Espionage with its usual mayhem of shady deals, body suits a la Tom Cruise in various productions of Mission Impossible, misunderstood cult leaders, communes, clubs with speed dating masquerading as confessionals, North Korea, Cincinnati vice uncovered literally under the city’s ground all make their nefarious presence felt in Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely. In Maazel’s second novel, as in the title, loneliness—which “is changing our DNA. Wrecking our hormones and making us ill. Mentally, physically, spiritually”—makes its presence felt through its many characters not least of which are the star-crossed lovers Thurlow Dan, a cult leader, and his ex-wife, Esme Haas, the spy who was born without any fingerprints. In the opening chapter, set in 2005, Dan catches sight of the love of his life and the daughter he left when she was an infant and with that reacquaintance begins a modern day comedic race towards exploring the many faces of love and within it hoping to find a cure for loneliness.
Esme’s reappearance in Thurlow’s life is no coincidence. Helix, the organization Thurlow founded, has become enough of an influence in America’s consciousness to warrant attention from various government agencies not to mention the hubbub created by the founder’s visit to North Korea, a government that has no problem “diverting funds into the Helix coffer from a sale of missile to Syria.” This is a disaster waiting to happen no matter Thurlow’s belief that North Korea is a country in need of Helix-therapy and accepts the money they donate to the organization “in the name of friendship.” So what does the government do? They deploy in the field the one person who has previous experience with spying on Thurlow and has, of course, already bore him a child but unbeknownst to the government Esme has not only kept tabs on her benign ex-husband for the last ten years, since she left him, but has also been keeping him out of trouble ever since. Enter the many broken minor characters, each with their own lonely wounds to contend with, that Esme manipulates and recruits to stage a fake reconnaissance mission to disprove Thurlow as a perceived threat. Ironically, unbeknownst to Esme Thurlow has reached his breaking point and takes the recruits’ hostage with only one demand on his lips—return his wife and daughter to him, Helix be damned.
Although Maazel proves her mettle as a dexterous writer who can juggle many well fleshed-out characters at once there are moments in the narrative, especially towards the middle-half of the novel where the main protagonists begin to feel flatter, less prominent than the shenanigans going on around them. This may also be the reason why the lunatic vein of satire running throughout the novel that, at first sucks you in so completely that you’re crying before you realize it is because you were laughing so hard, at other times beggars the readers belief. But it is also the frantic fast paced quality of the many storylines working in conjunction with each other that works to enhance Maazel’s off-kilter relevant vision of America. Add to this mix the novel’s beautiful lyrical prose—“ Not the pellucid blue of men who compel for being unreachable, but the crepuscular blue of day into night, a transition as reliable as it is fleeting and, for these twin qualities, emblematic of the thing you’d love all your life”—and you’re transported into an absurd world ensconced under the city of Cincinnati where one can relive their first sexual experience in any way they want. And perhaps in the bargain break free of the first constraints that bound a person to the condition of loneliness.
Maazel further magnifies the absurdity within this novel by allowing the hostages to escape without any help from the government nor with facing opposition from Thurlow. This then is the wonderful thing about this novel that the many manners of their escape can be read as emblematic of the necessity of individually escaping loneliness. Maazel is preaching to very large congregation where social media has ironically become the standard for keeping loneliness at bay.
In the final scenes of the novel Thurlow and Esme and the child they made climb atop a radio satellite and settle into “the dish, which was like sitting in some giant’s breakfast bowl” and begin to spend their remaining time together as the sirens from the police cars draw closer. Thus it is only fitting that a novel completely committed to magnifying the ethos and pathos of loneliness should end on a note of hope—Look at the clouds, what do you see? My favourite food is grape jelly. I like skating and candy and coconut soap. My worst fear has been that this day would come and it wouldn’t be enough, but it’s plenty. I have been shadowing you for nine years. The mistakes we make. The child we had—even if in that hope there is a note of despair.
Woke Up Lonely, by Fiona Maazel. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press. 336 pages. $26.00, hardcover.
Misha Rai is from Haryana, India. Her fiction has appeared in the Indiana Review and currently contributes to The Missouri Review blog. She has been Assistant Fiction Editor for the Mid-American Review. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Fiction at Florida State University. She is in the process of writing her debut novel. At present she serves as Assistant Fiction Editor on The Southeast Review.