Either Fiona Maazel—named in 2008 to the National Book Foundation's "5 under 35" list—possesses psychic powers or her novels are remarkably prescient.
Her debut, Last Last Chance , which gave readers a front-row seat to what the world looks like at the onset of a deadly super-plague, was published in 2008, the year before the swine-flu pandemic took the world by storm.
Woke Up Lonely, Maazel's newest novel, published earlier this year by Graywolf Press, deals with—among other things—the reckless rise to prominence of North Korea as an increasingly unstable player in the global endgame.
If Maazel's next book features earthquakes in Southern California, I'll be on the next bus out of San Diego.
Woke Up Lonely is the story of a divorced couple who've carried the torch for one another throughout the long period of their estrangement. This was challenging since Thurlow Dan is a cult leader who's landed on a half-dozen federal watch lists and his ex-wife Esme is an undercover agent for the CIA. Her chief preoccupation these many years has been to keep Thurlow out of harm's way. This became increasingly difficult when he traveled to Pyongyang to take a meeting with Kim Jong-Il to discuss how the loneliest state on Earth could support Thurlow's mission.
As cults go, The Helix is fairly benign and feels very much like an offshoot of a 12-step program organized around the benefits of sharing one's personal experiences with a group of likeminded strangers. The affliction Thurlow's acolytes are fighting is loneliness. Here he addresses a crowd of 300 to 400 lost souls:
"'A lot of people think solitude comes from a deep need attached in our social history to the dread of convention. Or even just the dread of belonging. How can I belong? I live in darker registers of belonging and feeling than anyone else on earth. Does that sound familiar?'"
How this "dread of convention" compels droves of ordinary Americans to walk away from their families, friends and jobs and join Helix communes whose ranks are swelling at alarming rates is anyone's guess. The CIA's bungled attempt to find out by sending four handpicked workers from the Department of the Interior undercover drives much of the action.
Woke Up Lonely is a kaleidoscopic novel. Usually, this means the quotidian is made arresting by looking at it through a crush of color and light. That's not the case here. Woke Up Lonely seethes with sex and intrigue, and its baroque, highly stylized storyline is simplified by taking things one moment at a time.
Maazel does something that I haven't seen done since David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas . She presents short, intense episodes with characters near the beginning of the book that we don't meet again until the novel speeds toward its climax. The idiosyncrasies of these characters make them memorable, yet they are plugged into the story in a way that punches up the narrative rather than bogging it down.
Consider this snapshot of a man named Bruce whose wife is expecting their first child: "They had not settled on a name for his son, their son, though earlier today Rita had said, Che, how about Che? to which Bruce had said, Yeah? How about Santa? It will give him a leg up come winter. And so another fight, more tears, and a foreboding sense that already they were bad parents."
Maazel is a writer who twists her narrative to suit her needs rather then shunt her story through a sleeve of prepackaged prose. Her storytelling is ambitious without being self-indulgent and takes her readers to a place that's both far out and deeply interior. Even throwaway lines uncover a deeper understanding of the way we live now ("He stared at the screen like the dead stare at us."), and the scenes set in North Korea are breathtaking:
"Traversing the city at night was not much different from during the day. In the day the roads were stippled with cars—a handful—and at night there were none. Lights were scarce, there were no traffic signals, and every road felt epic. These were not roads, they were runways."
The most charismatic figure here is Maazel, whose rich prose is veined with wit and wisdom. Though diabolically entertaining, she's a writer with something to say. As we hasten to click on viral videos, submit to the wisdom of crowds and accumulate "friends" we've never met and never will, Woke Up Lonely serves as a kind of wake-up call.
"Anything that's a threat to convention is cult, which is the saddest part of all, because when did this horrible loneliness get to be the norm?"