Fiona Maazel possesses a formidable imagination and considerable linguistic virtuosity. Yet her second novel, “Woke Up Lonely,” a dystopian picaresque featuring a cultlike organization, government spies, a visit to North Korea, a slew of fractured families and an underground sin city, is a singularly unsatisfying work.
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The fictive world of "Woke Up Lonely" is a fantastical version of the near-contemporary United States, at once recognizable and distinct. It's the country as seen in a hallucinogenic trance or a paranoid schizophrenic delusion. Amid surreal and blasted landscapes, improbable escapes abound, and friends and enemies are constantly morphing (and bumping) into one another.
At the center of the novel is the threat and promise of a semi-underground group, the Helix, which is rapidly gaining adherents, to the dismay of certain government officials. The avowed purpose of the Helix, whose members sport helix tattoos, is to combat the loneliness and fragmentation of modern life. Its methods include mass meetings and speed dating, designed to foster both community and romance. But it is unclear whether the organization's mantras really work. And the group has acquired a politically subversive and cultlike cast, with a fringe advocating violent secession.
The leader and founder of the Helix is the oddly named — and just plain odd — Thurlow Dan. Dan crisscrosses the United States recruiting followers, and even travels, bizarrely, to North Korea in search of backing. At one point he absconds from the hospital bed of his wife, Esme, as she is giving birth to their daughter. Unable to face his family responsibilities, he lectures a Helix crowd about the mystery of intimacy, and the woman he has left behind:
I said I worried she was as unknown to me as a stranger in the park. I said that the negative space contoured by our absence in each other's lives gave shape to what was impossible to shape otherwise but which I could now see with a horror I could barely put into words. What does loneliness look like? So long as my wife was out there, this person I adored, clamoring for me and getting no response, I had a good idea.
This scene is a memory, a flashback. As "Woke Up Lonely" opens, Dan is stalking Esme, now his ex-wife (big surprise), and their daughter, Ida. They have spent years apart, seemingly at cross purposes. As Dan offers antidotes to loneliness to the masses, his own is abated only marginally by his work and the prostitutes he keeps on call. He still obsesses over his lost family, still searches for them, despite a past filled with mutual betrayals.
Esme, however, is not simply his ex. She is also his nemesis, a government spy tasked with oversight of Dan and the Helix. But is that all? Whose side is she really on? Esme uses odd disguises to drop in on Dan, Department of Interior employees to infiltrate Helix headquarters, and surveillance cameras to keep an eye on it all. Meanwhile she, too, is being watched.
For all the hidden cameras in "Woke Up Lonely," appearances are almost always deceptive. This is a paranoid world — a world in which the paranoids are right. But so are the idealists. Esme, a double agent of sorts, harbors her own romantic longings for Thurlow Dan, as inexplicable as they are inextinguishable.
If Maazel had focused more tightly on these two ill-fated lovers, barreling toward each other and away from each other with nearly equal velocity, she might have fashioned a more compelling narrative. But that's not how she rolls.
Instead, she shifts her point of view — from character to character, and from third to first person — with annoying frequency and introduces a dizzying cast of minor figures whose travails grow tedious. Among them are the four Helix House hostages: Olgo, an older man in despair about losing his wife to both the Helix and a new lover; Bruce, a failed documentarian with a gambling problem whose pregnant wife has been confined to bed rest; Anne-Janet, hopelessly infatuated with a co-worker, Ned, who in turn is obsessed with finding a twin sister he has never met.
Maazel's narrative moves speedily back and forth among these characters (and a few others) without gathering any real momentum. The novel's jaunty prose works against conjuring any deep emotion. And as social commentary, "Woke Up Lonely" hasn't much to say, beyond pointing to the difficulties we all face in sustaining intimacy. This is a novel of brilliant bursts that doesn't manage to engage fully either the head or the heart.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
"Woke Up Lonely"
By Fiona Maazel, Graywolf, 325 pages, $26