A sprawling, subterranean, sometimes-surreal novel of the new world order, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, in which Bolaño and Pynchon wave in passing as we dodge between IEDs and sinister plots.
House (Uninvited, 2001, etc.) has scarcely introduced us to civilian contractor John Jacob Ford before Ford is told to disappear: An op has been blown and it’s best for him to skedaddle. What's he been doing? All kinds of shady work in Iraq for a company named HOSCO; one mission involves the transport of millions and billions of dollars in cash (easily skimmable) in “backpacks, suitcases, briefcases, even brown-paper bags.” Ford, duly renamed Sutler, now finds himself in the thick of an elaborate project to construct a secret city in the desert of southern Iraq—to what purpose remains murky, but clearly it’s all for the fiscal benefit of the company and the various First World flags under which it flies. (It’s a nicely symbolic touch that the illusory city is to be founded atop a flaming garbage dump that doesn't officially exist.) As the story progresses, Ford/Sutler’s attachment to the real world becomes increasingly tenuous: He’s a shadow in a world of spooks, a cipher barely moored to the planet the rest of us inhabit. As he travels through the desert and beyond, moving from book to book (there are three more-or-less closely related tales here and a fourth that, at least in a fashion, rules them all), the stories told about him and all the weird goings-on in the Mesopotamian sands become ever more hushed, ever more fraught. That a tumultuous place such as Iraq invites Rashomon-like treatment is a commonplace, but House’s tale, ingenious and well-written as it is, goes on much too long. And though he does a good job controlling details and making economical use of his secondary characters, the story is too clever by half, with threads too easy to lose.
Ambitious and often brilliant. But, as one character says, “It’s confusing.” And so it is.