One way to understand the fundamental difference between nonfiction and fiction is to consider how what works in one doesn’t work in the other. There are elements of structure, pacing, and–paradoxically enough–believability that reality is free to ignore, but a fiction writer is not. It may be that the contemporary rise of the nonfiction book and essay–admit it, some of the most interesting stories you’ve read this year have been news stories–has resulted from this fundamental shift in our thinking: That nonfiction’s messy, unresolved, over-the-top sentimental, doesn’t-make-any-fricking-sense, weird-coincidence technique is actually a closer representation of life. What is acceptable in reality may not be acceptable in art. Nonfiction and news themselves are packaged for us, often using the techniques pioneered by fiction writers and movie-makers–but it’s the content here that counts.
Consider the recent, quite literally meaningless carnage in Boston. What if this had never happened but instead been written as a novel? It doesn’t take much to run this thought experiment. What follows below is in “poor taste”–posted without this preamble, it would seem like some kind of failed joke–but that is exactly my point. Considering actual events as constructed fictional events feels like a transgression against something sacrosanct. “Reality,” however we define that, is increasingly, for our culture, the domain of nonfiction. Don’t believe me? Let’s visit goodreads.com and hear what readers are saying.
Amit Majmudar rated it * * *
I look forward to every new novel from Reality, ever since 2001’s ambitious Twenty-Nine Minutes, which redefined the genre. Reality’s latest offering, which imagines two brothers who plant homemade bombs at a major sports event, falls short of its earlier triumphs in terms of both plotting and characterization. Not that there aren’t some elements that are well-done: We get an interesting human dynamic between an older and a younger brother, really giving terrorism a “human face,” but there’s a fundamental problem regarding a Missing Motive. For example, the brothers are supposed to be Chechen immigrants. Why Chechens? And if Chechens, why Boston (as opposed to, say, Moscow?) There is a fundamental lack of credibility at the heart of the novel. The main characters here aren’t described as having intense political or religious beliefs (although, given the author’s clever device of showing them through the perspectives of the people who knew them, might we be meant to imagine that the two brothers, like some of the 9/11 terrorists, just hid their fanaticism exceptionally well?). It’s not like the brothers are presented as off-medication psychiatric types either. There’s an art to ambiguity, to leaving a reader with more questions than answers, as it were, but this feels more like a failure to fill in a crucial blank.
There is also Reality’s barely disguised polemical, political gesticulating. The back story really smacks of conservative fearmongering. To have these characters living off the state is one thing–but having one of the terrorists become a citizen on 9/11 of the preceding year is a little much, a coincidence not even Dickens would have ventured.
As for the rest of the back story, particularly with the older brother who wrestled for his school and didn’t lack friends, it’s really just a retread of the “well-adjusted terrorist” motif familiar to us from 9/11’s terrorists, who were also described as being well-adjusted. Social adjustment level has nothing whatsoever to do with fantasies of mass murder: We get it. Nothing new here.
But there’s also Reality’s slightly overdone sentimentality, which has become a theme in its work of late. Out of the handful of deaths, was it necessary to make one of them a young child? Or was Reality fairly transparently making this a tearjerker, and trying to make the terrorists in the story even more despicable? It may have been a way of compensating for the fundamentally opaque nature of the two main characters–there’s nothing there even to hate, nothing there at all, so Reality introduces the kid. This is somewhat heavy-handed, just like the cringeworthy symbolism of the brothers’ homemade bombs (which are made in, you guessed it, pressure cookers) and the idea of radical Islam as a “pressure cooker” ready to explode.
However, in the second half, which dealt with the manhunt, the storytelling became taut and suspenseful. There was an interesting twist with how the manhunt was “crowdsourced,” which showed Reality’s grasp of how modern social media is changing the way the world works. But (SPOILER ALERT) the final scene, in which the surviving brother surrendered without a fight, was rather anticlimactic, leaving this reader, at least, wondering whether Reality was feeling fatigued by the end of the novel and just wanted to wrap things up. Also there were hours that elapsed between the capture of each brother, which really made an otherwise suspenseful second half drag.
Overall, there are just too many missing pieces, and the novel as a whole is marred by serious structural flaws. This novel didn’t increase my understanding of why terrorists do what they do, and it really just attempts too much. If I could give it three and a half stars, I would, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to round down on this one. I received this book as a Goodreads Early Reviewer.