Review: Woke Up Lonely, by Fiona Maazel
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A lively, surprising exploration of loneliness, longing, and surveillance as a substitute for intimacy
Fiona Maazel’s new novel, Woke Up Lonely, is a howl — melancholy and resonant, consistently pitched but too wild and haunting to be described as one-note. If Maazel’s lens is tightly focused, she points it in so many directions and picks up such fine detail that her study of loneliness becomes boisterous and surprising, broad on one page and incisive on the next, funny and repulsive in equal measure. It is a grotesque full of emotional hunchbacks and crippled hearts.
The book unspools in the middle of the second Bush administration, a world of constant surveillance and crippling isolation. A cultish self-help movement called the Helix is spreading across the United States, making the government increasingly anxious, and not just because of the whispers of armed insurrection. There is also the very real relationship between the Helix’s leader, Thurlow Dan, and the rogue government of North Korea. Thurlow is estranged from his ex-wife, Esme Haas, but they still dominate each other’s hearts and minds. In place of a relationship, they have wiretapping. Esme is a spy, and she’s built a career out of watching Thurlow from afar to better protect him from her bosses.
But plot synopses are for realist books, and intrigue is beside the point here. The espionage in Woke Up Lonely is just one more way for Maazel’s characters to chase a human connection. Even North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, is in the same bind as the book’s characters — always watched and utterly isolated, its desperation to matter abroad starving it at home. Thurlow and Esme and the book’s four secondary characters — fumbling government employees whom Esme assembles to fail at spying on Thurlow — are emotionally malnourished, incapable of attachment, defeated by expectations of intimacy.
All six characters have different ideas about why they’re lonely and what will finally bring them peace: physical closeness, the shared roots of a sibling, artistic success, familial contentment, love. Their longing for and flailing toward those goals drives the book. Esme, though, holds it together. She weaves through all the character arcs, disguised in Mission: Impossible-style prosthetic make-up, watching everyone. Maazel uses Esme’s tradecraft to create a satellite’s-eye view of her characters’ isolation, to assemble a dossier of primary documents lifted from their lives. The book’s tight third-person perspectives are laced with case files and video surveillance, recordings and notes and congressional testimony.
As angry as Woke Up Lonely can be, this scrutiny, the care taken with the characters, picks up a wavelength of hope that reverberates throughout the book. Like the Helix, the novel believes that familiarity is a gateway to intimacy. If we know enough, if we dig past vital statistics and surface details, if we tune to each other’s feelings and fears, we can circumvent the borders separating us.
The book’s final act, though, does not settle for the “tell me something real” mantra of the Helix. All six characters descend into a maze of tunnels and gray commerce built beneath Cincinnati, where they’re finally unwatched and free to take action, to risk something in pursuit of the various grails that they believe will wash away their loneliness.
Maazel will never be accused of being maudlin — her writing is brash and ruthless — but there is a desperate, bloody heart pumping life through Woke Up Lonely, and the terrifying and elusive aim of her characters is wretchedly simple: make the leap from being observed to being connected.
— Judson Merrill lives and writes in Brooklyn. Some of his work, including his e-novella The Pool, can be found at judsonmerrill.com.