There's something ominous circling the three characters in David Shafer's debut novel, but quite frankly, I haven't been giving it much attention. I've been far too caught up in Shafer's unrelenting humor—which is wicked and dark, just how I like it—and his spotless characterization. That being said, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot also fulfills all the requirements of an outstanding technothriller, with pulsing strains of paranoia and those all-seeing technological powers-that-be.
The story centers around 30-somethings Leila, Leo and Mark. Leo and Mark were friends at Harvard, but Leo is now a bit of a loser, while Mark is a phony self-help guide who works for the Committee, a data collection agency that seeks to privatize all information. Leila is a disillusioned nonprofit worker on the other side of the world. The only thing keeping the Committee from its goal is a secret underground Internet called Dear Diary. With jabs at every political angle, a love story and plenty of cool tech, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a pageturner of the highest order.
Read on for an excerpt from Leo's first scene:
There was no one even near Leo when he flew from his bike. His mind cast about for a culprit, for someone to blame other than himself. The bike just ceased its forward motion and he did not. How surprising, how nifty physics was. And as he trebucheted toward a four-inch curb, aware at once that his meeting with it would be physically calamitous, he remembered that he was wearing no helmet, and his surprised turned to fear. A month ago, at a party to which his friend Louis had brought him, Leo had heard (well, overheard) the host claiming that he wasn't afraid of death. That particular claim seemed to Leo to be demonstrably false. So, costumed as Jesus (for this was a Halloween party), Leo had decided to explore the man's reasoning. Not afraid of death, huh? My, that must make you a real psychopath. But he had seen almost immediately that he should not have told the man that he was like a Holocaust denier. "I said like a Holocaust denier. Like," he protested lamely when Louis escorted him out of the party and told him to enjoy the bracing walk home dressed as Jesus.
No, thought Leo, as he landed his right hand, fingertips first, on the cold nubbly of the curb, I am definitely more than a body, but I believe I am less than a soul.
Then, with a fluid agility that hadn't been his in years, Leo tucked his head and vertical body behind the leading edge of his rounded arm. Some latent muscle memory from five months of jujitsu at the McBurney YMA on West Sixty-Third Street from when he was ten? Leo seemed to recall that this YMCA had in fact served the adventurous class of men described in the song. Now, he felt a point beneath his stomach become the axis of his spinning mass, and he knew to use that dragony breath to take the hit when, after about 120 degrees, his trunk met the sidewalk, hard. Next was his hip and ass, which rolled over not just the concrete but also a busted padlock on the scene by chance. Then came his knees and feet, with a thwack. That was followed by his trailing left arm, which lay down gently, and his gloved palm, which landed and sprang back, the way a conguero lands a hand on the taut hide of his drum.
Leo stood up. He was fine. Just fine. Right as rain.
Leo stood up again, this time more carefully. Okay, maybe fine was an overstatement. But ambulatory and intact. A bit exhilarated, actually.
His bike lay twisted in the street behind him, its front tire still clamped in the groove of the new light-rail system tracks they were laying all over town. Only now did he notice the yellow-and-black warming signs that would have made him aware of the hazard his bike had to cross. The graphics depicted pretty much what had just happened: a bicycle with its front wheel caught in the maw of the track, the blockish pictogram rider hurtling over the handlebars. An honest piece of graphic art; a tiny, two-line picture poem, thought Leo, and he started to upbraid himself for his carelessness and lack of attention.
But wait. On one corner—the direction from which he'd come—the warning sign was there, but it was swathed in black plastic, taped up tight.
The thought came like a revelation: This was no accident. They obscured that sign because they want me eliminated.
Some part of him said, No, don't be ridiculous. But then why was only one sign shrouded?
What are you reading today?
Debut author Pia Padukone explores cultural identity, grief and how we love in her novel, Where Earth Meets Water. Karom Seth is haunted by his brushes with fate: he should have been in the Twin Towers for a school project on 9/11, and he should have been at the family reunion when a tsunami on the Indian coast claimed his entire family in 2004. Karom is left with his grief, his guilt and his father's cherished Rolex. His girlfriend, Gita, invites him on a trip to India in hopes of helping him find answers and closure, and Gita's grandmother, Kamini, may be the one person that can point him in the right direction.
"Should the guilty seek asylum here,
Like one pardoned, he becomes free of sin.
Should a sinner make his way to this mansion,
All his past sins are to be washed away.
The sight of this mansion creatres sorrowing sighs,
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
In this world this edifice has been made,
To display thereby the creator's glory!"
"It's what Shah Jahan said about the Taj," Karom said, folding the paper back into his pocket. Gita closed her eyes and leaned against him. He wanted to comfort her, but he too felt let down. Nothing had happened. There had been no revelations.
Karom had been sure that he would leave the Taj Mahal with a deeper understanding of the world, of colors, of light, of love. He was sure that something magical would transform them, would transform him, the way he saw the world. He had placed too high an expectation on the Taj Mahal. After all, it was just a building. But it was a building that was homage to love, homage to the departed. He'd wondered if he would catch a glimpse of the past here, if he might tap into the spirit of the palace, the serenity of the courtyards. He'd wondered if, like a sinner, he too might be absolved, washed pure and clean, and set into the streets refreshed. He'd wondered if he might put lingering ghosts to bed and feel, for the first time, at ease with himself and finally, finally have the strength to put the game to rest.
What are you reading this week?
Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh
Crown • $24 • ISBN 9780385348997
Published January 14, 2014
New York Times Magazine editor Adam Sternbergh’s debut novel, Shovel Ready, follows a garbage man turned assassin-for-hire known simply as Spademan, and he makes for quite an intriguing anti-hero. As one of the few remaining residents in a near-future, post-bomb New York City, Spademan finds himself at a crossroads when he decides not to follow through with the assassination of a wealthy evangelist's young daughter.
Here, Spademan introduces himself in the first pages of this edgy, noir-soaked thriller:
I kill men. I kill women because I don’t discriminate. I don’t kill children because that’s a different kind of psycho.
I do it for money. Sometimes for other forms of payment. But always for the same reason. Because someone asked me to.
And that’s it.
A reporter buddy once told me that in newspapers, when you leave out some important piece of information at the beginning of a story, they call it burying the lede.
So I just want to make sure I don’t bury the lede.
Though it wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve buried.
It might sound hard but it’s all too easy now. This isn’t the same city anymore. Half-asleep and half-emptied-out, especially this time of morning. Light up over the Hudson. The cobblestones. At least I have it to myself.
These buildings used to be warehouses. Now they’re castles. Tribeca, a made-up name for a made-up kingdom. Full of sleeping princes and princesses, holed up on the highest floors. Arms full of tubes. Heads full of who knows. And they’re not about to come down here, not at this hour, on the streets, with the carcasses, with the last of the hoi polloi.
What are you reading this week?
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma
Viking • $26.95 • ISBN 9780670026005
Published March 21, 2013
In vignette-style chapters, our unnamed narrator wrestles with the misery of writing and his strange relationships to both his friends and to fiction. He never gains any sort of depth, and neither do his supporting players. He does makes small transformations, but his trajectory moves from one unfortunately typical personality to the next—first naive, then intolerably pretentious, etc. It toys with some Fitzgeraldian themes (rich people) with characters that feel a little Fear and Loathing or Withnail and I—but its postmodern stab doesn't really land.
What this book does have going for it are some interesting ruminations on the scope and purpose of storytelling, as well as the role of the storyteller. Ultimately, in the Leopard world, storytelling is just a series of lies and plagiarism:
I'd been pondering my chosen vocation—to write fiction and to slant the truth—to tell lies, for a living. But I wasn't good enough at it. No one believed me. And then my mind wandered back to little Deshawn, sitting at his desk avoiding the roaches, filling in those little Scantron bubbles with his yellow number-two pencil. He'd said that taking tests was like evolution in action—only instead of the brightest and most capable students suriving, it seemed that victory fell to those who could scam the test, learn the rhythms of the answers, the tenor of trick questions, take educated guesses, and budget their time. The teachers had stopped teaching science and English and started teaching them how to pass the test. Was it gaming the system? Or was it an evolutionary necessity?
The real novelists make you believe, as you read, that their stories are real. You hold your breath as Raskolnikov approaches his neighbor with a raised ax. You weep when no one comes to Gatsby's funeral. And when you realize you are being so well fooled, you love the author all the more for it. Up in front of my students each day as Professor Timothy Wallace, I discovered the thrill of getting away with the manufacturing of reality. I had a way not only to pay the bills, but to become a better purveyor of make-believe. I had put myself into an evolutionary situation wherein my failure to deceive would result in disaster. Wherein I'd be forced to risk everything. Where I'd be rewarded for my successes at dishonesty. And the reward was that I barely though of my old life anymore.
The writing is vivid, and the characters, while flat, don't bore. For readers who like to consider the construction of fiction, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards could make a good fit as a study of what does and does not work.
What are you reading today?
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Random House • $26 • ISBN 9780812992977
on sale June 26, 2012
The story is about Julia, a sixth-grader who lives in suburban California. She's preoccupied with fitting in at school, buying her first bra, talking to her crush—and something that has global consequences. Julia wakes up one morning, and the earth has started to rotate at a slower pace. At first, it's just a few minutes added on to every day, but before long, days and nights are twice as long as they used to be. Crops can't grow and gravity is messed up. People are getting sick from sunburns, and electricity isn't consistent. World leaders insist on keeping to a 24-hour schedule, but some "real timers" try to stay awake during sunlight and sleep when it's dark, keeping up with circadian rhythms.
This is a tender and beautiful coming-of-age story with a chilling sci-fi twist—except "the slowing" feels hauntingly plausible. Aimee Bender calls the novel "at once a love letter to the world as we know it and an elegy," and I completely agree. Here's an excerpt that describes some of the consequences of "the slowing."
Five thousand years of art and superstition would suggest that it's the darkness that haunts us most, that the night is when the human mind is most apt to be disturbed. But dozens of experiments conducted in the aftermath of the slowing revealed that it was not the darkness that tampered most with our moods. It was the light.
As the days stretched further, we faced a new phenomenon: Certain clock days began and ended before the sun ever rose—or else began and ended before the sun ever set.
Scientists had long been aware of the negative effects of prolonged daylight on human brain chemistry. Rates of suicide, for example, had always been highest above the Arctic Circle, where self-inflicted gunshot wounds surged every summer, the continuous daylight driving some people mad.
As our days neared forty-eight hours, those of us living in the lower latitudes began to suffer similarly from the relentlessness of light.
Studies soon documented an increase in impulsiveness during the long daylight periods. It had something to do with serotonin; we were all a little crazed. Online gambling increased steadily throughout every stretch of daylight, and there is some evidence that major stock trades were made more often on light days than on dark ones. Rates of murder and other violent crimes also spiked while the sun was in our hemisphere—we discovered very quickly the dangers of the white nights.
We took more risks. Desires were less checked. Temptation was harder to resist. Some of us made decisions we might not otherwise have made.
This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park
Simon & Schuster • $25 • ISBN 9781439199619
Published July 2011 • paperback available March 2012
Samuel Park's moving debut features a strong, memorable heroine torn between love and duty, tradition and freedom, in the changing Korea of the 1960s and 1970s. Soo-Ja meets Yul and immediately feels a connection to him—a confusing development, since she'd just decided to marry another man. Unwilling to go back on her promise and disgrace her family, Soo-Ja rejects Yul to marry Min, a decision she will revisit and regret for the next 20 years. The two see each other only periodically, and usually by chance, but their fraught encounters are tense with the passion of unrequited love, as in the excerpt below.
"I thought I'd forget you with time, and I haven't. When I was younger, I thought there was only room for one person at a time in your heart. And each time you met someone new, you evicted the one who was there before. But now I realize that there are multiple rooms, and your old love doesn't leave. It sits there, waiting."
It occurred to Soo-Ja that if she gave him permission, he'd kiss her right then and there. But she realized that all along, what she really wanted wasn't to have him in the present—how could she, married woman that she was, married man that he was—but to rewrite the past, have him go back in time and create a version that allowed them to kiss. To be able to kiss him did not seem to take much—a step forward, the angling of her face. But, in fact, it required rearranging the molecules of every interaction they'd ever had, from the very first day that they met.
"Forget me, Yul. As long as you're here, you're just a guest."
What are you reading this week?
A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer DuBois
Dial • $26 • ISBN 9781400069774
on sale March 20, 2012
A blurb from Gary Shteyngart and back cover copy that started with the words "In St. Petersburg, Russia . . ." were enough to make me dive into this debut novel pretty much the moment the ARC hit my desk. A strong story and complex characters ensured I'd take it home with me so I could read the whole thing.
Irina is just 30 years old, but she's lived most of her life with the shadow of Huntington's Disease—the degenerative disorder that killed her brilliant father—hanging over her. While searching through her father's things, she comes across a letter her father once wrote to the Russian world chess champion Aleksandr Bezetov asking the same question: What do you do when you know you're playing a losing match?
Bezetov never answered, but Irina decides to spend the remaining year or so of her good health trying to get a response from him herself. There she finds that he is facing his own lost cause: running for president against Vladimir Putin.
One of the remarkable things about this debut is the way DuBois—who is still in her twenties—is able to voice the thoughts of a woman her age facing terminal illness. At her father's funeral with her boyfriend, Irina thinks
It's true that we are all mortal, but maybe it's also true that some of us are more mortal than others. The cemetery was almost lovely—full of the mild green of new buds and grass shyly beginning to assert itself, the cool wind blowing the trees' shadows across the graves in a way that was a little beautiful and a little unnerving. And Jonathan regarded everything—the coffin, the grave, the green Astroturf lad out to conceal the exposed dirt—with the expression of a spectator.
I look back now, and I tell myself that in this, as in all things, there are advantages. So we don't marry, have children, grow old together. This is what we miss. We also don't stop sleeping together, divorce, come to see each other as strangers, look back in bewildered grief to those early days and try to unravel how it all went so wrong. Those days—that last spring in Boston—were the only days. There is something to be grateful for in this, I think.
What are you reading this week?
The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins
Knopf • $24.95 • ISBN 9780307272775
21 January 2011
Whether such an ambitious premise can be sustained through the course of the book remains to be seen, but Hattemer-Higgins sets a fairy tale tone in the novel's evocative opening.
The oceans rose and the clouds washed over the sky; the tide of humanity came revolving in love and betrayal, in skyscrapers and ruins, through walls breached and children conjured, and soon it was the year 2002. On an early morning in September of that year, in a forest outside Berlin, a young woman woke from a short sleep not knowing where she was. Several months of her life had gone missing from her mind, and she was as fresh as a child.