jonathan raban’s surveillance

In Jonathan Raban’s new novel Surveillance, the U.S. is portrayed as a nation under siege by enemies foreign and domestic, real and imagined, human and natural. An atmosphere of fear and, on occasion, outright paranoia, is a constant presence throughout the novel; characters routinely encournter continual requests for their national identity cards, machine gun-toting soldiers at ubiquitous checkpoints, undercover police on public transportation, and even disruptive, detailed enactments of terrorist attacks, one of which — a superb set piece — opens the novel:
 
After the explosion, the driver of the overturned school bus stood beside the wreckage, his clothes in shreds. He was cupping his hands to his ears, as if to spare himself the noise of sirens, car alarms, bullhorns, whistles, and tumbling masonry. When he brought his hands away and held them in front of his face, both palms were dripping blood. His mouth opened wide in a scream that was lost in the surrounding din.

Beyond the bus, a tire dump had caught fire. Swirls and billows of black smoke, looking as thick and glossy as oil in the early morning sunshine, rose in a fast-climbing plume above the flames. The painted letters of the company sign, PACIFIC AUTO RECYCLING, swelled and popped in the heat.

A child was scrambling from a blown-out window on the bus—a towheaded boy of nine or ten, his face framing a disheveled grin. Half in, half out of the bus, he sat on the window’s edge, gazing at the lurid inferno of burning tires and the screaming driver as if the catastrophic nature of the occasion quite eluded him.

Rescue workers came running—sexless toddlers in silver spacesuits—their giant feet slipping and sliding on the pulverized glass that coated the road inches deep like a freak hail-fall. Shards of glass were still dropping from the windows of buildings that had taken the full force of the blast.

The hollow whoomph of an exploding gas tank came from inside the auto-wrecking yard, followed by another a couple of seconds later. A spaceman with a machine gun shouted, "Keep down! Keep down!" at the rescue team, his voice muffled and distorted as he yelled through his respirator into a bullhorn. Bent low, stumbling through glass, they reached the bus, from which silvery tendrils of smoke or steam were now drifting skyward.

"Get in there! Get every live kid out of it, now!"

Silver-suited fatties clambered onto the axle casing, hoisted themselves atop the side of the yellow bus, and dropped inside through the windows. Two pairs of rescuers half carried, half hustled the grinning boy and the driver along the road, splashing through a small turbulent river that issued from a ruptured water main. The driver’s head flopped against his chest, blood from his ears spattering what was left of his shirtfront.

A body in a torn tracksuit lay on its back in the path of the rescue party, her mouth and eyes open as if she’d been saying something important when sudden death interrupted. Dust, fine and pale as talcum powder, was settling on her face, as it settled on the parked cars and curbside dandelions, graying everything on which it fell.

The ground quaked to the sound of a bigger whoomph from the wrecking yard. The bus driver’s head jerked upright from between the shoulders of his rescuers, and he let out a throaty, gargling howl. "Oh my Christ!" The word "Christ" was drawn out over several seconds, mingling in the air with the echoing rumble of the latest explosion.

"Not there!! There! Get them on the Decon van! The Red Cross van, assholes. Move it! I said move it!"

"Go fuck yourself," said one of the rescuers from inside his hazmat hood, his voice audible only to the bus driver and, by a stretch, to his fellow rescuer. "Fucking National fucking Guard."

The stumbling trio broke into an ungainly trot, closely followed by the rescuers with the boy, like competitors in a three-legged race making the final dash for the tape.

The tarry chemical stink of the fire filled the Red Cross van taking them to the Decon tent at Harborview. The rear windows looked out on boiling flames and on the dense black overcast, rifted here and there by scraps of flawless blue, that now darkened the streets. In the foreground, a camo Humvee, spacemen with gurneys, running stick figures, splayed bodies, liberated papers seesawing in air, drifts of toxic dust, smoking heaps of bricks and torn Sheetrock.

The driver of the school bus, Tad, was trying to assign the name of a painter to the scene. Goya, maybe. Or Hieronymus Bosch. He tipped his head and jiggled his pinkie in his right ear to clear the canal of stage blood.

 
Each character is clearly meant to stand for a demographic segment of American society, or a dominant trend in American culture and thought. Here’s the American left, in the person ofTad Zachary, a 50ish, gay, H.I.V.-positive, professional actor in Seattle, where thenovel takes place:  
 
Tad was angry,” Raban writes. Tad Zachary is a 50ish, gay, H.I.V.-positive, professional actor in Seattle. “He was angry with himself, angry with the presidency, angry with the nation, angry with the century. That much was rational, justifiable. … Decent people now were angry people, and what America needed at this low moment in its history was more anger, not less.” Tad, however, doesn’t seek “to rescue the administration from its folly: he wanted to see it blown to atomic dust or drowned in a sack.”
 
Often Raban’s novel straddles the line between reportage and satire, history and prophecy; that Raban does so without a misstep says as much about his novelistic powers as it does about the world he describes:
 
Tonight the bloggers were off on the trail of laundered money that went straight through the back door of the White House, and the case of the former director of the FBI who’d either jumped or been pushed from the eighteenth floor of a hotel in Baltimore on the eve of his appearance before the grand jury investigating the Vasico affair. The president had made another speech — the usual Tamberlainish stuff about scouring kingdoms with his conquering sword. Great strides were being made in the war of Good against Evil, most of them in secret, the president said, but it would not be long before the American people learned of the noble victories already accomplished in their name. The bloggers were sifting through the text of this speech like soothsayers reading goats’ entrails. It was noted that when the president said "Patriotic America knows it’s strength. To all nations, we say…" the initial letters of the first eight words ominously spelled out "PAKISTAN."
  
from Jonathan Raban, Surveillance
 

 

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