Play­ful sub­ver­sion of the se­cret state

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley

IT’S pos­si­ble, I think, to break lit­er­ary re­sponses to the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks and the en­su­ing con­vul­sions in the US into two broad cat­e­gories. The first and most vis­i­ble are works of overt se­ri­ous­ness that ex­plore how the se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus con­structed un­der the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion has fun­da­men­tally al­tered Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. Some of these, such as Sara Paret­sky’s Black­list (2003), en­gage with the is­sues di­rectly, while oth­ers such as Jonathan Ra­ban’s Sur­veil­lance (2006), De­nis John­son’s ex­tra­or­di­nary Tree of Smoke (2007) or Richard Pow­ers’s The Echo Mak­ers (2006), a bril­liant ex­plo­ration of psy­chic trauma and para­noia, ap­proach them more obliquely.

The sec­ond cat­e­gory in­cludes works such as Jon Ron­son’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004) and Wil­liam Gib­son’s Spook Coun­try (2007), which con­sider the sub­ject with a more sub­ver­sive eye, teas­ing out the ab­sur­dity and cu­pid­ity of the se­cret state and its ex­cesses.

But Sam Leith’s joy­ously cracked de­but novel, The Co­in­ci­dence En­gine, her­alds a new phase in imag­i­na­tive re­sponses to the se­cret state, one in which any pre­tence at moral out­rage is aban­doned in favour of wise-crack­ing, self-aware in­tel­lec­tual com­edy, and where the de­pic­tion of the Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence in­dus­try owes as much to Hell­boy and Men in Black as it does to Tom Clancy.

Whether this is a good thing or not is prob­a­bly a mat­ter of taste. But there’s no doubt­ing Leith’s tal­ent or the play­ful sub­ver­sive­ness he brings to the task.

As is so of­ten the case with comedic thrillers this novel turns in large part on mis­taken iden­ti­ties. Af­ter a hur­ri­cane ap­par­ently as­sem­bles a Boe­ing 747 out of ran­dom junk, var­i­ous agen­cies, in par­tic­u­lar shad­owy arms man­u­fac­turer MIC, be­come con­cerned a new weapon ca­pa­ble of al­ter­ing re­al­ity by dis­turb­ing prob­a­bil­ity has been re­leased into the wild. Named, with a nod to Charles Bab­bage’s dif­fer­ence en­gine, the co­in­ci­dence en­gine, this de­vice seems to be the work of the bril­liant, deeply dis­turbed and now no­tably un­find­able math­e­ma­ti­cian, Ni­co­las Banacharski.

So when Alex Smart, a doc­toral stu­dent who has the mis­for­tune to be su­per­vised by the woman who came clos­est to div­ing in the true in­tent of Banacharski’s re­search, leaves Cam­bridge for the US in the hopes of see­ing his girl­friend, he sets off a chain re­ac­tion that re­sults in him be­ing pur­sued across the North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent not just by a pair of mer­ce­nar­ies hired by MIC but by agents af­fil­i­ated with the DEI, or Direc­torate of the Ex­tremely Im­prob­a­ble, the agency charged with deal­ing with the ‘‘ un­known un­knowns . . . things we don’t know we don’t know about’’.

It’s tra­di­tional to de­scribe this sort of in­tel­lec­tual play as Pyn­cho­nian. And it is, not just be­cause the novel is so pow­er­fully em­bed­ded in the same aware­ness of the con­tin­gency of re­al­ity that un­der­pins the best of Thomas Pyn­chon’s writ­ing but be­cause it shares a sim­i­lar fas­ci­na­tion with word play and the sur­faces of con­tem­po­rary cul­ture.

But one might equally ar­gue Leith’s novel owes more than a lit­tle to science fic­tion writers from Philip K. Dick on­wards, who have ex­plored sim­i­lar ideas, and to comic book writers such as Grant Mor­ri­son and War­ren El­lis, whose work takes its en­ergy from the same in­ter­sec­tion of the fringe science and generic play­ful­ness that makes The Co­in­ci­dence En­gine so en­joy­able.

In the end though this is a novel less con­cerned with the physics and math­e­mat­i­cal con­jec­tures it is built on than the hu­man truths about loss, chance and pos­si­bil­ity that an­i­mate it at an emo­tional level.

For as Banacharski, a man whose work grows out of the loss of his fam­ily in the ran­dom mad­ness and chaos of World War II, un­der­stands, if re­al­ity truly is in­fi­nite and all pos­si­bil­i­ties in ev­ery mo­ment ex­ist, then chance is an il­lu­sion, and the idea one thing hap­pens in­stead of an­other is mis­taken. Rather, ‘‘ ev­ery­thing hap­pens. No time passes and noth­ing is lost and no­body dies. They are liv­ing in an in­fin­ity of uni­verses, at ev­ery mo­ment, for all time’’. James Bradley is the edi­tor of The Pen­guin Book of the Ocean. He blogs at city­oftongues.com.

Ge­orge Clooney, one of The Men Who Stare at Goats

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