Ethan Casey is a Seattle-based international journalist, frequent public speaker, and author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004).

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Book: O-Zone by Paul Theroux

I've just finished reading O-Zone, Paul Theroux's dystopian novel published in 1986. New York City is a walled fortress; the American population is divided into "Owners" and "aliens"; part of Missouri has been sealed off and renamed "Outer Zone" or O-Zone after a massive nuclear accident; the long-awaited Big One (earthquake, that is) has devastated part of California. The rest of the world is mostly offstage but sounds even worse.

O-Zone is not as good as Theroux's first-rate signature novel, The Mosquito Coast, but it comes from the same period of his career and is informed by a similar sensibility. Reading it, I reflected how the apocalyptic tendency in American writing is so very different from anything one finds in British literature. I think this is because, for all its flaws and annoyances, Britain is a much more deeply rooted and stable society than the USA ever was or will be. Americans have a historical memory of a time before we "sivilized" (Huck Finn's spelling) the landscape and killed off the original inhabitants, and we can all too readily imagine a future time when the whole American enterprise will have collapsed. This is what Theroux is doing in O-Zone: being, as he puts it elsewhere (and apropos not his fiction but his travel writing), "prescient without making predictions".

Part of what makes Theroux a hero and role model for me is that his career proves that it's possible for an American writer to be at once unapologetically American and genuinely cosmopolitan. I think he's wonderful and can readily forgive him the somewhat clunky plot of this long novel, which redeems itself in the last 50 or so pages. It's also interesting to read a science fiction novel published 20 years ago and purporting to be about what was then the near future. In O-Zone people send each other faxes and use public phones; no email, no cell phones. But one of the characters is a retail mogul who has shut down his stores and moved his printed catalogue onto the cable network; the paragraph describing it reads almost like a business plan for!

Like all serious science fiction, O-Zone is really about the real world we actually live in. Here's a passage near the end that I think sums up its themes:

She thought of Holly, planning another party, sitting with her googly tits pressed against the gaping window of her dress, and saying confidently O-Zone is nowhere. Moura smiled: No. O-Zone is not a wilderness or a riddle - it was a condition and it was probably eternal, and it was everywhere. O-Zone was the world. … She liked the feeling that she had been here before, not only in the way that the New Year's party had prepared her for everything, but also in the sense that New York, too, was another part of O-Zone. But you had to have seen O-Zone to know that.

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