Jittery paranoid dystopian Fiona Maazel is back with a new novel, Woke Up Lonely, following her funny, eccentric debut Last Last Chance. Maazel writes spectacular and very weird sentences, and in this book she tackles modern social alienation.
At the center of Maazel’s zany novel is Thurlow Dan, a self-help guru who has recently made an ill-advised trip to North Korea, and who is being spied on by the U.S. Government. In this context we can understand North Korea as a metaphor for isolation, and surveillance as what we’re all doing to other human beings instead of forming relationships. The primary government agent assigned to Dan is his estranged wife, Esme. He still loves her, and she still loves him, but she’s spent the past 10 years keeping their daughter Ida from him, and watching him from afar while dressed in outlandish disguises and wearing disfiguring prostheses. Ordinary married people might relate.
From there, as a chapter-heading tells us, “stories begin to assert themselves like pebbles thrown up from the sea.” Mainly those of the gang of misfits Esme recruits to help her watch Dan. The ensemble cast is a chorus of dysfunction and sadness, and powerfully evokes the sensation of being alone in a crowd. Things go wrong, and Dan takes a grab-bag of weird folks hostage in the headquarters of his cult compound in Cincinnati, attempting to trade their lives for a reunion with his wife and daughter.
Maazel has a naturally estranged imagination—like George Saunders on speed—which is fun in a million little details. We laugh when a character “pelts the television with wasabi peas.” We struggle to know these people, encrusted as they are with their odd names (Tennessee Punjabi Bach? Anne-Janet Tabitha Riggs?), weird ailments, and unlikely professions. Anne-Janet, two weeks before being recruited by Esme to work for the government, was “selling celebrity mouthguards on Ebay,” to give an example of the author’s knack for the bizarre.
Like “Last, Last Chance,” how well the reader connects with the book will depend on how strongly Maazel’s dystopian anxieties resonate with one’s own views of the human condition. Are we, “destitute of intimacy with other people—intimacy of any kind” and “cocooned in all things, at all times, and it’s only getting worse,” as Dan believes? Do we “debrief with our pets and bed down with Internet porn”? How much and how often do we wake up lonely?
Maazel’s language is alternatively alienating, frustrating, innovative and beautiful, like the world she’s trying to evoke. The book demands suspension of disbelief for a skewed America where the Department of the Interior handles spycraft (it’s actually devoted to national parks), and where hapless citizens are handed good government jobs, but the rewards are many. In one late scene, Dan, Esme and daughter Ida have this moment: “Look at the clouds, what do you see? My favorite food is grape jelly. I like skating, candy and coconut soap. My worst fear has been that this day would come and it wouldn’t be enough, but it’s plenty.”
Or, to refer again to a chapter heading, “one must learn to love one’s people ardently,” despite their eccentricities and flaws, which could be said of this highly-crafted, odd-duck of a book as well.