A ground-level reimagining of the violent protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, told from a host of perspectives.
The emotional core of Yapa’s debut novel is the fraughtly named Victor, a 19-year-old who’s come to Seattle after a few years of globe-trotting to sharpen his social-justice sensibilities—and to confront his stepfather, the fraughtly named Bishop, head of the city’s police force. The downtown streets are swarming with protesters determined to halt the movement of WTO delegates, who are seen as pillaging poorer nations in the name of free trade, and the story bounces dutifully among a handful of characters representing the various factions. There’s John Henry, a middle-aged and weathered protest vet; Timothy, a hotheaded cop impatient with nonviolent resistance; King, a live-wire tough-talker; Julia, a cop who’s softened following a stint in Los Angeles policing the Rodney King riots; and Charles, a Sri Lankan delegate baffled by the chaos in the streets but determined to make his meetings. Yapa’s grasp of the pre–9/11 global diaspora is sound, and he’s knowledgeable about the tactics that both protesters and law enforcement use against each other. But lacking much in the way of deep characterization—we are meant to believe that Bishop made a bonfire of Victor’s mother’s lefty books and that Victor fled the country because of it—the novel is largely a parade of pat sentiments and facile contradictions. King is committed to nonviolence—but does she have a violent past? Charles cares for his countrymen—but is he selling them out? The purpler prose only highlights the thinness of the storytelling: Bishop has “a heart full of loss and a head full of doom”; chanting, John Henry says, is “how we hold the fear in our mouths and transform it into gold.”
American novels about protest have been thin on the ground since the days of Ken Kesey and Edward Abbey. The genre deserves a better revival effort than this.