Wednesday, June 02, 2010

“The Chosen One”, by Sam Bourne (Harper)


A Conspiracy pulling at the String of Power

Bruised by years of disappointments, political advisor Maggie Costello is finally working for a leader she can believe in. She, along with the rest of America, has put her trust in President Stephen Baker, believing he can make the world a better place.

But suddenly an enemy surfaces: a man called Vic Forbes reveals first one scandal about the new president, and then another. He threatens a third revelation – one that will destroy Baker entirely.

When Forbes is found dead, Maggie is thrown into turmoil. Could the leader she idolizes have been behind Forbes’s murder? Has she been duped by his message of change and hope? Who is the real Stephen Baker?

On the trail of the truth, Maggie is led into the roots of a massive conspiracy that reaches back into history - and goes right to the heart of the US establishment…

I was really looking forward to The Chosen One, and its frequent delays only increased my interest. Bourne’s previous novel, The Final Reckoning, was a great thriller, one that was both gripping, intelligent and though-provoking all at once. I had high hopes for this latest, especially given the subject matter – the US president and politics – which is a subject I am already obsessed with.

The novel contains an amazing amount of detail and commentary on the current state of US politics, drawing also on the new faces and mediums of political life and commentary: blogs, Fox News, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and even Twitter. The main protagonist, Maggie Costello, is a strong female character, just fired from the White House staff for calling the Secretary of Defence and ‘asshole’ (which might make you think she’s got moxie, but this was sadly not borne out through the rest of the novel – more on this later). Maggie is clearly a staunch liberal: idealistic and with quite high standards.

“Maggie Costello? Working for a politician? The idea was ridiculous. She had ideals, for God’s sake, and ideals had no place in the snakepit of modern politics.”

The first few chapters were reminiscent of The West Wing, in some ways, which meant I became comfortable with the setting pretty quickly. Bourne also draws considerably on issues and buzz-words/-phrases of the past couple of years, making the novel feel extremely current and fresh (“Arugula-munching liberals”, for example).

I’m going to deal with a couple of issues I had with the novel, before giving my generally positive over-view. First, the revelations that Forbes publicises. It’s amazing to me how the first continues to be an issue for the US electorate – in fact, it’s becoming quite the cliché in presidential fiction, TV and movies: depression as a career-sinker. West Wing had it, too. The reaction from staffers and Maggie at the outset are excessive and overblown: the president was treated for depression, in the past, but now there’s nothing to worry about. Why is this a scandal? It seems clear that he’s better. The second revelation is one that is equally common (to do with campaign finance) and easily proved as a non-issue, and so unprecedented. The big story, too, is somewhat predictable – mainly, because of the clear influences of real political drama, it was almost guaranteed. I guess this was somewhat disappointing, but in the grand scheme of things it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the story.

The novel ticks all the boxes of what political thrillers “need”, yet still manages to be interesting and mostly original: Sabotaged car? Check. Shadowy lobbyists? Check. Possible CIA connection? Check. Difficult personal situation for protagonist? Check. Conflicting loyalties? Check. And on and on.

The ‘bad-guys’ in the novel feel real and believable (naturally, they’re the Republicans), and thankfully Bourne manages to avoid turning them into cartoons – at least, only as cartoony as some real political figures in the US are these days. Maggie, on the other hand, is a little slow on the uptake – there’s no way she didn’t know “the Company” is CIA, given her job in the White House. Convenient happenstance is also an integral part of the story. In Emma’s review of Angelology, she said too often something was the way clearly just because it was necessary for the plot – that it didn’t make sense otherwise – this is also true for The Chosen One, with too many plot devices that were so obviously just that: included purely for the sake of the story, and in a pretty obvious way.

One thing about the novel makes me wonder if the author was, at one point, either rejected by or received a negative review from The New Republic: he refers to their journalists in pretty derogatory terms (“juvenile egghead" is just one of the ways a TNR journalist is described).

The final conspiracy is actually a pretty interesting idea, even if it is plugged into one of the US’s deepest political fears: the influence of moneymen and puppet-masters behind the scenes of power. The conspiracy can best be described using the words of one of the conspirators (don’t worry, this isn’t really a spoiler, and just adds to the synopsis, above):

“Have you never thought about how the great political leaders made it to the top?... Have you never noticed how smooth their path was? How the luck always seemed to go their way?… There are no accidents... There is no luck. There was a pattern to all those events. There always has been and there always will be.”

The nature of the conspiracy he’s chosen to use also raises the possibility that Bourne has read John Judis’s The Paradox of American Democracy (ironic, given that Judis is a frequent TNR contributor) and perhaps also Janine Wedel’s The Shadow Elite. If he hasn’t, he should – they are very much non-fiction books on a similar topic: that there’s an invisible hand at work in US politics, but it’s not Adam Smith’s. [Incidentally, both of these books are pretty good.]

It’s fun to sink in to conspiracy from time to time, and I enjoyed reading The Chosen One. The pacing was a little uneven – at times really quick, at other times not so much. I preferred The Final Reckoning, which surprises me considering Bourne’s latest is much closer to my non-fiction interests. On the whole, though, this is was an enjoyable read, and any fan of thrillers should think so, too.

A good summer read.

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