America is weird. Not weird like Shakespeare’s “weyward” sisters, but weird as in meaninglessly incongruous — absurd, but without the moral weight of the absurd.
Or at least this is the America of Fiona Maazel’s second novel, “Woke Up Lonely.” The story concerns an estranged family. Thurlow Dan is the leader of the Helix, a rapidly growing cult devoted to ending loneliness. His ex-wife, Esme, is a freelance intelligence agent employed by the federal government to undermine him. Her tactics include identity switching; in the opening chapters, she switches incarnations like Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove” but without his manic glee.
Responding to pressure from her handler, Esme recruits four lonely, not-too-bright staffers from the Department of the Interior. When their cover is blown as they descend upon Thurlow’s Cincinnati hideout, these useful idiots are taken hostage. In exchange for their release, Thurlow demands that his ex-wife and daughter be brought to him.
Sentence by sentence, Maazel’s writing is usually evocative and occasionally ringing, but unfortunately, her characters are deliberately implausible, especially in their deep professional incompetence. Esme is an intelligence operative who neglects to case buildings for exits and has no opinion on how best to deal with North Korea, her original target. Thurlow is a self-conscious cult leader devoid of charisma, who riffs in front of packed audiences about how loneliness is endemic, unacknowledged, changing Americans’ DNA, etc. He has no analysis and no cure; he doesn’t even have snake oil. Yet he is fabulously successful.
Tellingly, Maazel’s best passages take place outside America. At one point, Thurlow flies to North Korea to meet with party apparatchiks to secure funding. He sees a great opportunity there to help the “most isolated, radically autonomous, and lonely community of millions on earth.” Later, he admits, “Perhaps I had not given North Korea its due as a repressor of men.” The forced quirkiness here takes on a previously lacking gravitas. North Korea, after all, needs no exaggeration. The country fits right into Maazel’s world and thus imparts a desperately needed sense of reality and its dire consequences.
A second set piece features a flashback to an NSA listening bunker in Australia, where Esme first understands how to win concessions from a North Korean negotiator yet sabotages her mission. Way over the top, the scene still powerfully evokes failure.
But when it gets back to American soil again, the novel flounders, refocusing on the hostages and a wide array of other secondary characters with weak shock humor and belabored poignancy. There are a few rare moments of genuine humor. On the run, Esme has to apply just enough prosthetics and makeup “to look recognizable to her daughter but foreign to everyone else” and thus keep the girl ignorant of the situation.
Maazel takes on the national intelligence apparatus, the nature of cults, the possibility of micro-nations, as well as psychological issues, such as the nature of loneliness and our inability to relate to those whom we most dearly love. However, “Woke Up Lonely” really doesn’t have enough to say about these subjects. Instead, there is only a frantic, unlikely collection of details and incidents assembled in a scramble for laughter and emotional impact.
Byrne is the author of “The Showing of the Instruments.”
WOKE UP LONELY
By Fiona Maazel
Graywolf. 325 pp. $26