Always on the Lookout: Welcome to Voyeur Nation

021207 article book lopatto Always on the Lookout:  Welcome to Voyeur NationJonathan Raban’s third novel, Surveillance, opens with a school-bus explosion, the rescue workers scrambling to save survivors. And then the camera pulls back, revealing that the school-bus driver, Tad Zachary, is clearing the fake blood from his ears after being placed in the Red Cross van. He’s an actor, one of several under contract with the Department of Homeland Security to simulate accidents that serve to train emergency-rescue workers. Though he accepts the paycheck, he’s skeptical of the government: “Data mining was Tad’s current obsession. Someone, somewhere, was watching as he tramped from site to site in cyberspace.” He thinks the F.B.I. must have a file on him.

As Tad considers this, he’s Googling his new landlord, Charles O. Lee; the observed is also an observer, a theme that plays out again and again in Mr. Raban’s Seattle. Lee, of course, has his eye on Tad’s neighbor and close friend, the journalist Lucy Bengstrom—while she’s spending a weekend with a reclusive author, gathering information for a profile, Lee is rifling through her underwear drawer. All of this is observed by the author, who is in turn observed by the reader; it’s enough to make Marshall McLuhan dizzy.

The character most used to observation is Lucy’s daughter Alida, whose school is covered in security cameras. The girl coming of age in what Mr. Raban has referred to elsewhere as a “surveillance culture” is a minor miracle of adolescent characterization. From the way she tries out irony—“Saying the opposite of what you meant was cool when it worked, but she had to put a lot of labor into keeping it going, and often, like right now, people just didn’t get it”—to her fixation with certain new words, at no time does the 11-year-old Alida seem like a Disney Channel creation. She alternates between sophistication and naïveté, experimenting with the adult world as she does with irony: not always successfully. Her explorations disturb her mother, who at one point observes that Alida looks “like a nymphet,” though she still cuddles with her mother before sleep.

Even if Mr. Raban’s pop-culture references hit the wrong notes (Surveillance is set in the near future; Green Day’s American Idiot, which Alida is listening to on her iPod, was big in 2005—an eon ago in teenager-time), creating such a believable adolescent is no mean feat.

As one might expect, a character used to being observed has a keen eye herself. Alida, we are told, loves facts. Unlike the other characters, she has not yet discovered the shades of truth and falsehood. Though Mr. Raban is too clever to make this explicit, it’s a nice touch that the most truth-obsessed character is also the youngest, the one with the least experience, and the one for whom “no fact is more reliable” than her address. For all her charm, Alida doesn’t understand how facts can squirm under observation.

The line between truth and fiction in Surveillance depends upon the angle and the observer: from the staged explosion, to an accident Lucy witnesses on the road, to the authenticity of the memoir about which Lucy is writing. It’s one of the most intriguing observations Mr. Raban makes, but it’s a sidebar to most of the action.

A young man Lucy sees having his car searched on the ferry back from her first encounter with the reclusive author August Vanags puts her in mind of a terrorist that she’d profiled for The New York Times; but then she decides he’s exhibiting “the natural creaturely torture of someone entangled in the workings of an enormous, incomprehensible military machine.” Later that night, on the television, the man has been arrested for having “traces of explosive residue” in his car. Lucy considers calling to tell the authorities he’s harmless, although when she last encountered him in person, she decided she “wouldn’t greatly care if they carted this guy off in shackles and cuffs to Guantanamo Bay.”

Although Mr. Raban gets the story off the ground skillfully and cruises smoothly for the majority of the book, there are some bumps. Near the beginning, we’re told Alida has been chronicling her mother’s habits in order to figure out the human equation, but after a brief description of such chronicling, it’s not brought up again for the rest of the book. Nor does Mr. Raban explain how Alida manages to figure out how many milligrams of wine Lucy is drinking. And Charles O. Lee, Lucy’s snooping landlord, reads like a terrible stereotype of an Asian immigrant, down to his pidgin Engrish and obsession with books like Who Moved My Cheese? His flatness is especially apparent when contrasted with the other, more fully realized characters.

A more serious problem is the anti-climactic dénouement. Though most of the guns appearing on the mantelpiece in the first act are fired in the third, Mr. Raban chooses to end the book in a startlingly inconclusive way. He anticipates this when he shows us Lucy generating her profile: “For these inconclusive times, it would be a topically inconclusive piece.” And yet when Lucy rereads her “topically inconclusive piece,” she finds it disappointing. Readers may find the jarring end to Surveillance off-kilter and out of nowhere—it mars a canny observation of observation.

Jonathan Raban’s clear-eyed novel neatly encapsulates how modern culture has made voyeurs of us all. Too bad that what we see as truth can twist under observation, the way a skyscraper’s steel frame twists during an earthquake.

Liz Lopatto is the blog editor for The Kenyon Review. She can be found online at http://kenyonreview.org/blog.