Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Book review: The List, Michael Brissenden (2017)

This super-intelligent thriller scopes out ground that is familiar to anyone who has been watching the public sphere in recent years. But it is a parallel universe the novel creates, where threats of terrorism flare up in stereoscopic colour to inflame an entire country. What starts out as the investigation of the murders of a number of police informants carried out by an ex-military veteran with one hand with PTSD turns into a strange public-relations exercise that involves the callow and manipulative prime minister, a man named Brian Williams, and a fanatical supporter of Islamic State who apparently has been planning a major attack in Sydney to mark an auspicious date. The conservative PM uses the fear inspired by the shock that the mayhem of a long series of horrendous events causes to the country’s psyche to pass new laws aimed at cracking down on crime.

At the centre of the drama is Sidney Allen, an Australian Federal Police counterterrorist operative who has spent time in Afghanistan. Sid gets in touch with Mick Harrison, the wounded vet, and together they uncover the plot. Sid’s love interest is his colleague Haifa Hourani, who was born in Sydney to Lebanese immigrant parents. Two of her older brothers are in Goulburn Jail and the one just above her in the family, Hakim, is a respected community leader whose good offices are courted by Williams as he tries to gain support in the migrant community while appearing to be tough on crime. But in a real sense the hero of this book is the city itself. Brissenden provides enough local colour to enable the places he deploys in the story to influence your understanding of the characters and their motivations. They are used to advance the plot and frame the narrative so that you can immediately grasp the significance of events.

Sid’s stomping ground is Sydney’s inner suburb of Surry Hills, where he lives in an old renovated terrace that he had bought with his former fiancĂ©, Rosie, who had been killed in action in Afghanistan. Sid is still recovering his equilibrium following that loss, and his relationship with Haifa helps to keep him sane in a world where a lot is at stake. There are echoes here of the old classic crime novels of Raymon Chandler, where the hero is drawn along a trail he discovers without let-up and becomes more and more exhausted with every hour that passes. Like Chandler, Brissenden tries to show you how the people in the book feel as they negotiate the thickets the case they are investigating throws up. The characters become real people in your mind, with fears, aspirations and desires that motivate them to do the things they do.

Brissenden covers the dynamics of social media and the mainstream media more broadly as he tries to illustrate how a malevolent actor like Williams manipulates the electorate for selfish ends. But his implication that Twitter allows people to function in an echo-chamber – this is one that you hear frequently from media types like the author – is not close enough to the truth for my liking. Because every day on Twitter you often come across points of view that are in conflict with your own, and in fact social media gives you more access to a larger range of points of view than you might have had before it existed. Journalists might feel aggrieved at the way that the internet has both removed part of their authority as gatekeepers and removed as well the strong flows of income that their industry had long enjoyed, but in fact there are more stories being written and read by more people now than at any time in history. There’s no shortage of readers out there, it’s just that it’s become more difficult to monetise the content that you produce as a journalist.

The author’s stated dismay at the nature of social media I think also might conceal a regrettable taint of snobbery and amour-propre. I was reminded of this attitude toward debate online yesterday when Kumi Taguchi, an ABC journalist, retweeted a tweet from a man named David Dale. In his tweet there was a cartoon showing two people sitting on chairs on a stage in front of an audience on seats arranged in rows. The woman, who is holding a microphone, is saying, “We have time for just one long-winded, self-indulgent question that relates to nothing we’ve been talking about.” I replied, “We're so used to the polished, cogent style that journalists use to deliver information in public that we forget that not everyone has that skill set. Social media gives us a glimpse for the first time into the ways ordinary people really think and use language.” Even journalists make basic grammatical and spelling errors in their tweets sometimes, so how much harder must it be for those who have had to fight all their lives for the means of expression.

Especially journalists must be on top of this dynamic because they are so important to the tone of debate and can help to modulate harsh views expressed by people with extreme opinions. We’re so judgemental, even people as obviously switched-on and perceptive as Brissenden, about the argumentative and frankly dysfunctional style of so much debate in the Twittersphere that we forget that the people involved in it are often not very good communicators and that part of the frustration they display might stem from their having been forced to struggle mightily for most of their lives in a highly-competitive environment, and not having been very successful.

They might have had to fight for the income they needed to survive in a developed economy. They might have had to fight for a respectability that accrues without difficulty to people who find mastering verbal expression easy. Or they might have had to simply fight for the ability to have their own opinions. Social media finally gives such people (Trump’s “deplorables”) a tool to express themselves with and they grasp it with both hands. Once again it comes down to the old nature versus nurture debate. More education in such virtues as empathy might help more people to be more mindful of the consequences of their words (and might also help us combat such evils as violence against women).

The ending of the book is clever and elegant and brings to mind the premise of Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel ‘Submission’. In ‘The List’, the terror plot involves bombs being planted at strategic points in Sydney targeting infrastructure and is uncovered through the actions of an informer in Goulburn Jail. But there is also another part of the plan the relevance of which doesn’t really hit you until you have put the book down and had time to digest it. There turns out to be a more nightmarish scenario at play than a mere street bombing and Brissenden orchestrates it with aplomb. The ending also leaves the author open to writing a sequel if he feels so inclined. I enthusiastically recommend this book.

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