This review first appeared at Grift Magazine and is reprinted here with permission.
I thought I’d burn through Mischa Hiller’s Shake Off, but I read the first half at an incredibly slow pace, partly out of necessity (I was moving) and partly because the narrative demanded my attention in a way I hadn’t expected.
The first chapters are weighted down with exposition about Michel Khoury, the book’s narrator, a young PLO operative whose family was murdered by extremists at a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. The short, Sallis-like chapters kept me reading when my attention waned. My first impression was that the book was trying unsuccessfully to balance being a spy novel and a history lesson. But those early chapters are merely a foundation for a story that gets moving around 70 pages in and then is impossible to put down once you reach the halfway mark.
Michel is an agent for a man named Abu Leila, who has taught him all that he knows and has become his surrogate father. I won’t go into great detail about their relationship except to say that what at first seems ordinary is later revealed as the great mysterious core of the book. Michel believes that he, as Abu Leila’s pawn, is working to resolve the Middle East conflict peacefully. Needless to say, nothing in this book is that easy.
Part of the book’s charm is that there are no simple heroes and villains. We have questions about every character that we meet, including Michel, who—in a couple of very surprising scenes—uncovers his true motives for becoming an intelligence agent. When he’s forced to go rogue and face his demons, Michel becomes even more intense and complicated.
One of the most compelling characters here is Helen, a young postgraduate anthropology student who Michel lives next door to and falls in love with. Helen, even more than Michel and Abu Leila, was a mystery to me as I read. I wondered about her motives constantly. Was she an agent? What was her endgame? When I realized I had taken on Michel’s anxiety about her, I felt that Hiller had succeeded in a significant way.
The book is, in some ways, about paranoia. Early on, Michel tells us how he sees the world: “Everyday objects must be considered potential concealers of microphones or cameras. Every person you meet could either be an agent waiting to get close or a possible recruit to the cause. Every woman that talks to you wants to trap you with the promise of sex. Every postcard has a hidden meaning. Everybody behind you could be following you, and it is your job to shake them off.” I was put in mind of Trelkovsky in Roman Polanski’s The Tenant (based on Roland Topor’s novel) in terms of how Hiller portrayed Michel’s pathological alienation. Unlike Trelkovsky, though, Michel’s search leads him away from madness. Ultimately, Shake Off is all the things it’s billed as—infectious, thought-provoking, and entertaining—because Michel is a character who exposes the dark complexities of being human.