Woke Up Lonely, Fiona Maazel, Graywolf Press, 2013, 323 pp
The publisher's letter to the reader in the front of my review copy of Woke Up Lonely suggests there are two ways to read the novel: speedily while being propelled by the action or taking one's time to savor Maazel's precision, wit, and prose. In my first reading I attempted the speed method but kept being foiled by the prose. I got to the end feeling supremely annoyed. Who is this Fiona Maazel anyway, I thought, and why is she considered to be so hot?
She tells us the story of Thurlow Dan, founder and leader of Helix, a cult that promises to cure loneliness. The opening pitch in Dan's words:
"Here is something you should know: we are living in an age of pandemic. Of pandemic and paradox. To be more interconnected than ever and yet lonelier than ever. To be almost immortal with what science is doing for us yet plagued with feelings that are actually revising how we operate on a biological level. Want to know what that means? I'll tell you."
Of course, in the way of people who found cults in an effort to solve their own problems, Thurlow Dan is hopelessly disconnected from other people. He deserted his wife and year old infant nine years earlier after being serially unfaithful and has wound up rich, famous, under investigation by the American government for possible acts of terrorism, still in love with his ex-wife, and lonely as hell.
Esme, the ex-wife, is a freelance agent working for Homeland Security. She does her best to raise her daughter Ida in her spare time while secretly trying to save Thurlow from himself. Time is running out though because the cult leader's misguided attempt to test his theories on North Korea's Dear Leader has landed him in some very hot water. The lunatic fringe of his cult harbors terrorist leanings and if Esme doesn't pull off something brilliant, the man she still loves is going down.
My problem was that I did not figure all this out until I had almost finished the book. Due to the author's impressive vocabulary, I had to keep stopping to look up words. Nothing wrong with that; I love words. But I kept losing track of the plot as Maazel's brilliant set pieces, such as the speed dating as procurement method for Helix and the creation of Esme's elaborate disguises and the mother/daughter scenes with Ida, kept flashing like rooms from a fun house. Not to mention that at least six of the main characters each has his or her own plot.
The advance-praise blurbs for Woke Up Lonely left me sputtering with refutation. "I may have bruised ribs from laughing." I didn't remember laughing. Once. "This is a book you need." Why do we need to be told how lonely and disconnected we are? "It leaves your ears, mind and soul ringing for days." Well, actually a few days later I had to admit it did. So I tried the second suggested reading approach. I began again, taking my time, paying attention, letting Fiona Maazel talk to me.
Sure enough, like meeting someone who at first comes across as despicable and later becomes a great friend, the whole thing fell out and I got it. This author writes with the absurdist sense of early Iris Murdoch. She comports herself with the linguistic showmanship of Michael Chabon. Woke Up Lonely is a satirical social critique, a modern day romance, a literary thriller, and a tragedy that as it turns out, is also comedy. In my second reading, I am laughing.
I am not worried about bruising any ribs though. I've come through denial, anger, and bargaining. We are in deep trouble. I am depressed and don't plan on achieving acceptance. In the final scene comes the ultimate mockery of achieving acceptance. Instead, I challenge readers to finish this book and report back.
(Woke Up Lonely is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)