The Short Version: Lelia Majnoun, a non-profit worker in Myanmar stumbles across… something weird. Suddenly she’s on the run from shadowy corporate interests. Meanwhile, former friends Mark Deveraux & Leo Crane (Mark now a self-help huckster and Leo a drug-addled trust-funder coming unhinged) are on an unseen collision course with each other, orchestrated by said shadowy corporate interests. The fate of the world and our freedom of information may be at stake.
The Review: I remember the first time I read Fahrenheit 451, feeling a little betrayed and a little confused by the ending. Such a cliffhanger, as though leaving us in the middle of the story – at least, that’s how I’d read it then. Would our heroes succeed? Would there be a sequel? How could the author leave things so open?!
Of course, I know better now. I know that there’s a particular kind of thrill to the rising action that never peaks. It’s what makes stories like the Bradbury or like Children of Men or like Whiskey Tango Foxtrot so enjoyable: the sense that their stories go on but that we’ve seen all we need to for now, possibly forever. We’re left wondering if our heroes will succeed because that is, ultimately, more enjoyable than finding out for sure. We live forever on the edge and when we think back, we will say “hey, I wonder whatever happened to Guy Montag or Leo Crane or George Hayduke” and that is its own special kind of relationship to a book.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a payoff here – in fact, there are several. The first one comes about twenty or so pages in, when we’re introduced to Leo. I struggled through the opening pages, which drop you into the middle of things with Leila. Shafer’s prose isn’t all that strange but it does, for some reason, take a little getting used to – so those first meetings with Lelia and Mark take some warming-up – but Leo pops, fully formed and hilarious, onto the scene and despite his drug-addled conspiracy-nut attitude, he’s the one we associate with the fastest. Perhaps because Shafer seems to have the most fun writing for Leo; there’s more humor per line with Leo than any other character.
Mark and Leila get going soon enough, though. Mark’s accidental fall into self-help is ripe for humor and self-loathing and Shafer delivers both in spades. It’s Leila who, unfortunately, has most of the more serious work in the novel – although she’s a fittingly serious cat. After a breathless switcheroo at Heathrow, she ends up with a new identity and a task to get Leo – and, big payoff number two, the plot begins to really pick up steam. As they bring Mark into the fold, you start to look at the dwindling number of pages with great concern (but, as I said earlier, it ends up okay).
Now to the novel’s concept(s), which are delightful and also maybe a little too terrifyingly real. The big, overarching plot is that a shadowy corporate cabal is preparing to essentially lay claim to everybody’s information. All of it. It’s a sort of Google+Apple+Microsoft+Amazon+the NSA nightmare – but also, one that’s not too far off. If you saw Edward Snowden talk to John Oliver, you’ll know what I mean: the government is already looking at our information. This book might be a little paranoid but not that paranoid, you know? Luckily, Shafer isn’t trying to just write a conspiracy theory book: he’s having some fun with Neal Stephenson/William Gibson-esque classic sci-fi concept stuff. The underground resistance org, Dear Diary, have their spycraft down (the chase through Powell’s – Powell’s, you guys – is as tense as anything Fleming or le Carré wrote) but they also have… something else going on. To get into the organization, you have to take a particular test and the results of that test tell you…
Well, no, I don’t want to spoil it. It’s part of the fun of the story. But it feels tremendously original, perhaps because Shafer doesn’t go into it too much – he lets it be sort of lacking in specificity and as a result a little more fun to imagine on your own.
One other thing I will say about Dear Diary is that they aren’t, as several characters point out, completely altruistic. It’s clear that the Corporation folks are evil – but Dear Diary has the sort of Leninist thing where it seems like it’ll be a worthy cause because it’s not as bad as the other one, but not-as-bad doesn’t necessarily mean good. If I had one request, it’d be that Shafer dived into that further, that question of choosing the lesser of two evils. He gets there in the third act with both Mark and Leila, but there’s more to explore there (especially knowing that, more likely than not, we’re going to face similar challenges in the real world).
Rating: 4 out of 5. I could go on and list the other delightful moments (Shafer’s writing in general, the rehab facility, the daycare, the various watercraft, the USPS and specifically postal inspection service as the one uncorrupted agency in the US government, and so on) but it’s more fun to discover them yourself. While the novel takes a little time to get used to (it drops you right in the middle of things and doesn’t do you any favors), it’s a delightfully unhinged romp through modern-day conspiracies. I had a blast.