The Unknown Terrorist

By Richard Flanagan

Grove. 336 pp. $24

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Reviewed by Edward Champion


For The Inquirer

nolead ends Richard Flanagan's The Unknown Terrorist pilfers so many plot elements (by Flanagan's own admission) from The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum that one wonders if there's a Tasmanian conspiracy afoot to get people rereading Heinrich Böll.

Flanagan is the Australian novelist who last offered the cult and critical favorite, Gould's Book of Fish, an inventive historical novel printed in different colored inks to reflect the creative methods of keeping up a diary in Van Diemen's Land. Katharina Blum has been reinvented as The Doll (a name curiously close to Böll), a.k.a. Gina Davies, a Sydney pole dancer who doesn't exactly share Katharina's chastity, but does possess Blum's desire to penny-pinch and start a new life, even if The Doll sometimes strips because "here was a Louis Vuitton handbag at stake." The Doll has a one-night stand with "a rather dull and serious man" named Tariq, who may or may not be connected to a series of bombings. A grainy image of the two hugging circulates and, days later, they are declared "al-Qaeda's Bonnie and Clyde."

As with Böll's novel, there's a sleazy reporter (a middle-aged, recently demoted anchor named Richard Cody) primarily responsible for these false accusations, although Cody's motivations originate from The Doll's rebuffing his advances. Also as with Böll's book, these false charges trigger a new crime. But, unlike Böll's novel, invasive shock jocks and 24-7 television coverage hound The Doll at all corners. Despite this, numerous characters insist that "Australians are decent people."

It may be a mistake to apply a literal reading to this comic thriller. Doing so means buying into a premise in which few question Cody's journalistic allegations and a lynch mob mentality seizes all of Sydney. The novel is unapologetically melodramatic and, as the book reaches the end, almost totally cynical. Still, Terrorist works because of its fascinating narrative transposition. Flanagan succeeds in recontextualizing Böll's work in the present time, in part because his potshots at media sensationalism and austere anti-terrorist measures are predicated upon an irresistible comic panache. "It's like Sudoku," says an editor working on the story. "You just have to make the numbers fit."

One wonders if Flanagan was doing the same. There are scores of story elements cadged from Böll, including minor details, such as The Doll's father dying of a lung disease, tapped telephones, and The Doll's insistence that she, like other people, reads nothing more than the Sydney Morning Herald. So who will believe she's innocent? Flanagan's novel thus becomes something more ambitious: a deceptively simple potboiler all too happy to juxtapose a Nobel Prize winner's narrative next to an accessible meditation on cultural superficiality. It occupies a niche somewhere between allegory and homage, but Flanagan's hip-hop-style sampling is most concerned with the veneer between thoughtful discourse and unsubstantiated accusations. If that means dwelling upon equally superficial imagery, such as "platform shoes out of some seventies movie," or more delightful descriptions such as "his big insect eyes blown up in his overblown Porsche" or an apartment noted for its "ocean of decorating and fashion magazines," then that's the cost of yarn-spinning.

Like Blum, The Doll is culturally tone-deaf, barely recognizing Chopin's Nocturne in F minor after repeat listens. She's unable to read the many magazines and books that her girlfriend Wilder passes her way. A pride parade stands in for Böll's Weiberfastnacht, but The Doll is as much of an inveterate scrimper as her literary antecedent, although The Doll calculates her savings as "the extent to which she was able to paper over her flesh with money."

The book's first half flirts with wild comic symbols along these lines. As the charges against The Doll stack up, we come to understand that the journalistic assault upon her character extends into violating nearly every private niche, even if that means speculations by her coworkers. But then Flanagan does something unexpected. After presenting a plot as ostensibly superficial as the characters, he asks us to empathize with The Doll through a forced revelation at a cemetery.

Flanagan's flourishes may be deliberately heavy-handed, but if one accepts his melodramatic posturing, his reliance upon coincidental run-ins with characters, and his frequent references to air-conditioning "battling a world that could not be cooled down," The Unknown Terrorist is an oddly exhilarating novel on a world gone horribly, perhaps irreversibly, chiaroscuro.

Edward Champion, a San Francisco writer, hosts the literary blog Return of the Reluctant (http://www.edrants.com).