Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
by David Shafer
3 out of 5 self-help gurus would give a seminar based on this book.
This book has been compared to the likes of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson and Chuck Palahniuk. I don’t think that’s doing it any favors because while it isn’t bad, it never got close to those guys at their best for me.
This is essentially one of the fusions in which the author mixes Serious Lit-A-Chur with the DNA of a genre novel which in this case is a conspiracy-cyber thriller with a little sci-fi for flavor. Leila is a Persian-American working for a non-profit NGO in Myanmar when she accidently stumbles on something that triggers the wrath of an operative of a worldwide shadow government. Mark and Leo were friends in college, but their lives have taken them on very different paths. Mark is a bullshit artist who lucked his way into fame and fortune by becoming a self-help guru who advises an uber-wealthy Mr. Burns type of asshole. Leo is an underachieving slacker whose substance abuse kicks his paranoia into overdrive. Circumstances make all three of them aware of a sinister plot involving on-line data collection that is getting taken to a new terrifying level. And of course there is an underground group trying to stop it.
The thing here is that anyone hoping for a conspiracy novel probably isn’t going to be satisfied. Yeah, there are some cool moments, and the evil plan is impressive in its scale as well as its feasibility, but there are no big action scenes of note. Instead the focus is on the thoughts and feelings of the three leads as they examine what they find lacking in their own lives even as they have to deal with the moral choices the situation forces on them.
I was far more intrigued by the personal stories and history of Leila, Mark and Leo than I ever was by the conspiracy story-line which, while ambitious, is still at its heart a secret-group-of-powerful-rich-assholes-try-to-take-over-the-world story. In fact, I probably would have liked this book a whole lot more if Shafer had just skipped the conspiracy and done a whole book about the three main characters somehow meeting up and interacting.
I know that the conspiracy was symbolic, representing the way that some will willingly give up secrets and freedom for a comfortable life, but it kept reading as if were to be taken as seriously like this was a Tom Clancy novel. The clichés of the conspiracy thriller are here, but they don’t feel deconstructed or satiric. That made my brain keep thinking that there would be a car chase or a shootout at the usual places even though I knew that wasn’t the kind of book Shafer wrote.
So the whole thing ended up in a weird one-foot-in/one-foot-out state for me in which I felt like the book was too character driven to be an entertaining genre thriller, but the conspiracy thriller aspects distracted me from the much better character angles as well as some of the broader points he was trying to make.
Also posted at Goodreads.