- Big If by Mark Costello
Atlantic, 315 pp, £10.99, February 2004, ISBN 1 84354 217 X
Before Mark Costello became a writer he was a federal prosecutor. His first book, Bag Men (1997), was set in 1960s Boston. A priest is murdered on the runway at Logan. A new ultra-pure drug is killing the hippies in Cambridge; another one is sending them mad. The hero, just finished at Boston College Law School, explains to his wife why he wants to be a DA: they ‘help people . . . they protect the innocent and serve the public.’ This is the ‘first big lie’ of his marriage; the truth is that ‘he wanted to see the world for itself. He wanted to see power naked. He wanted to see how bad it was.’ Costello’s legal training shows in his fiction. He writes easily about crooks, priests, lawyers, politicians, victims. And he knows how the world works: how the law works, how the police work, how power works.
His new novel, Big If, opens with Walter Asplund, a small-town New Englander whose main role in the story is to father two of its protagonists: Vi, a Secret Service bodyguard, and Jens, a computer programmer. But Walter has a symbolic significance, too:
Walter Asplund believed in many things, the dignity of humankind, the Genius of Democracy, the sanctity of contract, The Origin of Species, the mission of the bloodmobile, the charts devised in Hartford, poplin suits in summertime, brown bread with baked beans, little oyster crackers (with chowder, not with oysters), baseball, tennis, the New Yorker, travel hats he purchased from the back of the New Yorker (which he sometimes wore to baseball games), the pleasures of night skiing with his children on the bunny hill in Rye. He believed, that is, in almost everything but God.
He works as a claims adjuster for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. It is his job to describe complicated events, involving damage to life, property and happiness, in terms of a single standard of measurement: the dollar. The difficulty involved in reducing intricate and fluid facts to manageable principles, and the important truths such reductions leave out, constitute the story of the novel.
The plot – and, happily, there is less plot than you might expect – centres on the Secret Service:
The great mind of that time, the Einstein of this Princeton, was Senior Plans Analyst Lloyd L. Felker . . . author of 57 seminal white papers known collectively at Beltsville as the Certainties, the basic text on every operational topic: signal integrity, the encrypted comm, bafflers and jamming, set-prepping and site-checking, optimal bomb-dogging given crowd size n, snipers, spotters, counter-snipers, counter-sniper-spotter teams.
Felker’s trick is to devise security backwards: first, to plan an assassination, and then to judge whether the security procedures in place are adequate to prevent it. But his assassination plans grow ever more ingenious, and doubts about Felker start to increase. Eventually, he volunteers to return to fieldwork, in a detail protecting the vice-president (and future presidential candidate) on a tour of the country: ‘There were only 16 humans in the world under the protection of the Secret Service – the president, first lady and first daughter, the VP and the second family, ex-presidents and ex-first family members (imagine that . . . an entire agency organised around 16 beating hearts) – and 16 lives meant 16 details.’ A riot breaks out in Illinois after flash flooding, and Felker disappears. The rest of the team realise that the most dangerous man in the field is their former colleague.
All of this sounds rather fun, but one of the best things about Big If is that it fails to live up to its promises as a thriller. Costello is more interested in the lives of his characters, and especially the way their work defines and limits who they are. Vi Asplund is an able, athletic, good-looking young woman whose devotion to her demanding job allows her to put off dealing with the rest of her life: her father, her brother, men in general.
Why the agents had such shitty home lives was a question Vi had asked herself many times. The pressures of the detail were special and acute – the endless travel, the need to toggle back and forth from vacant mode along the ropes (the total watchfulness, scan the hands and scan the hands, always the hair trigger) to normal people mode, whatever that might be.
Gretchen, her boss, a former cop from Los Angeles, came East when a colleague she’d fallen in love with left her holding a baby. Now she has little time to spend with her teenage son – a lost child, he wears full baseball uniform and cleats to go to a batting cage. The click of his heels is heartbreaking.
The Secret Service plot eventually intersects with the one involving Vi’s brother, Jens, the computer programmer, and his wife, Peta, during the New Hampshire primaries. A great disappointment to his father, Jens gave up his academic career to make money designing BigIf, ‘a massive multiplayer war game on the web’ in which characters emerge from ‘a deep smoking crater formerly known as downtown Albuquerque’ and travel west through various post-apocalyptic hazards, in an attempt to reach, like virtual pioneers, the sparkling gigabyte Pacific. Jens cannot persuade Walter that the beauty and simplicity of the code he writes transcends the monstrous fantasy it is used to create.
At the centre of the novel is an account of the way BigIf evolves: ‘One side-effect of giving the game a shadow economy was that most players forgot about the wisdom pilgrimage and settled into one of the squatter camps along the way, selling simple, useful items to the new players streaming from the crater every day . . . Money made in different ways – stripping corpses, robbery – was spent on weapons.’ Eventually, a world of rich and poor develops, and the rich begin to pay the poor to do their dirty work. A few warlords spring up. ‘It was stated as fact in the BigIf chat rooms that 16 known players had achieved superwarlord status, travelling the space, pillaging enough gamedollars to pay off their followers. Soon, normal human players, sick of dying or living in fear, desubscribed and monthly revenues downspiked.’ Sixteen Americans under the protection of the Secret Service, 16 superwarlords: Jens and Vi are involved in sibling businesses.
The venture capitalists panic at the rate of desubscription. The flotation is cancelled – Jens’s dream of selling his shares, of getting rich and getting out, recedes. The programmers try to design morality incentives (expressed, of course, in real-world terms, in dollars); players, for instance, could be docked real air miles for random killings. But the logic of BigIf ensures its survival:
The crisis peaked and passed. Superwarlords got bigger on more killing. A few became megasuperwarlords, but one after another, each of them was swallowed up by his or her own retinue, which had grown too big to pay, feed or lead. The mercenaries, going unpaid, mutinied, killed the megas, and fought over spoils. The mutineers split into factions, slaughtering each other. Survivors were absorbed into a rival army, swelling it beyond the point of supportability and carrying the idea of mutiny like a germ, and the armies started to dry up, like a flood receding. Slowly normal players returned to the shops and roads and everything was back to where it started.
The Secret Service plot has an equally deliberate anti-climax. It’s unclear by the end whether the agents are protecting the VP or more subtly satisfying the urges of his assailants: the game continues.
The characters in BigIf, known as ‘wizards’, are designed to stay put until addressed by a human player:
In a person, say in Walter, this pattern of behaviour might be described in moral terms (stoic, faithful, dutiful), but in Jens’s system it was algorithmic: new plot x2, y2, equals x plus one, y plus one and the bot is driven to the virtual north-east. Algorithms were, as Walter had said, relentlessly amoral: the wizards scanned and moved because they were programmed to, and for no other reason.
Human behaviour, according to Felker, is equally predictable: ‘Looting is a form of shopping . . . There’s a pattern to it . . . Every study shows this. Looters go for three things generally: liquor, home entertainment systems and sporting goods – bats, knives, guns in the display case, ammo by the box.’ Walter’s objection, that these assumptions don’t take into account man’s moral nature, looks increasingly naive, or wilfully deluded. A moral view of humanity simply offers less accurate models for predicting behaviour.
Jonathan Franzen has praised the book for staking out ‘territory which, until his arrival, you would never have guessed it was vital to read about’. Orwell wrote that ‘Dickens sees human beings with the most intense vividness, but sees them always in private life, as "characters” not as functional members of society; that is to say, he sees them statically.’ Apart from the lawyers, his characters don’t express their sense of the world through the jobs they choose. Costello’s characters’ views of the world, by contrast, are largely determined by the way their jobs teach them to think. The way the world works, as it is revealed by their profession, is essential to their sense of themselves, of their lives, of life in general.
Yet his characters don’t rise above the details of their lives. One of the agents marries her podiatrist: ‘He had treated Debbie for her hammertoe from all those laps around the White House, and they had found that they had a lot in common, a love of animals and a taste for sweaters – marriage followed.’ His fondness for such patterned explanations (though this is little more than a joke) leaves out more vital matters. Jens’s wife, Peta, an estate agent, struggles to find a house for a choosy customer: ‘All Peta really needed was an answer to the question: what does Lauren want? What will make her happy – truly, deeply, finally happy? Why was this so difficult for people nowadays?’ Noel, her boss, tries his hand at an answer: ‘It seems to me the central question is: when does life begin? I’ve given this question some thought lately. Strenuous, nonironic, pro bono thought . . . It comes down to a sub-question: what is life? In one sense, my life began the day I was born.’ Costello is better at the practice than the theories. Whenever his characters philosophise, the prose begins to blush. He seems to know this: Noel burps slightly before beginning his speech.