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Between the success of the X-Files and the approach of the Millennium, we have been pretty much inundated with books, movies and TV shows awash in paranoia and conspiracy theories.  So there's not much opportunity for an author to plow new ground.  On the other hand, most of what we've been subjected to (from Conspiracy Theory to Enemy of the State to Millennium) has sucked, so there's plenty of room for an author to give us a paranoid thriller of quality.  That is what Noah Hawley has done here in one of the best debut novels that I can remember.

Linus Owens is a professor of conspiracy theory, so inevitably, when his wife is killed in a plane crash, he assumes that there is some clandestine reason for this tragedy.  As he and his friends, Edward and Roy, plunge headfirst into an investigation of the accident, they begin to unravel a plot that involves nuclear tests, pharmaceutical companies, the FBI, the CIA, Gulf War Syndrome, an Art Bell style radio host, and so on and so on, until all of modern life seems part of a huge conspiracy in which we are all guinea pigs.  Most of those basic plot elements are pretty familiar and shop worn.  What sets the book apart are the quality and wit of Hawley's prose:

    Here is Linus' born-again businessman brother responding angrily to having his Christian
    millenarianism compared to run of the mill conspiracy theory:
    I have the rational beliefs of my faith.  I refuse to be compared to the pimple-faced radicals you
    associate with who believe that extraterrestrials are kidnapping them for sperm samples.  What do
    these aliens want to do, breed a new superrace of the lazy and the chemically imbalanced?

and a couple of great narrative devices.  First, when characters are introduced, Hawley offers authorial asides about their lives, their innermost secrets and even their futures, which gives a creepy omniscient tone to the narration.  Second, Hawley preys on the uneasiness that all of us feel about an increasingly technological and potentially dehumanized world, to make the concerns of Linus and his compatriots at least understandable, sometimes even credible.  Here he is talking about the modern airport:

    The airport is proof of humanity's surrender to machines.  It is a place where bodies go to pee in
    bathrooms with two hundred stalls, to drink corrosive coffee served from unnatural kiosks built of
    plastic and adhesive foam.  It is a country with a population of zero but an immigration problem of
    obscene proportions, its borders overrun at all hours by persecuted people seeking temporary
    asylum from the violence of flight.  People sleep in uncomfortable chairs, haunted by unnatural neon
    daylight, kept awake by the monotony of artificial voices and the static electricity that jerks from the
    flame-retardant carpets.  The airport is a clock, a calculator, a lever used to lift the wingless from
    the earth and fling them at the receding horizon.  It has no soul, nor does it have heart, just an
    ever-changing portrait of faces and a collection of traveling art exhibits that appear interesting on
    first examination and then prove to be the aesthetic equivalent of an in-flight magazine.

Third, and I assume consciously, many bit characters have real names--Cliff Webb, Richard Preston, Jerry Rubin--which, regardless of whether they are intended to invoke the actual people, add a weird frisson of reality.  Finally, he uses a clever leitmotif with cellular phones.  As scenes in the novel are unfolding, regardless of where or when, there are always folks on the periphery talking into cell phones, speaking lines of dialogue that may be totally unrelated to the action, but which remind us of the omnipresence of the new technologies and of the disconnectedness of even those who are standing next to us in a crowd.

Less pretentious, more focussed and much more fun than Don DeLillo's Underworld (see review), the novel plumbs some of the same territory, that natural American distrust of government and big business, to produce a witty, thoughtful thriller.  Noah Hawley joins Stewart O'Nan (see review of The Speed Queen) among the new writers I was most intrigued by this year.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Thrillers
Book-related and General Links:
    -Twenty-Six Keys (Noah Hawley Official website)
    -REVIEW : of Bagombo Snuff Box by Kurt Vonnegut (Noah Hawley, SF Chronicle)
    -ARTICLE:  (Jane Ganahl, SF Examiner)
    -ARTICLE: Author Noah Hawley takes apart 'Small Soldiers' (David Templeton, Metro Active)
    -REVIEW : of A Conspiracy of Tall Men by Noah Hawley (Marc Igler, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: (Craig Little, Book Browser)
    -REVIEW: (David Bowman, Salon)
    -REVIEW: (Emily Barton, NY Times Book Review)

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