Sunday 23 August 2015

Book Review: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer

When our personal details are appropriated these days it's no longer big news; cookies flog us that Beyonce fragrance we only googled in a moment of idle curiosity and identity thieves access bank accounts all the time. Data leeches out of screens that are becoming less of an accessory, more an extension of ourselves; Assange, Manning and Snowden have shown just how deeply it's already being mined. Whoever gets the greatest handle on all this stuff flying round the Internet will reap the biggest reward; this is the premise of David Shafer's debut novel Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, anyway - and it sure as hell is a scary one.

There are novels which travel a long way from their beginning to their end, and WTF is one of them. It opens in Burma, with aid worker Leila stumbling upon something she shouldn't have in the country's uncharted hinterlands. In asking for help to decipher what she's seen, she ends up putting both herself and her family in danger. Meanwhile, in Portland, Oregon, Leo loses his job and his grip on what might be considered reality. But, are his paranoid fantasies of a world where his every move is watched so extreme? And in New York, Mark, famous writer of a self-help book, begins to understand the price of his success.

What is it that connects them all? We know they're being being monitored, but why? Despite the relentless pace of Shafer's story-telling, it takes a while for the plot to unfold. Eventually, all the elements come together and the battle-lines between two potentially world-dominating forces start to emerge - but the ride in the meantime is a breathless one.

And this is what really elevates Shafer's debut from the mere thriller I thought I was embarking upon. WTF is adrenaline-fuelled, mind-bending, relentless, desperate and - unexpectedly - very funny. There's no shortage of focus on the personal, either - each protagonist has their own family problems, the struggles that have shaped them. Scariest of all; in its portrayal of the opposing alliances fighting to control the mass of data and devices that run our lives, even as it threatens to drift off into the realms of fantasy, WTF feels so incredibly, subversively plausible - in a way I haven't felt since reading Iain Banks.

I particularly enjoyed Leo's rehab time in Quivering Pines:
They began with a check-in: You were supposed to say your name and ascribe to yourself a feeling word. Keith was clearly having an ongoing disagreement with Kenny, the tracksuited scrap-metal collector, who sat hunched and fidgeting in his chair. Kenny tried to use pissed off as his feeling word.
"Pissed off is not a feeling word, Kenny," said the counselor.
 It's a feeling phrase, thought Leo. 
Fidget-fidget hunch. "But that's how I feel."
"Can you find a less aggressive way to put it?" asked Keith. Kenny scanned the list of feeling words on the sheet taped to the back of his notebook. He chose angry, though it seemed to make him more pissed off to do so.
Leo chose bewildered. He liked the wildness of the word. 
There are weaknesses. Occasionally, the three main characters would benefit from a little more differentiation; the language Shafer uses to inhabit each of them can be strikingly similar. He particularly overdoses on creating adjectives with a -y:
They all sat squished together. Leila was pressed up against Sarah. Leila had diagnosed in herself a minicrush on Sarah, which was ridiculous and inappropriate and probably Stockholm-y.
And, although there are some admirably strong women (Leila's sister Roxana being my out and out kick-ass favourite), it would be so refreshing to find a gutsy female protagonist who doesn't also happen to be beautiful in an effortless, Lara Croft-y kind of way. May she be ordinary; have an average of talents. After all, the central male characters aren't obliged to be jaw-chisellingly handsome; they have that white-male freedom to be messy and last-minute, incidentally heroic.

For all that, WTF is heart-stopping; dividing not along traditional Cold War or newer middle-eastern fault-lines but in the rift between the ideologies of multi-national corporations and security agencies versus mind-bending, new-age hippies with a penchant for puns. The ending may be too open and concerned to make way for a sequel, but WTF nevertheless had me totally in its thrall, convinced that we are creeping ever closer to the apocalypse, one mouse-click at a time.

Now excuse me, I've just got to check on the price of that Beyonce fragrance...

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is published in the UK by Penguin Books. Thanks to Penguin for my review copy.

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