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Book Review

In 'Unknown Terrorist,' shades of '1984' in a Sydney strip club

Richard Flanagan has written a novel about post-9/11 fears that centers on an exotic dancer. Richard Flanagan has written a novel about post-9/11 fears that centers on an exotic dancer. (Susan Gordon-Brown)

The Unknown Terrorist, By Richard Flanagan, Grove, 320 pp., $24

Grand narratives don't always make for good stories: Witness the shelf upon shelf of Cold War spy novels, the reams of (often very bad) cinema dedicated to Vietnam. With his latest, bristling thriller, Tasmanian-born novelist Richard Flanagan wants to deliver the war-on-terror tale our times demand. Here is a paranoid, up-to-the-minute book about the way fear of "the enemy" has been abused by states since 9/11. These are serious concerns, seriously addressed. Unfortunately, it's not a very good novel.

The problem begins with Flanagan's heroine, Gina Davies, a.k.a. the Doll, a pole-dancer at a Sydney strip club. Cut off from her past, numb to any new relationships, Gina has dedicated herself to a single goal: amassing enough cash to start over. She would have reached her $50,000 mark long ago were it not for her shopping habit. "She became someone else," Flanagan writes of Gina and her beloved Versace. "No one would imagine that she had ever been other than beautiful, privileged, one of the elect."

Throughout the book, whenever Flanagan has an opportunity to script a genuine moment for Gina we wind up with something like this -- a sociologically apt but emotionally flimsy observation that gets lost in the updrafts of Flanagan's gusty descriptions of a society enthralled with terror.

In many of the novel's 95 chapters, advertising jingles and brand names are spliced into the text, along with newswire reports of other terror bombings, recalling not so much John Dos Passos as the message of Big Brother in George Orwell, who prefigured how a society with endless appetites could be manipulated: "You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty, and then we shall fill you with ourselves."

Like "1984," "The Unknown Terrorist" is a story about what happens when an individual's power of self-creation is trumped (or drowned out) by that of the state. Hopped up on drugs, tired of her lonely life, Gina hits the town after work and takes home a Middle Eastern man named Tariq, who turns out to be a suspect in a budding terrorism investigation. The next morning, while he is out, Gina turns on the television to discover footage of herself entering his building. Overnight she has become an infamous terrorist.

Flanagan isn't so paranoid as to imagine that this transformation is effected by a single, all-knowing state. In "The Unknown Terrorist," it is really a network of concerns that are well served by Gina's framing. An ambitious newscaster sees in Gina the story that might boost his career and jumps on it. A rotating cast of politicians and "experts" helps propel this news item -- is there anything sexier than a pole-dancing terrorist? -- to the front of the news. A cop teetering on the edge of divorce doubts some of the details but finds his involvement in the case beneficial.

This all may sound very contemporary, but the plot and mood of "The Unknown Terrorist" are drawn heavily from Heinrich Boll's 1974 novel, "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum," which takes place during Red Army Faction terrorism of the 1970s. In that novel, a housekeeper's life is destroyed by the invasion of an overreaching journalist. In the end, she shoots him, and the book comes full circle. It is a swift story, nervily told: a 144-page bullet that doesn't stand still.

Flanagan, however, seems to think the complex machinery of how a government manipulates fear is more interesting than what it does to the human actors involved. And he doesn't trust us to come to the same conclusion he obviously did about the techno-dream that is the post-9/11 mediascape. "Maybe," Gina thinks at one point, "[the terrorism] question was simply about a few people building careers, making money, getting power, and it wasn't really about making the world safer or better at all. Maybe it was like Botox, something to hide the truth."

What exactly is the truth, though? In nonfiction, it is a statement of fact. But in a novel, the truth must come first and foremost from the inner lives of its characters -- however addled by the state or the media or one another. As urgent as this book's message is, it would mean so much more if Flanagan could have given his characters the very thing he seems to believe the state wants to deny: living, breathing human identities.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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