So-so Skinny Latte

James Francken

  • Zanzibar by Giles Foden
    Faber, 389 pp, £12.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 571 20512 7

Those who argued that 11 September could change the direction of contemporary fiction soon had a facer. The Corrections, published a week before the terrorist attacks, became a runaway bestseller, and the case against Jonathan Franzen and his kind of big social novel did not look so watertight. There may be something too wised-up about these novels, but interest in large-scale fiction has not fallen off after the attacks. Writers quickly settled back into familiar tracks; in the introduction to his new collection of essays, How to Be Alone,[*] Franzen acknowledges that ‘within 48 hours of the calamity’ he was giving author interviews once more: ‘business,’ he concedes, ‘is business.’

The publication of Giles Foden’s impressive third novel – which centres on al-Qaida’s role in the 1998 US Embassy bombing in Tanzania – could never have been that straightforward: the events of last September might easily have derailed his project. Zanzibar includes a cautious qualification in its preliminary note – ‘this novel was, largely, written before the attacks on America of 11 September 2001’ – but 9/11 inevitably looms over the book. Franzen chose not to gussy up his essay collection, although he recognises that some of his pieces may read differently now that the World Trade Center has gone, and that others might be coloured by the emergence of the anthrax threat and John Ashcroft’s rise to power. It must have been tempting to introduce a phoney topicality, but with ‘so much fresh outrageousness being manufactured daily’, Franzen allowed himself only ‘minimal tinkering’. For Foden, the difficulties were more acute. Zanzibar is a historical novel about the very recent past, but the terrorist attack in Tanzania already has a different look. Comparison with his work-in-progress – published as a short story towards the end of last year – reveals that Foden has made revisions for the final version of the novel, perhaps from a sense that his narrative has been outstripped by recent events, or concern that readers might shuffle off the implications of a story which might be thought to have been sabotaged by more newsworthy developments. There are moments when Foden seems determined to give the book an up-to-the-minute relevance: who, after all, reads yesterday’s papers?

Zanzibar has at its heart the budding relationship of Nick Karolides and Miranda Powers. Nick is a marine biologist ‘with the sea in his veins’, holed up in a research lab in Florida, where he nurses a faintly crackpot obsession with saving the planet. When he sees a small ad in Ocean magazine for an American-sponsored job in Zanzibar – a conservationist is required for the protection of the reef – he feels that he has found an outlet for his can-do enthusiasm. Miranda first appears out on the tennis court (‘she looked good as, holding out her racquet arm, she tossed the ball up freely’), a sexy and ambitious official at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security in Washington. She earns a longed-for posting to a foreign embassy and winds up in Dar-es-Salaam, far from stay-at-home friends, but close to Nick.

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[*] Fourth Estate, 281 pp., £16.99, 7 October, 0 00 714725 2.