Seriously, this book spoke to me:
Well, hi, there, Erin! Say, I know you like an accessible post-modern novel. I’m, like, one part Don DeLillo social satire and two parts Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49. Except, you know, super contemporary. Plus I kick off with a bad-ass female protagonist and my shifting point of view really highlights the nuances of the three different main characters. Oh, and I have a major scene set in Dublin. Oh, and one of my characters is struggling with his sense of what’s real. And the whole thing is wrapped around this information conspiracy. (I even have a touching little love story!)
So, yeah, I adored this book.
I don’t make comparisons to Pynchon and DeLillo lightly. I teach DeLillo’s White Noise in my AP Literature and Composition class. I ask my students to write a sequel of sorts after we discuss it – What would today’s version of White Noise look like? They’re meant to mimic DeLillo’s style and advance the themes of consumerism and technology, family and identity. This year I’ll be excerpting Whiskey Tango Foxtrot as a model for the assignment, because that is precisely what Shafer does. First, he shares DeLillo’s love-mock relationship with his characters. Clearly they are held up for ridicule, especially in their addictions to substances (including consumer goods), but paired with that is a strong affection. That affection grows as the novel goes on, and by the end, I was absolutely enamored with each of the main protagonists. Likewise, Shafer uses lists of stuff at various points in an echo of DeLillo. Atop all of this is a specificity of diction that borders on the poetic.
The driving conspiracy is pure Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon’s 1966 novel is about the uncovering of a conflict between two mail distribution companies which began before America became independent. Oedipa Maas, the protagonist, is our fish-out-of-water detective, a housewife cum executor of her ex’s estate, landing her in the midst of this mail conspiracy.
Perhaps no longer centered around mail delivery, today the bulk of our worries, when not about financial solvency, remain about the control of information. Our internet privacy settings, passwords, and levels of encryption mean the difference between social media and internet shopping savvy and identity theft. But then who owns the data that we stream through our cable company or cell phone carrier? Who owns the files I store in the Cloud? Does AT&T own the Skype conversation I had with my husband while out of town? They certainly control the actual data, but where’s the boundary between data transfer and personal conversation? What about backdoor access to my laptop webcam or the recording elements of my cell phone?
This is the line of questioning that allowed the book to sink its meat hooks into me. While I was midway through the novel, Facebook’s new Messenger app rolled out, garnering alarm over the many permissions it requires for use. Take a look-see:
- Change the state of network connectivity
- Call phone numbers and send SMS messages
- Record audio, and take pictures and videos, at any time (emphasis mine)
- Read your phone’s call log, including info about incoming and outgoing calls
- Read your contact data, including who you call and email and how often
- Read personal profile information stored on your device
- Get a list of accounts known by the phone, or other apps you use
Now, many have argued that these are reasonable permissions for a messaging app, and it’s no different for WhatsApp or other alternatives to the on-board phone messenger. However, there is an implied trust by consumer of the app to Facebook to not misuse the access they have to the phone and the information therein. Should we trust Facebook? Well, I don’t mind getting my ads tailored to me, to be honest. It’s what led me to the book Girl With All the Gifts, which I totally enjoyed reading. However, Facebook was recently revealed to have experimented on their users’ emotions through control of their news feeds. I have no interest in being emotionally manipulated by my social media.
Capitalism does not have ethics other than the “rightness” of the dollar. This is the very notion that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot exploits for its paranoid conspiratorial drama. I was absolutely pulled in by it. I uninstalled that Facebook Messenger app and went back to the clunkier but less invasive messaging through the Facebook mobile site. Then I dove back into the novel.
What the novel offers as an alternative to corporate-controlled information is simply fascinating, and it gave an otherwise cold-conspiracy a warm, beating heart.
The end of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is also very much like The Crying of Lot 49, though I will leave that to the reader’s discovery. There’s even a direct homage to the mail systems of old in there.
I keep wishing I had more Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to read and finding that other books aren’t meeting the expectations it set. This is David Shafer’s debut novel – I can only hope his follow-up books are as brilliant.