An intellectual who earns his living as a “watchman” in a rapidly deteriorating America investigates a brutal assault while also researching his ancestors’ imperial exploits in 17th-century Sri Lanka.
In a satisfying twist on more traditional dystopian fare, the America of the future is unsettlingly recognizable in de Silva’s debut novel. Yes, faith in government has crumbled, violence is frequent, and various factions are warring with each other, but Starbucks and Target have managed to survive the chaos. In the fictional city of Halsley, Carl Stagg is paid to “wander and watch,” pacing the streets at night on the lookout for unusual activity. His routine is interrupted, however, when he discovers a severely beaten prostitute and begins to search for clues as to the perpetrator. Subplots abound and eventually coalesce: a fellow watchman is involved in a project to manipulate the weather; the prostitute, Jen, immerses herself in the adult film industry; Stagg, whose true passions are writing and history, prepares a series of lectures about European interlopers in Sri Lanka in the 1600s (some of the novel’s best chapters are set then). De Silva manages these varied plots skillfully, but in a novel rife with academics, his penchant for jargon too often makes the prose difficult to parse. A musician considering the “physics of sound” realizes that if he “were serious about cleaving to the harmonic series, what mattered was saving the smaller integral ratios, especially the superparticulars, as Ptolemy’s scale did.” Digressions into science and philosophy are equally abstruse. This cascade of detail ultimately serves to obscure big ideas, not illuminate them, and readers may find themselves too put off by the flood of exposition to engage with an otherwise intriguing story.
A novel of ideas that would’ve benefited from more emphasis on the novel and less on the ideas.