A Bolt from the Blues

Woke Up Lonely: A Novel BY Fiona Maazel. Graywolf Press. Hardcover, 336 pages. $26.

The cover of Woke Up Lonely: A Novel

Since its publication in 2008, Fiona Maazel’s first novel, Last Last Chance, has won a small and cultlike following, myself included. I love the book because it is constantly surprising—blackly funny but permeated by great sadness, like the fiction of Barry Hannah or Donald Antrim—besides which every sentence in it shines like gold. The story of an über-rich drug addict and her massively dysfunctional family (they smoke crack, worship Norse gods, release an apocalyptic super-plague), Last Last Chance is a smarter and bleaker book than it gets credit for, but it’s still, at bottom, a comedy: Each reader can decide for herself how much of the dark stuff to take or leave. Woke Up Lonely is another wunderkammer, a deeply felt and wildly original novel that repays the attention it demands, and once read won’t be soon forgotten. There are sharp jokes on every page, luridly bad sex, and a passel of outrageous conceits—a secret wonderland in tunnels beneath Cincinnati, an airplane custom painted with the original cover art for Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, a basement orgy—but unlike in the previous novel, here the darkness is inexorable, and will not be denied.

The first page drops us, in medias res, into the life of Thurlow Dan, the founder of a cultish organization called the Helix. He always meant to bring people together in the fight against the solipsism inherent in latter-day global capitalist culture, but he never expected that his dedication to the cause would cost him his wife and daughter (his serial adultery didn’t help), or that his bizarre program—consisting mostly of empowering speeches, AA-style confession sessions, and the occasional speed-dating mixer—would yield an international network of Helix “cells” that range, in their particular bents, from benignly communitarian to hard-core insurrectionist. Dan’s cult has made him rich, famous, and powerful. It has also made him a Homeland Security target in uneasy league with North Korea, and left him so isolated at the top of his anti-loneliness movement that he’s now lonelier than he ever was back in the good old days when he was just a regular lonely guy. Perhaps this is why, when the book opens, Thurlow Dan seems so disconnected from his own organization and its hazy beliefs; he’s ready to walk away from the Helix and everything that goes with it, if only he could have another chance (a last last chance?) at being a family man. But this is not a chance that his ex-wife, Esme, will give him, in part because of the aforementioned serial adultery, and in part because she is a freelance undercover agent, secretly spying on the Helix and its apparent threat to homeland security.

Esme’s contact and employer is her boyfriend, Jim Bach—a Department of Defense careerist who has brought Esme on to the Thurlow Dan case hoping that her former marriage to the target will help them bring him down. What Bach doesn’t know is that Esme has been working Dan’s case one way or another almost since the day she left him ten years ago—it’s Homeland meets Hawthorne’s “Wakefield”—and her goal all along has been to keep the feds off his back, hoping that he will abandon the Helix before committing treason or getting himself killed. All of which is more than enough for a first chapter, indeed for an entire novel, but Maazel’s just getting warmed up.

Esme—a master of disguises—becomes Lynne, a limping, obese spinster with a Pentagon budget and gear. In this persona, she recruits an intentionally incompetent team of “spies” from among the ranks of the Department of the Interior. Each member of “Team ARDOR” gets his or her own short-story-length introductory chapter; we meet their families, learn their backstories, and come to realize that all four are on the verge of emotional collapse. This peculiar black-ops team is dispatched to the Cincinnati suburbs to spy on Dan at Helix headquarters. There they are immediately discovered and taken hostage, precipitating a standoff, Dan now seemingly on a trajectory from accidental Tyler Durden to accidental David Koresh.

There must be two dozen named characters in Woke Up Lonely, and it can be tough to tell which are “major” and “minor,” since the novel’s restless spotlight shifts so frequently. The narrative is a very close and porous third person—think Bellow in Herzog—that like God seems to know each character completely but is similarly unpredictable in the duration of Its attention. Gradually I realized that I was working with an ensemble cast, which fact ought to have been announced at the outset with a dramatis personae, since the reader’s going to need one anyway. (I made my own.)

But if Woke Up Lonely is vortical, fitful, and occasionally frustrating, it is also deeply felt, meticulously constructed, and wildly original: a true and uncompromising account of living in a centerless age, all of us whirling around the empty spot where the sure, solid thing ought to be, might have been once, maybe will be again someday—please please please. Maazel writes shorter, clearer, and with admittedly narrower scope than, say, William Gaddis or Don DeLillo, but I’d like to believe that Esme is named in homage to Gaddis’s Recognitions (or Maazel could have been thinking of Salinger, but still, how Pynchon-smitten a name is Thurlow Dan?), because at its heart this is a Systems novel, albeit one with a heart—throbbing, bleeding, broken, laid bare.

Everyone in the whole sprawling cast is engaged in some form of longing, missing, yearning, lamenting, regretting, scheming to recover what they’ve given up or lost, and the novel is the matrix of their overlapping, broken, or missed connections. “Everywhere and all the time, people are crying out for each other. Your name. Mine. And when you look back on your life, you’ll see it’s true: woke up lonely, and the missing were on your lips.” The words are Thurlow Dan’s. He’s standing at a podium on a dais and addressing a huge assembly, but he might as well be talking to himself.

Justin Taylor is the author of the novel The Gospel of Anarchy (Harper Perennial, 2011).