Arts & Culture

Misfire: Todd Hasak-Lowy’s Very, Very Bad First Novel

In 2004, Nicholson Baker, lately celebrated in some quarters for his argument that World War II wasn’t quite worth the trouble, published a rather creepy, inconsequential novel entitled Checkpoint. The entire narrative consists of one character confiding in another his … Read More

By / November 30, 2008

In 2004, Nicholson Baker, lately celebrated in some quarters for his argument that World War II wasn’t quite worth the trouble, published a rather creepy, inconsequential novel entitled Checkpoint. The entire narrative consists of one character confiding in another his plan to assassinate George W. Bush. Any reader of feverish left-wing blogs – and Baker’s grim hero professed to be one – can’t have been so terribly shocked four years ago by this fictional premise, which also doubled as an electoral gimmick.  Leon Wieseltier, in an otherwise splenetic review in the New York Times, noted that at least Baker was caricaturing his own cohort of rabid Bush haters by making his would-be Oswald look and sound deranged and under-medicated. 

There’s some value in that, you might say. With Captives, however, first-time novelist Todd Hasak-Lowy hasn’t even got the courage of his convictions to articulate a nutty case for why his protagonist envisions a similar revenge fantasy, this one involving a roving sniper who picks off malfeasant CEOs and relatives of high-ranking administration officials. The result is a stillborn amateur effort that isn’t half as sensationalistic as its author thinks it is. Daniel Bloom is a mediocre Hollywood screenwriter of big-budget action schlock. His greatest success to date is a psychological shoot-‘em-up called Helsinki Honeymoon (which he still prefers to refer to by its original title, Captives), about a reverse case of Stockholm syndrome: the onscreen hostage murders her smitten hostage-taker. This is one way to telegraph the crashing high concept. Married to a loveless wife, father to a distant 13 year-old awaiting his bar mitzvah, Bloom claims at the outset to be by nature an apolitical everyman, driven to a “certain intractable rage at those responsible for this state of affairs”—the “this” of course referring to what’s gone on in government and the world of high finance for close to a decade. Yes well, haven’t we all? Though I bet most of us could do better in the way of zeitgeist exposition than our troubled hero, whose rage is not only intractable but also ineffable: “things were really very, very bad and getting much, much worse,” Blooms says, sounding like Police Academy‘s Commandant Lasard.

To exorcize Bloom’s vague fear and loathing he must unleash his dark progressive id and pen a dirty little fable about killing all the country’s “bad guys” and their presumably innocent but much more accessible kin. Oh, and  – are you sitting down for this? – there is to be no judgment about the amoral deeds perpetrated in Bloom’s bloody pulp fiction. The federal agent assigned to investigate the string of headline-relevant slayings will find himself, for very personal reasons of course, humanizing the avenging killer, then abetting his escape. Not that Bloom is so sure how his new project will fly with studio heads, much less a national audience. So he relies on the creative encouragement of an insipid Hollywood agent, who keeps changing his name as if to underscore his and everyone else’s lack of memorability, and a smarmy, Weinstein-type producer. Both insist upon Bloom’s sapience and artistic prophecy.  Here’s the producer: “I started reading the papers after 9/11. And these guys are a goddamn disaster. Should we shoot their relatives? Probably not. Should we make a movie about someone shooting their relatives? Fucking A-right we should. Fuck them. Let them deal with it getting out in the open.” Now here’s Bloom explaining to his son why he wouldn’t mind seeing the chief executive cut down in real life: “He’s a very, very bad president. The worst ever, I think. I think he’s a very dangerous person, and I think he’s responsible for a lot of people dying. Americans and people in other places. Plus he’s a liar.” If it’s satire drawn with a crayon you seek, look no further. But even as liberal primal scream therapy, the above must rank a distant second to Philip Roth’s exceedingly minor effort, Exit Ghost, in which the token Upper West Side shiksa becomes so livid over Bush’s re-election that she demands, eggs unfertilized, to have a protest abortion. I won’t bore you with the abstruse plot of Bloom’s film, but I suppose I’m duty-bound to bore you with that of Hasak-Lowy’s book’s. Bloom seeks the wisdom of a strung-out and sociopathic rabbi, he takes a wholly useless trip to Israel – now the destination for all of contemporary fiction’s perplexed Jews in search of “meaning” – and kibitzes with a wannabe sabra Tarentino who talks like a badly messed-with Zohan, and he gobbles a generous helping of psychotropic drugs along the way. All of which might have been pardoned if the dialogue weren’t so inspid and reminiscent of the big-budget pabulum the characters keep trying to parody. “We should have no illusions about our industry’s ability to speak truth to power,” Bloom’s agent tells him, mistaking ideological pornography for radical candor. “We speak nonsense to indifference.”   So do some novels.