Book review: Fiona Maazel follows in the odd literary footsteps of Karen Russell and George Saunders with new novel

Fiona Maazel's second novel is a whimsical foray into hysterical realism involving a cult leader who wants to reunite with his ex-wife, who happens to be a secret agent infiltrating the group in disguise, writes Malcolm Forbes

In Fiona Maazel's new novel Woke Up Lonely, the protagonist is the leader of a cult. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
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Woke Up Lonely
Fiona Maazel
Graywolf Press

"Nothing odd will do long," was Samuel Johnson's lofty pronouncement on Tristram Shandy, a verdict and a prediction that, happily, has been refuted by readers over the last 250 years. Laurence Sterne's fantastic and rambunctious trailblazer of a novel has not only stayed in print, it has sired countless mind-bending and rule-changing progeny.

If we define "odd" as the flip side of the norm, the alter-ego of convention, then it is fair to say the odd novel is in rude health - some may even say reigning supreme. We may not get another Ulysses any time soon, but there are enough novelists out there who remain fearless at experimenting with fiction, at stretching and distorting its genres and toppling our expectations by turning characters inside out and dazzling us with a continuously fresh array of stylistic tricks.

Oddness in fiction is easier to pull off in short story format. Expanding that wackiness over hundreds of pages is a risky business, with novelties wearing thin and kooky characters outstaying their welcome long before the halfway point. Two expert practitioners of oddness have delivered entrancing short story collections this year - Karen Russell and George Saunders. What sets them apart from their peers is their faultless ability to pass off any perceived oddness as realism, something demonstrably weird but nevertheless willingly accepted. We can add a third wheel to that pair, Cleveland-born Fiona Maazel, who, while yet to bring out a short story collection, has produced a magnificently odd second novel. Woke Up Lonely is a goofy delight, and one that, thanks to its constitutional warp and weft of method and madness, prompts the reader to chuckle and to think. Maazel grabs us from the first page and off we go, gliding effortlessly over that halfway point and careering on breathlessly until the explosive finale.

The novel flits between perspectives. At its pulsing heart, around which everything else revolves and implodes, is Thurlow Dan, founder of the Helix, a cult that is on its way to being bigger than Scientology and whose members comprise Americans who practise empathy in a bid to combat their loneliness. Thurlow maintains his outfit is a "peaceful, therapeutic movement", but government security agencies have their doubts: the Helix is armed and militant and Thurlow a sociopathic terrorist. It doesn't help that he has obtained investment from North Korea, which sees the Helix comprised of angry, dissenting Americans and thus a viable oppositional force to destabilise the US government.

Cue a second perspective, that of Esme, a secret agent tasked with infiltrating and dismantling the Helix. The last perspective is four-fold: we flit in and out of the lives of each member of the ragtag quartet Esme recruits, both before embarking on their ill-equipped mission to Thurlow's Cincinnati presidio and during the time they are held hostage.

Embedded within this intriguing premise is a lattice of neat twists and turns. Esme is in fact Thurlow's ex-wife who, together with his 10-year-old daughter, he desperately wants back. Unbeknownst to him, Esme has been his guardian angel over the years, shadowing him in North Korea and deliberately botching operations to bring him down. She is also a master of disguise, going incognito as the mysterious Lynne, and even masquerading as Kim Jong-il. No one is quite who they seem: a tried and tested conceit from many a spy story, and one Maazel clings to. But she also uses it in a different, more subtle way, her whole cast being unloved misfits so long deprived of human warmth that no one can successfully read anyone else. These lost souls need a cult to teach them how to connect. Through her characters' clotted succession of delusions and misprisions, Maazel constantly wrong-foots us, and the results are exhilarating.

There are some moments in which Woke Up Lonely skates close to being a textbook example of James Wood's "hysterical realism", the type of fiction that thrives on its zaniness and profusion and is keen to pursue "vitality at all costs". We get Esme, who was born without fingerprints, a man who wears Star Wars costumes and talks to a Kurt Vonnegut picture, another waking from a coma after 24 years, long-lost twins and spies with bugs in their teeth and mikes in their cufflinks. And that's before we get to the clandestine warren of tunnels beneath the Helix HQ containing a brothel staffed with Singaporean girls, ultimate fighting between inmates sprung from the local jail, and a sweatshop for the sewing of official Major League baseballs. However, one critic's overabundance is another's abundance, and the more charitable will see this as mere inventiveness, a welcome product of Maazel's sassy chutzpah and wondrously fertile imagination. "Terry Gilliam is God," we are told at one point, which may explain all.

The novel bursts with ideas but also unique phrasing. Maazel has fun with her verbs: a man is "caboosed with problems", two men are "planked across the ruin of their private lives", a river is "molared with ice". There is a superb speed-dating scene and Thurlow and Esme get their big reunion in a laundromat. The standout set-piece, though, is North Korea - a suitable target market for the Helix as it is "the most isolated, radically autonomous, and lonely community of millions on earth". Thurlow is accompanied by a prostitute called Isolde who reads aloud to him film-buff Kim Jong-il's hilariously awful manifesto On the Art of Cinema. During Esme's account of the visit the gags are diminished and a new tone is introduced. Away from the relative opulence of Pyongyang she witnesses abject poverty and misery and realises the country is "squalid beyond all imagining". A woman takes off her shoes and lies down in the snow to die.

Maazel's novel couldn't be timelier: in one pained moment of reflection Esme recalls watching the nuclear-holocaust movie The Day After when she was 16, before going on to inform us that nuclear proliferation is now the greatest threat to civilisation: "all it takes is one North Korean twink with pompadour, and wham: the day after".

Interludes like these are the novel's soft underbelly. The madcap prose remains (the crackpot "twink" of a dictator with his "pompadour") but is muffled by more serious thoughts. Maazel repeats this in two separate strands where both leads reveal all in surprisingly poignant confessionals: Esme, while imprisoned, on a series of index cards, and Thurlow, while under siege, by video-address to his daughter ("loneliness is insoluble - so what? I'd rather be lonely with you"). Maazel prudently takes time out from the mayhem to let emotive lines work their magic: "In the crosshairs between hurt and sorrow, you feel the tremor of longing". But then we are back following her emotionally real characters in fiendishly absurd scenarios, absorbing bittersweet experiences and once in a while quirky wisdom: "In almost any situation, talking is like doing squats in your tight jeans - it gives you room to breathe."

Due to the sheer energy of Maazel's novel, coupled with the wealth of ideas and powerful characterisation, Woke Up Lonely continues to reverberate long after we have closed it. Its oddness is its driving force. It resembles her debut, Last Last Chance, a book equally odd and expansive, which dealt in part with a deadly strain of virus causing an epidemic that terrorises the dysfunctional cast.

The affliction in Woke Up Lonely - loneliness - has reached pandemic proportions. A book thematically concerned with such catastrophes and cults, paranoia and fear, puts us in mind of that fellow peddler of satirical angst, Don DeLillo, a writer who Maazel is certainly in tune with (and, incidentally, whose brand of realism James Wood also indicted as "hysterical"). In Mao II DeLillo writes that "When there is enough out-of-placeness in the world, nothing is out of place". Maazel seems to respond when a lonely character concedes that "the world was a mystifying place. And being in it was not so much an exercise in humility as disjuncture."

Her characters are out of place and disjoined and seek love as a cure for loneliness. Her special talent, as evinced in this remarkable second novel, is to render them both objects of fun and pity, to make us see her comedy as lighthearted frivolity but also glean from it hard-won truth.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.