Apr/May 2007

Suspect Strips

Christopher Sorrentino


Among the aftereffects of 9/11 has been the institutionalization of a new and radically different kind of fear, far more encompassing in its reach than the old fears (of drugs, gangs, black parolees, feminists) cynically evoked by politicians and the media. In its fluent persuasiveness—you have to accept at least the possibility of another attack—fear of terrorism puts otherwise quite rational people at odds with their long-held convictions and better judgment, and it justifies the distrust and hatred of foreigners and immigration, unfamiliar religious beliefs, due process, and, generally, liberalism.

These discarded convictions and embraced fears shape Richard Flanagan's fourth novel, The Unknown Terrorist, in which an Australian public that is by turns smug, debauched, corrupt, and "dizzy with the familiar dullness of everything" seizes its own dread by vengefully turning on a young woman who has unwittingly spent the night with a terrorist suspect. "The Doll," as Flanagan styles her, spends her days shopping for expensive clothing and her evenings pole-dancing for the lavish tips of wealthy men. Occulted behind tough-dame posturing, she is deliberately rootless, alienated from her family, stuffed with received ideas, and ingenuously amoral; her aspirations to respectability and entrée take the form of the apartment she daydreams about buying and decorating while she obsessively counts a hoard of off-the-­books cash, ritually covering her naked body with it, "overlapping each note like fish scales."

The Doll first encounters the suspect, Tariq, at the beach, where he saves her friend's child from being swept out to sea. She runs into him again at Sydney's Mardi Gras parade, where they dance and talk before returning to his luxurious apartment. Leaving his building the next day, she pays scant attention when she sees police surrounding the place, but later she's stunned when newscasts air security-camera footage showing her and Tariq, identifying both as terrorist suspects. The rest of The Unknown Terrorist details the rapid unraveling of the Doll's life and of the platitudes and conventional wisdom that have steered it. If the story line sounds familiar, it's because "the bones of the plot" have been lifted from Heinrich Böll's 1974 novel, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which Flanagan duly acknowledges in a brief note. In Böll's book, the eponymous heroine, similarly accused, is driven to murder by the tabloid reporter Totges and his libelous depredations against her privacy.

While Böll was concerned with the way that bourgeois propriety (and hypocrisy) could easily be turned to the advantage of a sensationalist press, Flanagan's pessimistic focus is on the intertwined relationships between authority, the media, and the public. The Doll's ultimate undoing comes about because of her inability to face what is happening to her in any but the most familiar and passive way, as a spectator of the process by which the media turn her "from a woman into cartoons, headlines, opinions, fears, fate." Events are kicked into motion because she has pointedly insulted Richard Cody, a customer at the Chairman's Lounge, the club where she dances. Cody, a famous, aging newscaster whose star is on the wane, later recognizes the Doll on the surveillance tape and spies his shortcut back to the top. He begins planning a prime-time special whose denouement will feature the exposure of the Doll as Australia's home­grown "unknown terrorist."

Cody is one of the more loathsome characters in recent fiction—vain, self-serving, spiteful, and cruel; the sort of man who for love of the sound of his own voice will without any sense of conviction lecture fellow guests at an extravagant luncheon on "the necessity of torture, properly managed." Yet it says a lot about this book's limitations that the reader sometimes works hard to distinguish Cody, overdetermined by Flanagan to the extent that he is virtually placarded with his many failings (Flanagan won't allow him to lift a wine glass or select a necktie without elaborating on his usually repellent motivations), from other characters. Flanagan depicts a world run exclusively by voluble and unscrupulous men with fragile egos: shock jocks, corrupt police officials, and venal government ministers. The rest of the planet is populated by upmarket people like Cody's captive audience at the luncheon, none of whom "really cared overly about anything"—certainly not enough to interrupt Cody's rant—and by submissive, cliché-spouting people like the Doll, whose ironic epiphany is that she must surrender to her new role as public enemy, reasoning that "one [has] to conform." Despite her hard-bitten exterior and the flamboyant demise she choreographs, the Doll turns out to be a woman of little will and, in fact, may signify the subtler message lurking at the core of Flanagan's often-schematic rendering of human frailty: Ultimately, people want and need to find a way of "agreeing with the television, the radio, the newspapers."

You could argue that by populating his novel with puppets, Flanagan demonstrates our susceptibility to the fear that authority encourages, our blindness to the opportunism lurking in that encouragement. But one thinks again of Böll: As The Unknown Terrorist rides along on the edge of hysteria, with a chaotic sense of civilization and its various divides, one misses the droll understatement that characterizes Katharina Blum. Flanagan's strident presentation of a society passively following the march­ing orders issued by the government and its media accessories can be stunning—occasionally through its sublimity but more often like a series of hammerblows—but there's little here as subtly telling as Blum's blunt and contemptuous dismissal of more measured coverage of the allegations against her in more "respectable" papers than Totges's tabloid: "Who reads those anyway? Everyone I know reads the News."

Christopher Sorrentino's Trance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction in 2005.

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