three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
28-May-June-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-SurveillanceIn a near-future Seattle, a police state, replete with imagined disaster scenarios, spy cameras, and intelligence gathering, is in effect, and everyone is under a surveillance of some kind. Aspiring actor Tad Zachary performs in emergency drills while his friend Lucy Bengstrom, a freelance journalist and single mom, tries to support her 11-year-old daughter. Lucy hits pay dirt when GQ hires her to write about August Vanags, a reclusive author of a memoir describing his World War II childhood. But as she delves into his life, Lucy starts to suspect literary fraud. Add a slimy landlord, who arrived from China in a container—and, as Jonathan Raban writes, you’ve got some quite "peculiar times."
Pantheon. 272 pages. $24. ISBN: 0375422447

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Raban’s done some deep thinking on post-9/11 America and he gives equal time to the right (Vanags), the left (Zachary) and the fence-sitting center (Bengstrom). … Raban is using fiction to explore the most important issues of our day and doing so at the highest artistic level." Jeff Baker

Houston Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A sly story concerned with our government’s response to terrorism, Surveillance deftly captures how Americans cope in the current age of anxiety. … Prepare to be surprised and even disturbed by the book’s ending." Barbara Liss

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"This is an end rather than a conclusion, and vaguely unsatisfactory. Then again, maybe it is not so much inconclusive as unfinished. It leaves the feeling we may not have heard the last of Lucy, Alida, Augie and Tad." Roger K. Miller

San Antonio Exp-News 3 of 5 Stars
"Surveillance is full of the kinds of long, drawn out dialogues about democracy and civil liberties that have graced many a classroom, even quite a few dinner parties, but sound absolutely ridiculous when written down. … Just when Surveillance will make you want to run for a 19th-century historical, though, it backs off enough to become engaging again." John Freeman

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Surveillance is a kind of summum malum of contemporary American civilization: a scouring compendium of the evils, blindnesses and vulnerabilities behind the choices that fashioned its power and prosperity and that threaten their imminent collapse. … The main novelistic problem, though, is that all but one of the major characters serve chiefly to deliver the indictments." Richard Eder

Cleveland Plain Dealer 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Raban is a wonderful and cerebral stylist, a master of arresting syntactical inversions with an incisive view of our contemporary moment. But his determination to tackle ‘big themes’ has led to overly convenient plot devices and character musings that scream ‘here is the theme of the book.’" Anne Trubek

Critical Summary

Jonathan Raban (Bad Land; Passage to Juneau; Waxwings, 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2003) uses a what-if scenario in his latest novel to examine our nation’s most pressing concerns and vulnerabilities. While most critics enjoyed Surveillance, a few noted some problems: the characters that serve as mouthpieces for various political views; the preachy dialogue about freedom, democracy, and civil liberties; and the heavy-handed themes. Still, critics found the characters and their relationships convincing (Tad especially) and the exploration of fiction, truth, and lies in our post-9/11 landscape provoking. The book’s ending is a dramatic shocker—for better or worse.