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The Way We Live Now

On January 16, 2007—the morning I planned to start reading Jonathan Raban’s new novel, Surveillance—The Washington Post carried a front-page article under the series headline “A Day in Our Digital Lives.” The reporter, Ellen Nakashima, opened her innocent-seeming story this way: “The tracking of Kitty Bernard begins shortly after she wakes up.” Bernard, it turns out, isn’t a suspected member of any criminal or terrorist organization; she’s a fifty-six-year-old real estate agent in Reston, Virginia. Over the next dozen or so hours she exercises in her condo building’s gym, fills her car with gas, makes a call on her cell phone, stops at a house she’s trying to sell. She also drives through a toll booth using her EZ pass, searches for some information on her laptop, and arranges to meet her husband for dinner at a restaurant in a local mall. An ordinary day.

But during that day, this American citizen was photographed by security cameras at least fifty times. The toll booths she passed through, the calls she made, the e-mails she answered, the places she visited—all this data has been recorded and saved. Almost any of it, including the content of her messages, is accessible to the government. If the Department of Homeland Security wishes to examine her e-mails (or yours or mine), it can issue a subpoena to the appropriate Internet provider, which is enjoined to keep the government’s investigation confidential. No need to alarm anyone, is there?

In the last days of Germany’s Weimar Republic, just before the rise of Hitler, Bertolt Brecht brought out a series of poems called “For Those Who Live in Cities.” In one of them he offers some instructions in urban street-smarts, building to this penultimate stanza:

Whatever you say, don’t say it twice

If you find your ideas in anyone else, disown them.

The man who hasn’t signed anything, who has left no picture

Who was not there, who said nothing:

How can they catch him?

Cover your tracks.

That last phrase “cover your tracks” echoes throughout the poem, which ends:

See when you come to think of dying

That no gravestone stands and betrays where you lie

With a clear inscription to denounce you

And the year of your death to give you away.

Once again:

Cover your tracks.

(Translated by Ralph Manheim)

In contemporary America, as Jonathan Raban reminds us in Surveillance, any quest for anonymity—“to live obscurely” according to the Greek ideal for happiness—has grown increasingly difficult, if not impossible. And it’s not only an Orwellian Big Brother who is watching. We track each other. We check out the backgrounds of friends, Saturday-night dates, and business associates; we data-mine and Google-search; when on line we worry about hackers, viruses, and identity theft. Schools and playgrounds are patrolled by guards, while spy cameras observe our children in the hallways and bathrooms. Only those who know the code can unlock the steel gates to our “planned communities.” Amazon monitors our taste in books. Our cell phones take pictures and record conversations. People can’t walk their dogs now without taking along their Blackberry or wearing their Bluetooth.

Meanwhile blogs and Web sites from around the world uncover the “real” truths withheld from us by Them, whether They are the right-wing government or the left-wing press. At our workplaces we press our ID cards against the electronic door-openers or sign in at the front desk. As we hurry back from lunch, more and more people seem to be talking loudly into thin air, so that it has grown increasingly difficult to distinguish the paranoid from those who are merely on technology’s cutting edge. Some twenty-five years ago a woman wearing a huge babushka made of aluminum foil used to stand on the corner of 16th and L Streets in Washington, D.C., a few blocks from the White House. To passersby she would thrust out a hand-lettered sign that explained that the CIA was reading her thoughts and that all of us should be wearing tinfoil headgear to be safe from such constant monitoring. One could argue that the woman wasn’t so much crazy as ahead of her time.

As Raban has emphasized, in a series of essays recently collected as My Holy War,* since September 11 we have generally come to accept that any of us might be stripped naked, literally or virtually, whenever those in authority take sufficient interest in our activities. Most of the time, we trust that we are too ordinary to draw such attention. Only those with something to hide, we imagine, worry about surveillance. A gay friend told me that he refused to buy an EZ pass because “I don’t want anyone knowing where I go and when.” Only adulterous couples and drug dealers pay for motel rooms in cash.

Just as much nineteenth-century fiction (by Benjamin Disraeli and Elizabeth Gaskell, among others) examined “the Condition of England,” so Raban’s Surveillance might be regarded as a novel about “the Condition of America.” Its pages reveal the pervasiveness of the new surveillance in the lives of a few ordinary people living in Raban’s hometown of Seattle. The time feels like now or the very near future. Lucy, a single mother in her late forties, works as a freelance journalist; her daughter Alida, nicknamed Ali, is an eleven-year-old math whiz trying to pass as normal. They reside in the same building as Tad, a local actor who is a close friend. Recently, this apartment house, the Acropolis, has been acquired by a somewhat unnerving Chinese entrepreneur named Charles O. Lee (who some readers will recognize as the latest incarnation of the illegal immigrant Chick from Raban’s previous novel Waxwings). The action begins when Lucy is asked by GQ magazine to interview the reclusive August Vanags, author of Boy 381, a best-selling account of his childhood during the Nazi terror.

Vanags’s often horrifying memoir soon raises the central issue at the heart of all surveillance—authenticity. When we look through security cameras, as Raban once did (see his earlier book Hunting Mister Heartbreak), everyone looks criminal or eccentric. And when we know we’re being watched, we all become actors, ready for our close-ups. Tad himself plays different parts in emergency-preparedness films: sometimes he’s an injured bus driver, sometimes a pitiful victim buried in an explosion’s rubble. Lucy takes great care (or tranquilizers) to seem at ease while the guards examine her car as she boards the ferry to Vanags’s house on Useless Bay. Charles Lee is sometimes Charlie O, but was once Chick and used to be called Chink and to the local whores is known as Don. In Boy 381 Vanags notes that he and the other orphaned children quickly learned that “telling lies was their best hope of staying alive, and they lied to everybody, about everything.” He adds that “I knew that if ever I were caught telling the truth, I’d be sent to the camps.” Only the lie, then, will keep you free. But as a reporter, Lucy is determined to uncover the truth about her new friend Augie. Could this “chipper and garrulous American know-it-all” and mildly flirtatious retiree really be the survivor of the horrors described in Boy 381?

What, then, is true, what false? Lucy tells Alida that an apparent terrorist attack on Omaha, televised in gory detail on CNN, is only an exercise, mere brazen theatricality. At least she says this to calm her frightened daughter:

But, of course, it was real. The administration was in the business of manufacturing fear and methodically spreading its infection from city to city: The lengths they went to—setting fires, showing make-believe corpses to the cameras—surely went far beyond what was needed to test the emergency services. How could you explain to a child that “homeland security” meant keeping the homeland in a state of continuous insecurity?

She goes on:

Measures,” they called them, but incremental nuisances was how Lucy saw them—the spreading rash of concrete barriers, barbed wire, magnetometers, spycams, nondescript gray boxes that were supposed to sniff out airborne pathogens. Over the last twelve months, these measures had been multiplying at speed. Lately they’d started roadblocks on interstates. Next up, as the result of an act rushed through Congress, was the hassle of the biometric National ID card, deadline September for Washington state. The measures had driven a wedge between Lucy and Tad. To him they meant “fascism,” a word he used with a maddening carelessness; to her they were just signs of how jumpy and rattled the administration had grown since the attacks, perhaps for good reason.

As the novel continues, Raban develops a number of polarities, in particular Vanags’s “patriotism,” his gratitude as an immigrant for American freedoms, and Tad’s “paranoia,” the individualist’s fear that the government is steadily curtailing our constitutional liberties. Lucy sees merit in both viewpoints, without being able to wholly adopt either. Perhaps this is what being a journalist means, she decides, this inability to conclude.

As atmospheric with vague menace as a Hitchcock thriller, Surveillance nonetheless grows a bit talky at times. But for good reasons—the novel is arguing about different versions of history. Over a dinner consisting largely of homegrown foods prepared by Vanags’s wife Minna, this former professor starts to discourse to his visitor:

You rely on supermarkets for your food, you’re going to go hungry any day now. Do you have any idea how incredibly fragile the infrastructure of this country is—how easily it can be paralyzed by the enemy? Suppose in the next attack they hit four cities—Chicago, say, and Boston, and Houston, and Long Beach, all in the same hour. Okay, we close our borders, close our ports, order every plane out of the air: how long d’you think it’d take to clear the shelves of your local Thriftway in Seattle? Two days? Five? But then suppose that twenty-four hours after the first wave of attacks, they come in with truck bombs in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Miami…. You better be up early, scavenging for dandelions, because sure as hell ain’t nuthin‘ going to be working when that second wave hits.

You know what mass panic looks like? Food riots? I tell you, it’s two attorneys, middle-aged guys, in ties and good suits, fighting in the street over a greasy chicken leg. It’s bodies on the sidewalk, rotting garbage, fires, the stink of feces everywhere. And gunfire….

New Orleans. That was a good reminder. Civilization is always just twelve, maybe fifteen hours away from barbarity. Doesn’t matter where you are—could be anywhere, could be Seattle—and less than a day is all it takes to turn a great city into a hellhole. Yesterday you were living in the world’s finest democracy, today it’s Mogadishu. The line’s that thin.

On the other hand, Tad—the old Sixties activist, the veteran of innumerable marches and protests, still mourning the loss of his beloved Michael—prowls through cyberspace to discover the truth about what’s really happening in the world:

His rusty high-school French was just sufficient, and growing steadily better, to skim Libération‘s accounts of what was going on in La Maison Blanche and Le Bureau Oval. He moused over to Britain, where he read the Independent and the Guardian, and on to Arabia, where he checked out the Jordan Times and Al-Ahram Weekly. He visited Al-Jazeera. Then he hit the blogs and forums to keep company with like-minded internal exiles—those lonely late-nighters, as full of rage as he was, tapping out intelligence on the latest mendacities and misdeeds.

In particular, Tad is outraged by the

bad guys whose badness took his breath away, as they heedlessly despoiled the planet, killed people on an industrial scale, connived with their cronies over billion-dollar no-bid contracts, and cannily subverted the rapidly unraveling fabric of democracy….

These crookedly elected, braggart thugs in business suits were systematically poisoning the future of Ali’s entire generation—and not just of her generation, either, but of every generation yet to come…. When he saw the browning of Mount Rainier, read of the melting arctic ice cap or the murderous inferno that blazed across the Middle East and South Asia, when the US military practiced besieging American cities with tanks, artillery, and armored checkpoints in the name of “quarantine,” when the Supreme Court became the brass-knuckled enforcer of the presidential will and whim, what Tad felt was an adrenaline rush of angry elation.

Augie or Tad—both present dramatic scenarios, and Raban makes clear that both may be just a little mad and fanatical. Little wonder that Lucy cannot choose between her affection for the man who sometimes recalls her dead father and the friend she would marry if he weren’t gay.

While the two men’s rants give Surveillance much of its ideological passion, the novel avoids becoming merely didactic or tendentious, largely because of Charles Lee. The Chinese landlord has his own plans for Lucy and Alida, and Raban ratchets up the suspense as we observe Mr. Lee’s casual and pragmatic brutality with those around him. When this devoted student of inspirational business manuals suspects an employee may be stealing petty sums from him—to pay for his father’s hospital care—he turns the frightened Mexican into his personal snoop, blackmailing him into reporting back everything the other workers say or do.

A growing atmosphere of unease—that inevitable byproduct of surveillance—mounts as the novel progresses and keeps the reader both attentive and worried. Lucy witnesses a terrible automobile accident, an obnoxious but swarthy-skinned sports fan is mistaken for a deadly terrorist, at night laser searchlights bounce off the clouds, day after day the temperature continues to be unseasonably hot, and there is talk of greenhouse gases and earthquakes. As Lucy observes Augie taking Alida out kayaking, the thought of pedophilia flashes through her mind. When a motorcyclist tumbles from his bike into a storm-flooded city street, he drowns. On the ferry a young man with a bulge under his coat scans the crowd: he is an undercover marshal. Alida listens to a pop star sing: “Welcome to a new kind of tension…. Where everything isn’t meant to be okay.”

And, of course, the watchers themselves are constantly being watched. As Lucy studies Vanags and Minna, so Ali carefully calculates the amount of wine her mother drinks each night, a doctor monitors Tad’s T-cell count, and the new landlord surreptitiously paws through Lucy’s closets and bathroom.

Meanwhile, on his island sanctuary, Augie Vanags fervently maintains that “every poor sap living under a dictatorship, when he dreams of being free he dreams of being an American”—even as the equally emphatic Tad cries out: “It happens slowly, so slowly you don’t see it happening. You think you’re living in a democracy, then one morning you wake up and realize it’s a fascist police state, and it’s been that way for years.”

How can one decide? Lucy worries that Tad is growing imbalanced, starting to resemble the libertarian rancher who shot and killed her father simply because he was a government land inspector. At the same time, her reporter’s instincts lead her to wonder if both Augie Vanags and his memoir just might be fakes. Is the man really what he seems?

At times, Surveillance itself seems a kind of palimpsest, with bits of Raban’s earlier work and known life peeking through the text. In an interview the author pointed to Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags—a novel about the so-called “phony war” of 1939 before the true horrors of the London Blitz—as a model for his book. Raban stressed the example of Waugh’s gallows humor and his use of a limited dramatis personae to illuminate large issues. Yet Waugh’s characters also plainly recall his real friends and enemies. The poetical couple, Parsnip and Pimpernell, quite obviously represent W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. As a consequence, much of Put Out More Flags—indeed virtually all of Waugh’s fiction—feels like slightly skewed or exaggerated history and autobiography. Likewise, many readers will come to Surveillance and feel that here, too, much is already vaguely familiar. As Raban once said—in his introduction to The Oxford Book of the Sea—“people generally write about the things that give them the most difficulty in their lives.”

Isn’t Alida roughly the same age as Raban’s daughter Julia, known to us from Passage to Juneau and My Holy War? Wasn’t his apartment house in Hunting Mister Heartbreak, the Josephinum Residence, a lot like the Acropolis, down to the lowlifes living nearby? And surely Lucy’s memories of libertarian Montana draw on Raban’s experiences in Bad Land? Even Alida’s computer genius classmate Finn is familiar—the little boy from the earlier novel Waxwings, now a few years older.

Of course, we should normally resist reading a novel in this reductive way. But here the slight blurring contributes to Raban’s examination of appearance and reality, truth and make-believe. After all, Surveillance isn’t wholly fiction; this is the world we all live in. Besides, our author positively seems to invite such speculation when he virtually winks at us from his own pages. Lucy has gone to the library to do some research:

So she was glad when her lone tenancy of the room was broken by the arrival of a disheveled-looking, spindle-shouldered older guy in a pink baseball cap that was too young for him. Like most of the authors on the wall, he looked like he needed a long, hot shower. When they traded nods, his face seemed faintly familiar, but she couldn’t put a name to it. He sat at a far diagonal away from her and opened a massive, grubby, ring-bound notebook.

Lucy may not recognize him, but all we need do is glance at the author photo on the dust jacket of Surveillance to guess who this fellow writer is.

Near the end of the novel, Lucy describes the piece she plans to write about the elusive Augie Vanags:

It would be full of…snapshots, nothing more, disjointed one from another like the capricious jumble of images that every camera-toting traveler brings back from a trip, some more in focus than others. They wouldn’t add up, wouldn’t form a narrative, because the narrative of this piece would lie elsewhere…. The piece would be about the comic intricacies of the chase, and its ultimate futility….

Rather, readers would find themselves in the same position as the writer—perplexed, fascinated, engaged, and sometimes repelled by August Vanags—just as aware of their own shortcomings as she was of hers, aware that facets and surfaces were just facets and surfaces, and that, like the writer, they must not conclude.

For these inconclusive times, it would be a topically inconclusive piece.

And so Surveillance draws toward its close, using the appropriate imagery of photographs that require and resist interpretation. Nonetheless, its final chapter—quietly prepared for throughout the book—still arrives with a shock, as though the ground had suddenly shifted beneath the reader’s feet, so that the novel’s last pages are clouded in mystery and uncertainty. But how better to suggest the anxious tenor of the times we live in?

In “Running Scared,” one of the essays in My Holy War, Raban writes:

To live in America now—at least to live in a port city like Seattle—is to be surrounded by the machinery and rhetoric of covert war, in which everyone must be treated as a potential enemy until they can prove themselves a friend. Surveillance and security devices are everywhere: the spreading epidemic of razor wire, the warnings in public libraries that the FBI can demand to know what books you’re borrowing, the Humvee laden with troops in combat fatigues, the Coast Guard gunboats patrolling the bay, the pat-down searches and X-ray machines…. It’s difficult to leave the house now without encountering at least one of these reminders that we are being watched and that we live in deadly peril—though in peril of quite what is hard to say.

Long ago, Spinoza provided the answer, in one of democracy’s founding documents, his Political Treatise:

Far better for the right counsels of a dominion to be known to its enemies, than for the evil secrets of tyrants to be concealed from the citizens. They who can treat secretly of the affairs of a dominion have it absolutely under their authority, and, as they plot against the enemy in time of war, so do they against the citizens in time of peace.

(Translated by R.H.M. Elwes)

It is now disheartening to recollect the excitement that a young Englishman named Jonathan Raban felt (in Hunting Mister Heartbreak) when he first came to Seattle and fell in love with the city: “Nowhere in the United States had I met such an air of gentility and reserve.” A decade later, September 11 seems to have changed everything, for Raban, Seattle, and all the rest of us. Never such innocence again.

  1. *

    My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front (New York Review Books, 2006).

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