A review of The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Unknown Terrorist
By Richard Flanagan
Picador
November 2006, ISBN-13 978 0 330 42280 2, paperback, $32.95

In Richard Flanagan’s first three novels, his prose stood out for its silky smooth invisibility; combining a stunning richness with well paced characterisation and fiction that transcended its form. He’s a writer unafraid to delve deeply into the silent beauty and horror deep in the heart of all of us. But his latest novel, The Unknown Terrorist, is a perfect example of why polemics and fiction don’t work well together. Dedicated to Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks, the book struggles with the fictional voice from the first page, and this fuzziness between the polemics of its political message (Richard the writer with something to say) and the integrity of the novel’s own story (the fictional narrator) is one which continues throughout the novel, and, in the end, undermines it’s fictional power. It might have helped the novel a little to eliminate the opening chapter, which sets a confusing and unpleasant tone to the book. In a voice entirely different from the main narration, the opening tells us a story about Nietzsche and Jesus; the failure of love, and the danger of dreaming:

Nietzsche wrote, “I am not a man, I am dynamite”. It was the image of a dreamer. Every day now somebody somewhere is dynamite. They are not an image. They are the walking dead, and so are the people who are standing round them. Reality was never made by realists, but by dreamers like Jesus and Nietzche. (2)

Although the voice is confident of the truth that it is conveying, it is completely incomprehensible. Is this passage supposed to be referring to suicide bombers? How do they create reality? Are these qualities being lauded? Is Hicks being likened to a Jesus or Nietzche? The notion that “love is not enough” is a leitmotif repeated fairly often throughout the book and mirrored identically between page 1 and page 96. The repetition doesn’t help make sense of the sentence however. Love is not enough for what? To save our lives from being meaningless? To save us from the corrupt, ugly people that we are? To overcome our inherent faults as human beings?

Once into the novel we are presented with four days in the life of the Doll, a twenty-six year old pole dancer, who is wrongfully accused of being a terrorist after a one night stand with another wrongfully accused man. Although it’s a little murky, one can imagine that the “love” which the narrator keeps referring to, is that moment between the Doll and Tariq, the lover she meets after he saves her friends child on Bondi and then conveniently re-meets during the Mardi-Gras. It’s a fairly flimsy consummation to build the book on and I imagine that this kind of love wouldn’t be up to much at all. As a character, the Doll doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. The narrator keeps her, and everyone else, at a kind of cinematic arm’s length, so we never really appreciate her beyond the roundness of her body, her old fashioned face, or the stereotypes out of which she is constructed:

Their world was one of suburban verities, their world was that of today: the house, the job, the possessions and the cars, the friends and the renovations, the resort holidays and the latest gadgets-digital cameras, home cinemas, a new pool. The past was a garbage bin of outdated appliances: the foot spa; the turbo oven; the doughnut maker and the record player…(7)

For a novel to work there must at least be some kind of tension between positive and negative characters, but there really are no appealing characters in this novel. Even Wilder, the Doll’s one “true” friend, fails her in the end, proving herself to be as empty as everyone else:

But the Doll was remembering the bonsai garden Wilder treated so carelessly, where the only thing that ever seemed to grow was the mound of dope ash in the Bakelite ashtray and where the beautiful plants she had bought only to laugh about withered in the terrible heat and then died. (252)

It would probably be easier to dismiss this work if Flanagan weren’t so talented at constructing sentences. There are times when his writing is as delicate and beautiful as poetry as this description of the end of a marriage:

Every day some small thing–a joke, a shared intimacy, a sweet memory–he found to have withered and died. Caresses fell like dead leaves. Conversations cracked and then broke. And in the end there was nothing to quicken the trunk with the rising sap that fed and was fed in return by the banches, by the twigs, by the leaves. (72)

But in the end, pretty passages are simply not enough to save this poorly plotted and poorly characterised tale. The book is full of clichés and stereotypes as brutal as those Flanagan criticises. The poll dancers who talk about the Doll are all utterly vacuous. The bad guys, Lee Moon, Frank Moretti, the anchorman Richard Cody, or the wealthy people at Katie Moretti’s party are all characters with no depth or dimension to render them realistic. Sydney itself is seen as a kind of game park with grungy areas like Kings Cross, suburbian areas like the West, or wealthy areas like Double Bay all fulfilling their stereotypical functions:

It was their success and their prosperity; their mansions and apartments! Their Porsches and Bentleys and Beemers! Their getaways in the tropics! Their yachts and motorcruisers! Their influence, their privileges, their certainties! Would could doubt it? Who would question it? Who would wish to change any of it? (28)

The Doll herself is little more than a vehicle for the message this book seeks to promote—that our governments are corrupt; that we’re all vacuous and grasping, that life is more or less meaningless, and that we’d all sell out our best friends for a few less wrinkles, a promotion or a few more hours of oblivion into the media that keeps us quiet. The voice that seems to resonate in the Doll’s head is so obviously not hers, and so intent on passing on its message of emptiness that it destroys any kind of fictive dream for the reader:

She looked up and saw Homebush Olympic stadium in the distance. When it was being built for the Olympics and she was a teenager, its wings had reminded her of angels. Now she could see there was so much that was more amazing than any angel, but that there was nothing left to believe. People put all their energy and brilliance into making things more extraordinary than themselves, only to have it make them feel that they were, in the end, less than nothing. (248)

Who are these people? As Flanagan himself has shown so beautifully in his first three novels, the world is much bigger, and people so much richer and more complex than the screenbites we get from television. The narrator is so sure of himself, and his generalisations so sweeping that they create their own damage. The polemics, which provide a one sided inditement without alternative, are transparent and unpleasant, involving such overt television style symbolism as covering a body in money, or slashing art to prove how useless it is against greed. The Unknown Terrorist is being sold as a Trojan Horse of a thriller masquerading the seriousness of the societal critique it provides, but even that statement is a Trojan Horse. At the core of this novel is a nihilism so bleak– “F*uck you all!” (312)–that it makes even the horror of the terrorist act, of murder and suicide, seem minor in comparison. It’s almost the complete opposite of the joyous affirmative humour which underpins Gould’s Book of Fish, and except for the occasional forays into a beautifully rendered prose, it’s hard to believe this is the same author.

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