Your life depends on it

Thomas Jones

  • Surveillance by Jonathan Raban
    Picador, 327 pp, £16.99, September 2006, ISBN 0 330 41338 4

Jonathan Raban’s first work of fiction, Foreign Land, was published in 1985; his second, Waxwings, in 2003; Surveillance is his third. A gap of almost twenty years, and then two novels in fairly rapid succession. In the meantime, he has written a number of works of non-fiction: of memoir, reportage and – for want of a better way of putting it – travel writing. It may be tempting to see some significance in his recent turn to fiction, but perhaps this is to underestimate the porousness of the membranes between different kinds of writing. ‘By the time you’re writing memoir,’ Raban said in a recent interview, ‘you’re effectively writing fiction, because you’re concerned with all those fictional things – with the story, with making the character sound convincing.’

The heroine of Surveillance, Lucy Bengstrom, doesn’t acknowledge a difference between fiction and non-fiction in the way she stacks her bookshelves: everything is arranged alphabetically by writer, with Kathy Acker slotted in next to Dr Atkins’ Diet Revolution. Lucy’s 11-year-old daughter, Alida, disapproves of this ‘promiscuous mingling’. ‘Alida was hungry for realism. Most of her favourite books were non-fiction, like Anne Frank’s diary . . . books where stuff happened because there was no other way for it to happen, however much the author might have wanted it to happen differently.’ That said, she also has a weakness for Agatha Christie and Miss Marple’s fussy talent for ‘human algebra’. People wouldn’t be people, and characters in novels wouldn’t be proper characters, without their contradictions.

Alida’s favourite subject is maths, ‘and this semester she was seriously into algebra,’ but she also ‘loved ten-dollar words’, collecting such ‘treasures’ as ‘azimuthal’, ‘egregious’ and ‘collateral’, and has lately taken up experimenting with irony, though this is proving difficult because other people, slow on the uptake, tend to assume that she means what she says. Lucy sees her daughter growing up and slipping away from her. ‘God, those sunglasses,’ she thinks: ‘they turned her into a nymphet.’ She later feels ‘an unsettling pang, half loss, half pride, at seeing Alida as this articulate stranger on the far side of the dinner table – someone whom Lucy ruefully thought she’d be glad to get to know.’

Lucy too is troubled by the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, or rather by the difficulty of making it. It ought to be easy: as a toddler, surfing through the channels on the TV, Alida had known ‘that fiction was differently lit from fact, and had only to glimpse a single moving image to categorise it, one way or the other, with deadshot accuracy’. But what happens when fiction is lit as if it were fact? A freelance journalist who, like Raban, lives in Seattle, Lucy has been commissioned by GQ to write a profile of August Vanags, the supposedly reclusive author of a bestselling memoir: Boy 381 is a ‘light, sweet-tempered, brave and funny’ account of an orphan’s feral childhood in Central Europe during the Second World War.

Lucy drives out to meet Vanags at his house on Whidbey Island in Useless Bay, a half-hour ferry ride from the city. Almost the first thing she learns about him is that he is not a recluse at all – or at least not a willing one. His publishers had at first planned to send him on a 21-city tour to publicise the book; but then they met him:

Lucy could imagine the scene at the publishers’ office. Counting on a ripely accented, gaunt and hollow-eyed survivor of the miseries of war, a figure of haunting telegenic pathos, they’d come face to face with this chipper and garrulous American know-all. August Vanags was unworthy of being the author of his own book. Put him on Larry King, and he’d unsell Boy 381 at the rate of thousands a minute.

So instead they packed him off to Whidbey Island with an ex-directory phone number and refused all interviews on his behalf. And with good reason, since even Lucy – though perhaps there’s no ‘even’ about it – begins to doubt the authenticity of Vanags’s book. Some of the stories he tells are suspiciously similar to stories she comes across in other war memoirs, though that proves nothing either way; a woman in Norfolk claims in an Amazon.co.uk review of Boy 381 that Vanags in fact spent the war on her parents’ farm.

Lucy’s doubts are further complicated as a tentative friendship develops between her and Augie, as she soon comes to think of him, and his wife, Minna. Lucy takes Alida to stay for the weekend: Augie takes Alida kayaking while Minna and Lucy go foraging for mushrooms. Over lunch, Augie – who, when not writing bestselling war memoirs, is an associate professor of history at the University of Washington – expounds his neo-con views on international relations: ‘This is World War Four.’ His pronouncements make Lucy, a knee-jerk liberal, uncomfortable, but don’t detract much from the extent to which she finds herself liking him.

Surveillance is intrigued by the notion of fraudulence, in all its many variations and degrees. In one sense, Augie is definitely a fake, or rather a ‘living conjuring trick, a work of implausible self-transformation’, with his false teeth and outmoded American slang. He gave himself the name Vanags, which means ‘hawk’ in Latvian, during the war. ‘It authenticated him as a gentile and gave him a native land.’ Self-fashioning isn’t the same as lying, of course, but Augie is also, like the proverbial Cretan, a self-confessed liar. As a boy, he and his companions learned to be ‘adept and fantastic liars. Telling lies was their best hope of staying alive, and they lied to everybody, about everything. As Vanags wrote, “I knew that if ever I were caught telling the truth, I’d be sent to the camps.”’ If he’s lying now, he’s a very good liar. And if he’s a very good liar, it’s surely because he learned to be one under the circumstances he describes in his book. Which means that he’s telling the truth – and so the argument comes around.

Whether or not Boy 381 is ‘genuine’ is never definitively resolved: Lucy’s views veer between trust and suspicion, and the reader’s more or less follow. It’s not, ultimately, very important: Raban isn’t the first person to have observed that all autobiography is to some extent a species of fiction, as much as all fiction is, from one point of view, a variety of autobiography. Even if the stories you’re telling are true, you’re still telling stories. And memory is by its nature treacherous and contingent, however honest you may believe yourself to be. On the way to her first meeting with Vanags, Lucy witnesses a car accident. A silver sedan crawling along in front of her swerves inexplicably into the path of an oncoming lorry. Later, a policeman tells her that the car was pulling out to pass a pickup truck that was turning right.

Her memory of the crash seemed already old, like a photograph from another summer. She inspected it. There was no pickup in the picture . . . ‘I didn’t see it.’ But as soon as she’d said that, memory leapt to contradict, as an image, washed out in colour, not quite in focus, came to mind, of a big, mud-spattered pickup with a dented tailgate . . . Yet even as she realised its untruthfulness, memory was busy again, slotting the orange truck into the vacant space in the puzzle.

With memory, as with fiction, it’s the details – the mud, the dent – that make it convincing, even if it’s false.

Vanags isn’t the only character in the novel to have reinvented himself as more American than the Americans. Lucy’s landlord, Charles O. Lee, first appeared in Waxwings, escaping from a container on a ship that had just docked in Seattle in the autumn of 1999. He left China as Jin Peng, called himself Chick during his first months in America, and has since stolen the identity of a social worker killed in a car crash. He has also become an ugly caricature of capitalism incarnate, a grotesque parody of the American dream. He has bought the Acropolis, Lucy’s apartment building, after accumulating an obscenely profitable empire of car parks which he runs with a workforce of exploited Mexicans. He sleeps on the couch in his tiny office, living off microwave meals and sachets of instant coffee with whitener pilfered from the motels where he buys blowjobs from middle-aged prostitutes on Sunday afternoons. It’s a savage portrait, strangely out of keeping with Raban’s careful characterisation in the rest of the novel, especially his sensitive and nuanced depiction of Lucy’s relationship with Alida. It also doesn’t fit with the more sympathetic way Chick is represented in Waxwings, and is hard to account for, even if we concede that Lee is an unpopular landlord seen largely through the eyes of his wary tenants.

Seattle is also the setting for a series of larger, more disturbing fictions than the possible fabulations of a bestselling memoirist or the false identity of an illegal immigrant. The Department of Homeland Security uses the city to stage regular simulations of terrorist attacks so it can try out various possible responses to them. Fiction masquerading as memoir is far less troubling than fiction masquerading as government policy. During one such exercise, Alida, running a fever, asks her mother: ‘It’s not real, is it?’ Lucy reassures her that it isn’t, then thinks: ‘But of course it was real. The administration was in the business of manufacturing fear and methodically spreading its infection from city to city.’ Telling a story often and forcefully enough can make it true.

Topoff 27 is performed on the day, 2 April 2007, that Lucy first visits Vanags. The number 27 is satirically high, one of the signs that Surveillance is set in an ever-so-slightly dystopian future: in real life – or in the ‘physical venue’, as the dotcom geeks say in Waxwings – they’ve only got as far as topoff 4, which is due to take place in Phoenix next year. topoff is an abbreviation of ‘Top Officials Exercise’, which is in turn shorthand, in the words of the Department of Homeland Security, for ‘a Congressionally mandated exercise designed to strengthen the nation’s capacity to prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from large-scale terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)’.

Raban’s modest flights of fancy are firmly tethered to the real world, however. Fear is playing its part in the run-up to next month’s Congressional elections, with the pro-Republican Center for Security Policy urging Americans to ‘Vote as if your life depends on it. Because it does.’ A milder link between the world of Surveillance and the world of its readers presents itself in the form of a cameo appearance by Raban himself, or at any rate by an anonymous writer, ‘a dishevelled-looking, spindle-shouldered older guy in a pink baseball cap that was too young for him’ – which is an accurate enough description of the photograph on the back flap of the novel.

One of the ‘six professional stars’ of topoff 27 is Tad Zachary, an intermittently working actor, Lucy’s neighbour and best friend, and the closest thing Alida has to a father: her biological father, a lawyer from New York, came to Seattle for an intellectual property conference 11 years ago; Lucy only knew him for the one night. (‘For years, Lucy had been telling stories about the absent father in Alida’s life. She had sworn to herself that she would always try to tell the truth, but allowed herself to ration, stretch and gloss the truth as circumstance dictated.’)

Tad is only taking part in the topoff farces – or advertising MagiGro fertiliser on TV – because he wants to be able to leave Alida a million dollars when he dies: he’s HIV positive; his partner died of Aids six years ago. When he’s not playing the part of ‘Bus Driver with Burst Eardrums’ or ‘Psychotic Homeless Man Disrupting Work of Rescue Team’, or picking Alida up from school, or cooking her dinner because Lucy’s working, he’s on the ‘prowl’ in cyberspace, looking for dirt on the government.

With a history of activism dating back to the Vietnam War, Tad is convinced that the government is keeping as close an eye on him as he is on it. Everybody is watching everybody watching everybody else. Cameras have gone up all over Alida’s school; according to one rumour they’re there for a fly-on-the-wall documentary, though no one seems to know if that’s the real reason, and no one seems especially to mind them. Lee wants to install video entry phones in the Acropolis. Tad spies on Lee; Lee spies on Lucy; Lucy spies on Augie; and Raban spies on them all, making epigrammatic observations with humour and precision. A young policeman, not knowing how to react to Lucy’s stutter, ‘showed his embarrassment by gazing through the windshield as if he’d spotted a bank hold-up somewhere in the middle distance’. The brother of a man wrongly suspected of terrorism is ‘held on suspicion of immigration violations and possible tax fraud. Under the new laws, they never arrested anyone who wasn’t guilty of something.’

The government describes ‘the spreading rash of concrete barriers, barbed wire, magnetometers, spycams, nondescript grey boxes that were supposed to sniff out pathogens in the air’ as necessary security ‘measures’. Lucy sees them as ‘incremental nuisances’. For Tad, they’re a sign of incipient fascism. Too much surveillance, however, is almost as useless for a government trying to keep tabs on its more dangerous citizens as no surveillance at all: the problem is similar to the one presented by the Borgesian notion of a map that is as large as the terrain it represents. With total, indiscriminate surveillance, all that has been achieved is the duplication of the world that is meant to be under scrutiny. The surveillance itself then has to be put under surveillance in order to identify and observe any potentially seditious elements. This otherwise useless mass surveillance does have one palpable effect, however: the awareness in the populace that they are being watched, which in turn leads to the propagation of fear – either of the things the government tells the people they should be afraid of, or of the government itself.

Augie thinks that the biggest threat to civilisation is Islamist terrorism; Tad thinks it’s the government; Alida is most worried about global warming. On the question of terrorism, Lucy ‘oscillated uncomfortably’ between less extreme versions of Augie and Tad’s positions, ‘between being somewhat scared and somewhat sceptical’. She also points out that ‘Seattle gets millions of federal dollars for mock terror attacks, but can’t raise a federal cent for earthquake exercises, which is what it really needs.’

On 26 January 1700, the Pacific Northwest was hit by an earthquake so massive that it sent a tsunami all the way to Japan and permanently altered the coastline of what is now Washington State. At some point, it will happen again. There is no way to predict when the ‘big one’ will strike, and nothing that can be done to prevent it: a prospect of helplessness altogether too terrifying for Raban’s characters, if not for their creator, to contemplate.