The Room and the Chair by Lorraine Adams

The Room and the Chair BY Lorraine Adams. Knopf. Hardcover, 336 pages. $25.
The cover of The Room and the Chair

The West's post-9/11 preference for information-boggle over truth-telling gets a blunt reckoning in The Room and the Chair, Lorraine Adams's forceful follow-up to her well-received 2004 novel, Harbor. Adams sidesteps individual blame for this systemic moral torpor (the events take place at the end of the last administration, but none of the usual suspects are named) in favor of a collective study of an impressively sprawling, prodigiously flawed ensemble. Indeed, The Room and the Chair makes a compelling case that the deteriorating state of reality-based America is a collective effort—and that few of us can realistically disavow membership from the group.

Literally opening with a bang, The Room and the Chair tracks a convoluted chain of events after an Air Force fighter jet mysteriously ditches into the Potomac. (In a characteristically sardonic touch, the crash occurs across from the Watergate complex.) Its pilot, emotionally damaged naïf Mary Goodwin, survives, but the sinister implications of her "accident" go largely uninvestigated by the staff of an unflatteringly fictionalized Washington Post (where Adams was a staff writer). Bumbling executive editor Adam Sanger is too fixated on the paper's New Media-assailed status to move the story beyond "the tributaries of worn streams,” while disgraced night editor Stanley Belson puts second-shift crime-beat rookie Vera Hastings on the story.

What she uncovers, with the help of preteen prostitute and crash witness Baby, involves the paper's Bob Woodward-like former star reporter, his depressive alcoholic wife, Mabel Cannon, and an intelligence spook named Will Holmes who wields more power than his suburban office-park digs imply ("Reality, because of Will, had become fungible," He notes).

Adopting the propulsion and framework of an intricately plotted political thriller, The Room and the Chair mercilessly critiques our addiction to narratives of Western exceptionalism even as it compels us to turn its pages. This gives the novel drive, but the plot’s bleakness can make for tough going, and the heartbreaking climax, in which Goodwin and Holmes converge in Iran for a secret operation that ends in multiple betrayals, has the quality of a car wreck you can't tear your eyes away from. Adams's flair for language mitigates the despair, though: Doggedly full yet lean in effect (note the enigmatic, sublimely passive title), she's especially good at imparting the sloppy reasoning to which her characters so readily default—the verbal confusion of Mabel's drunken reveries and Adam's incessant, elliptical internal stature-tallies are especially masterly. There are moments of high comedy, too, including the editorial meeting in which Vera's story dies the death of a thousand cuts, and even a tiny measure of hope in the evolved, matter-of-fact media savviness of Baby and her crew.

It's small comfort, but The Room and the Chair's wrenching frankness feels necessary. Adams has crafted a blunt response to the American government's amateurish imperialism and ass-covering acrobatics, and to the ways that self-serving journalistic elites treat the country's vengeful obsessions as intrigue while letting harsher truths go unreported. By the book's final scene, which finds Mary inhabiting a much different kind of room with its own type of chair, looking away is no longer an option.

Mark Holcomb writes about books, movies, and television in Brooklyn, New York.