Novel * David Shafer * The Encroaching Analytic Dystopia * 2014
Reading Whiskey Tango Foxtrot coincided with two things which I’m pretty sure combined to ensure that I would not really enjoy reading it all that much. The first thing is returning to work full time, which is a good thing since I really like my job, however it leaves me less time for things like reading and writing. The other thing is a shift from a reading-intensive phase to a doing-other-things phase. These things happen. Anyway, the result is that this book took me like three weeks to get through, and under other circumstances it would have taken far less time. Most of this isn’t the book’s fault. I’m pretty sure that when I was finished, I was of the opinion that it is, in fact, a pretty good novel. It’s just that reading it felt like a chore, and I’m not sure how much of that was me and how much of that was the book. Because even after moving on, I’m pretty sure there are some significant annoyances which are keeping me from wanting to fully recommend WTF. One thing is that the coded/abbreviated form of the title is WTF. Another is that the main characters are kind of dull and one is actively obnoxious. The final thing is that the plot is esoteric and abstract and never really comes together.
Hmm, that makes me think that I didn’t actually like the novel all that much. Well, let’s try a quick summary, and maybe that will diagnose my issues with the book. The story begins with a woman named Leila Majnoun, who is in Myanmar working for a nonprofit organization of some kind. She’s a pretty engaging character, and it isn’t too long before she gets herself into a sticky situation. By which I mean that she witnesses something that she shouldn’t have and is now on the bad side of a vindictive cabal of corporate overlords and governmental intelligence. So her life is all fucked up. Then we’ve got Leo, who is a wayward trust-fund goofball with mental illness issues. He lives in Portland, which is fun because I used to live in Portland, and Leo is very Portland. Anyway, he has a breakdown of sorts and in his ramblings inadvertently stumbles onto the same corporate conspiracy that Leila has. And then we have Mark, who sucks. To be clear, Mark is supposed to suck. He’s a mealy-mouthed, low-rent conman who has stumbled ass-backward into a lucrative book deal and an inexplicably fruitful relationship with a billionaire. He’s an old college buddy of Leo’s, and coincidentally the billionaire who is Mark’s patron is also part of the aforementioned conspiracy.
The conspiracy itself is where the book has trouble keeping tabs on the actual plot. Part of this is because the nature of the corporate conspiracy is vague and abstract. Basically, the evil companies are in cahoots with corrupt government agencies and other international powers and have devised technology which can harvest the personal information of everyone in the world. They will then use this information to, like, profit and maybe enslave the thoughts of humanity? It’s super unclear. There’s underwater mega-databases and not-iPhones-but-totally-iPhones and secret security firms and who knows what else. Then there’s the resistance, who recruit Leila with some kind of weird Snow Crash-like computer program that connects everyone’s brains together or something. Speaking of Snow Crash, I repeatedly got the feeling that WTF was a slowed down version of Neal Stephenson’s book. This is not necessarily a bad thing, yet it really does seem like this novel has a hard time keeping track of its own ideas about data analytics and their role in modern society. Information is indeed power, but I’m not convinced WTF knows exactly what kind of power that is.
Oh thank sweet inflatable wacky waving Jesus, I’m so happy this copy of the book has a reading group guide. Oh, and these questions are also extremely full of their own cleverness. I’m writing them out verbatim, and I’m 99% sure the author wrote them. Okay. Here we go.
Each of WTF’s three main characters seem to be opening a different book. In such a case, how soon should the author promise the reader that separate strands of a story will come together? How much time does the author have to make a case for the reader’s continued engagement?
Holy shit, that’s totally something I would write because I would still somehow be insecure about a narrative method I used, despite being published already. Anyway this question highlights my other main issue about the novel. There are way too many words spent on each character doing, saying, and thinking utterly inessential things throughout the story. I don’t care about how each character is introduced, however I do care that entirely too much time is spent with each and every one of them while they fuck off and don’t do anything. This goes especially for Mark, who in addition to being a douche is also extremely boring.
Did you find it hard to credit that there would be this amazingly competent NGO logistician working alone in a beautiful and exotic city? If in fact you found Leila too conveniently badass, were there other elements of her character that mitigated that effect, that made her seem real to you?
Jesus, the insecurity just keeps getting worse. Anyway, that Leila was competent and smart and tough is not what annoyed me, it was constantly being told that she was the most beautifullest girl in the whole wide world. I get it, male author, you like babes. And of course there are physically attractive people of all kinds who are also smart and successful. And it is right and good to hate them. Especially when they’re also nice and pleasant and good cooks who also shred the guitar and are better writers than me.
Is Mark a charming jerk or an uncharming jerk?
The latter, but what’s worse is that he’s a basic bitch and the books spends way too much time with him.
Wouldn’t it be cool if Ikeas comprised a global network of safehouses?
I’m not sure that bit was as clever as you thought it was.
When did you first know that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was a coded title?
Like right away? Again, this is not as clever as you clearly want it to be.
Had you any acquaintance with the word game the Jumble before page 184? Did you try to solve that puzzle as you read it in the book? Or is that the kind of Easter-egg shit you skip over when reading fiction?
Ooh, the discussion questions are getting edgy! There’s a swear! Also fuck you.
Did you notice that the entire novel is a palindrome?
How do you feel about the TSA? Isn’t it a little strange that we all agreed to subject ourselves to their airport screening experience? How much of that do you think is actually Security Theater? Like, say, if they had taken half a banana right out of your daughter’s hands: would you think, Thank God these people are keeping us safe? Or would you think: WTF?
I would think, huh, is the author working on a bit for his open mike stand up set? The real answer is that in our post-9/11 safety fervor we did it to ourselves. We wrote President Bush and Congress a blank check to keep us safe from “terror.” And insofar as granting certain segments of the government unprecedented power is concerned, it worked a treat.
Did you see that they’re now selling as advertising space the bottom of the bin in which they make you put their shoes? WTF?
Holy shit, this IS a bit. It’s like “you might be a redneck” but instead, at the end of every trite observation, he just uses the abbreviation of his book title in lieu of a punchline. Also that question is a fucking terrible sentence.
You know it’s not a cloud, right? You know it’s a vast network of secure servers storing everything we do and drinking our rivers to keep themselves cool?
Jesus, this is some top-notch, Portland, Oregon, passive-fucking-aggressiveness right here. Also, I’m willing to bet that if anyone ever calls these awful, awful questions out the author defends them by saying something like “oh, uh, well these questions are all written as if Leo from the book wrote them,” and okay, sure, but also fuck you.
That 5-zettabyte listening post and data-storage complex the NSA built in Bluffdale, Utah – did we ever vote on whether we wanted one of those?
NONE OF THESE QUESTIONS HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED IN THE BOOK. Jesus, these things read like angry Tweets from a conspiracy account. Also, that’s not how a representative republic works, take a civics class. It would be impossible to put every policy decision up for a vote, you disingenuous dingbat. Also, there’s over 300 million people in this country, most of whom could not give a shit how their cell phone works so long as it works. At this point I should also mention that I have extremely limited patience for stupid conspiracy theories, regardless of where on the political spectrum they originate.
Which side do you think Tessa Bright is on?
Could not care less.
Is Mark sincere in his commitment to Dear Diary?
No, wait, it turns out I can actually care less.
Does Mark make it to Sine Wave 2?
Oh yeah, by the way, the book doesn’t actually end. Which I guess is fine since the plot is so ambiguous and nebulous, but there is absolutely no resolution to what plot there is. Now, I suppose you could argue that the characters were the focus, and I would agree that for the most part there is some kind of arc and growth for most of these people. However, I would also point out that the ambiguous ending trope only works if it is, in fact, ambiguous. The end of WTF isn’t unclear, or left to the reader’s interpretation, it just ends before the fucking story is over. And that’s a copout. So to answer this question, since the author clearly doesn’t give a shit, neither do I.