Playful subversion of the secret state
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