David Shafer’s debut novel follows three young adults as they attempt to navigate their way through international intrigues, corporate cabals, and, well, life itself. Below please find a review from The New York Times.
Maybe There’s a Whole Other Internet
‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’ May Be the Novel of the Summer
by Dwight Garner
Is it too late to nominate a candidate for novel of the summer?
David Shafer’s first book, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” is a paranoid, sarcastic and clattering pop thriller that reads as if it were torn from the damp pages of Glenn Greenwald’s fever journal. It’s about a multinational cabal that plans to subjugate humanity by privatizing all information.
In “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” there are trace elements of DeLillo, of Pynchon, of Philip K. Dick, of the Hari Kunzru of “Transmission,” of the Neal Stephenson of “Cryptonomicon,” those usual suspects from whom all would-be techno-dystopianists borrow. Which is to say that the author is highly in touch with how “paranoia can link up with reality now and then,” as Dick explained in “A Scanner Darkly.”
What puts this novel across isn’t its lucid, post-Patriot Act thematics, however, as righteous as they are. Instead, it’s that the storyteller in Mr. Shafer isn’t at war with the thinker and the word man in him; he’s got a sick wit and a high style. Reading his prose is like popping a variant of the red pill in “The Matrix”: Everything gets a little crisper. The sunsets torch the horizon with increased fire.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” follows three characters, each in his or her 30s, each vivid and loose-limbed. Two of them, Leo and Mark, were best friends at Harvard. (Mr. Shafer graduated from Harvard and the Columbia Journalism School. He now lives in Portland, Ore.)
There’s a class element at work in their friendship, now broken. Leo came from money but fizzled out. He’s a stoner, an imbiber of gin at breakfast, a failed bookstore owner turned issuer of letterpress manifestoes about vast conspiracies. He may or may not have a clinical personality disorder. Mark, who grew up poor, is an accidental and fatuous self-help guru. He’s the life coach to an almost certainly maleficent Big Data C.E.O.
Finally, there’s Leila, an idealistic Persian-American nonprofit worker trying to import medical supplies into remote parts of Myanmar. She’s fierce, funny, wary. “She’d gone this long without getting raped,” Mr. Shafer writes about her time in Afghanistan, Myanmar and elsewhere, “and it was her daily, specific intention to continue that way.” Traveling deep in country, she sees something she isn’t supposed to see and ends up being tailed by supreme baddies.
It wouldn’t be polite to spill much of this book’s plot. Suffice it to say that some of these characters join a dissident underground group, one with some hippie élan — this crew might have popped, like a watermelon seed, out of a T. C. Boyle novel — that’s committed to fighting the data-mining goons.
There’s plenty to fight. “Was there another Internet besides the one she knew about?” Leila thinks at one point. Are our search engines the only search engines? The answers to these questions fill this novel’s sails. Once the oligarchy knows everything about you, after you’ve been willingly equipped with digital contact lenses that let them see what you see, it can fry the Internet we have and upload its own.
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This sort of narrative can tip, very easily, into a crude outline for a mediocre Tom Cruise or Matt Damon movie. (Note to Matt Damon: Make this movie anyway.) Mr. Shafer doesn’t let this happen.
There’s too much offbeat humor. Where are the resistance force’s nighttime dormitories? In the showroom bedrooms at Ikea stores. In one climactic scene, these characters are chased through Powell’s, the venerable Portland bookstore. When it’s time for a Schwarzeneggian action movie catchphrase, this novel’s “Hasta la vista, baby,” here’s what’s coyly delivered: “I told you that you shoulda voted for Nader.”
Leo, the trust fund kid, goes so far downhill early in the novel that a list of bummers in his life ends this way: “Then his pot dealer cut him off. Out of concern! Like pot dealers are bound by the Hippocratic oath.”
This is another way of saying that Mr. Shafer gets the playfulness-to-paranoia ratio about exactly right. He also delivers plausibly cool technology — remote seabed units called serve-whales, cloud computing that communicates with, and through, plants.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is a page-turner, yet many more “literary” writers will, I suspect, envy Mr. Shafer’s tactile prose. His eye is hawklike.
A popular cookbook is full of “breezy instructions rich in kinetic verbs.” On a massive corporate ship, “there was a zing in the air, the kind produced when subjugated staff members move swiftly through corridors.” The doors at a rehab center “made a sort of sucky spaceship sound when they were opened and closed.”
Through Leila, Mr. Shafer delivers a memo to us all about why we all should understand something about the guts of the wired world: “Why didn’t she know more about computers? That knowledge suddenly seemed more important than feminist theory or ’80s song lyrics, both of which she was well acquainted with. Computers had risen around her all her life, like a lake sneakily subsuming more and more arable land, but she’s never learned to write code or poke behind the icons or anything like that. She was like a medieval peasant confounded by books and easily impressed by stained glass.”
This novel’s politics emerge from the anti-authoritarian left, but they’re not knee-jerk. One sympathetic character is vexed by “liberals who walked around all un-blown-up claiming that they liked their civil liberties more than their security.” Leila is keenly aware that she is “a big fat Western consumer.” This novel asks, “Who among us deserves all he has?”
Embedded in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is, finally, a satisfying love story, one so tangled in numbers and suspicious of malware that when one character locks eyes with another and says, “I’m your square root,” it seems romantic, not robotic.
Mr. Shafer has written a bright, brash entertainment, one that errs, when it errs at all, on the side of generosity, narrative and otherwise. It tips you, geekily and humanely, through the looking glass.
Originally published in The New York Times.
Order Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer here.