<b>Somebody's watching me</b>You get the uneasy feeling at the beginning of Jonathan Raban's new novel, <b>Surveillance</b>, that you've been here before. Are you destined to read yet another rehashing of Big Brother looking over your shoulder? Well, yes and no. Yes, because this is a book about surveillance in the broadest sense, although <i>Identity</i> might be an equally accurate title. And no, because in the hands of talented author Raban (<i>Waxwings</i>), this novel never dissolves into clichÅ½.
The story begins with a jittery, post 9/11 nation and a catastrophic scene in Seattle. There is an overturned school bus, with chaos and human carnage everywhere, but we quickly learn it's just a cleverly staged disaster rehearsal. A paranoid government wants to be prepared for everything and the government of Raban's invention has severe terrorist angst. The mock disaster is so real, actors are hired to portray some of the victims. That's how we meet Tad Zachary, a struggling gay actor who lives across the hall from our other major protagonists, freelance journalist Lucy Bengstrom and her sassy 11-year-old daughter Alida, who is more plugged in to personal electronics than real life.
Paranoia is everywhere and helps underscore Tad's radical leanings and Lucy's former flower-power lifestyle. Cue the neoconservative, one August Vanags, who is Lucy's latest interview assignment. Vanags also happens to be enjoying the fruits of his recent bestseller, a memoir of surviving the Nazi pogroms. But Lucy is a competent enough journalist to realize that Vanags' tale has a few holes in it. By doubting his story, Lucy's career is compromised.
Everyone doubts everything in <b>Surveillance</b>, especially each other. One of the tactics that makes this novel work is the care Raban takes in character development. And dark though his story may be, he's not afraid to give us some relief from glancing over our shoulder with an occasional dose of humor.
<i>Michael Lee is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Literary Editor of the Cape Cod Voice.</i>