This novel has the basic architecture of a thriller – a global conspiracy, a plucky band of resistance fighters drawn into a battle between good and evil, plentiful musing on the hidden dangers of contemporary life – but if you want actual thrills, you’ll be disappointed.
Instead, there’s a chewy narrative to get your teeth into, but if you’re expecting an epic showdown between the sinister techno-conglomerate, and the freedom fighters with a social conscience beyond their material wealth, then pick up a different book.
The concept is good. Three apparent strangers are linked by their unbeknownst proximity to a shadowy internet systems firm who have a mysterious base on the border of Burma and China.
Leila is an intelligent but naive aid worker who accidentally spots their nefarious minions in action. Leo is a spoiled, paranoid blogger with delusions of grandeur. Mark is a drug-addicted, washed up self-help guru.
Did I mention that Leila is beautiful? The men around her can’t help noticing. She helpfully takes a shower in the book’s opening chapter.
The opening chapter sets up Leila’s unease with her diplomatic status on the aid mission. “At every door, there was a boy with a rifle, sweating under a helmet. The menace was present in everything here; it was like walking by a man holding a stick, the man silent, the stick raised above his head.”
I’m pretty sure I’d take my chances against an old man with a raised stick, rather than an army of teenagers armed with guns.
Leila knows something is amiss when the host country stalls on providing vital medicine for her aid work. She’s been kept waiting for days. On the day of a key meeting, they keep her in a cell for hours. She doesn’t get to speak to the boss, but is instead fobbed off by his underling. “A pronoun without a referent. Always troubling.” Ah yes, the well known tradition of scenting danger through imperfect grammar.
Good one, Leila. The strange linguistic tic of sometimes choosing puzzling nouns for verbs also begins in chapter one, when, after a hard day at the office and accidentally stumbling across the global conspiracy which will change the course of her life, “Leila killed the fan and sparrowed into her sagging netted bed.”
There are several more examples of this – should we call it verbing? – in the course of the novel, and they’re similarly baffling. “By who?” she said, expressing a sachet of bright yellow mustard into her sandwich.” “With the buttons, she sphinctered down the cold air nozzle and began to unrecline his seat.” “Then she sandaled out of there briskly, into the hot night.”
Shafer is also bizarrely fond of the word “debouched”, when most people would simply say “got out of”. It’s probably supposed to sound literary. It reads badly.
To be fair, there are some good lines too, when, in the spirit of most global conspiracy thrillers, the imagery is kept short and snappy. “The car was so hot, she felt like a Pop Tart.” An agent arranges for Leila’s life to unravel, “like a premoral boy funneling ants into solvent.” “A fat man in a Lakers jersey and cap, munching on a sample burrito, stopped to stare. ‘Fuck off, clown,’ Leila said to him.”
Meanwhile, Leo’s paranoia is of the tin-foil hat variety (“Was it really so far-fetched? That there would be some agency tasked with keeping tabs on wayward members of the intellectual elite?”), but Mark’s breakdown has the ring of truth. “But in that self-abduction shit – where you take leave of yourself, and a ghoul takes over instead, and the night comes back at you the next day, memories like shredded documents; the gut wrench of wanting to know exactly what you did and not wanting to know at all – that was the kind of alcoholic he minded being.”
The most awkward moments come when Mark meets Leila, and finds “she spoke American, but was something other than white… That girl looked like his ex, but more exotic.”
Leila also has an awkward moment in a chase scene through Smithfield Market. “Leila had heard about Travelers once but assumed the whole thing – a nomadic white clan people, unassimilated by their small modern European host state? – was too bizarre to really exist.”
Despite a slow start, the narrative does gain pace, and, not before time, we are introduced to the revolutionary technology employed by the enlightened counter-resistance to combat the evil genius intent on enslaving mankind (or the richer half of mankind, at least).
The good news is that each of the protagonists grows in character as the story progresses. Could Leila learn to love? Will Leo discern fact from fantasy? Can Mark overcome his addictions and do the right thing?
The bad news is that by the time our band of three unites against the evil corporation, the story seems to be running out of steam. Has Shafer rejected the narrative conventions of writing thrillers, or failed to come up with an ending?
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Shafer (Penguin, 4 June 2015)