third Place Books, Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., 366-3333, www.thirdplacebooks.com. Free. 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Feb. 15. Also: University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., 634-3400, www.bookstore.washington.edu. Free. 7 p.m. Mon. Feb. 26. Also: Eagle Harbor Book Co., 157 Winslow Way E. (Bainbridge Is.), 842-5332, www.eagleharborbooks.com. Free. 7:30 p.m. Thurs. March 8. Also: Seattle Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., 386-4636, www.spl.org. Free. 3 p.m. Sat. March 31.