MARCH 14, 2014
IN ONE OF LITERATURE’S great paeans to paranoia, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, U.S. Army Intelligence officer Lt. Tyrone Slothrop muses, “If there is something comforting — religious, if you want — about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.” Easy for Slothrop to say. His character was written at the height of the Cold War, when paranoia was doled out generously. He existed in a novel where the They really were out to get him.
Paranoia seems almost passé in the 21st century, a product of the bygone stoned sixties, a static pop on the fringes of a Civil Defense duck-and-cover video. We’re all smarter than that now. We’ve replaced it not with anti-paranoia so much as denial. Edward Snowden leaks information about NSA spying and we focus on his betrayal rather than the Orwellian implications of what he revealed. Google and Facebook record our likes, our preferences, our internet-viewing habits and sell them to advertisers who use this information to more effectively market to us, and the creepiest thing about it is that we don’t seem to be creeped out. Various government agencies data mine our emails, our social media engagements, and our smart phone locations in search of suspicious patterns, and we’re told to feel more secure. At least we can never be lost. We carry devices that allow us to photograph or video our daily minutiae and broadcast it as if we’ve volunteered to perform freelance surveillance on ourselves. At least it’s better than anti-paranoia, in which nothing is connected to anything, our lives being so meaningless that even greedy, multinational corporations and dubious government spies don’t care about what we’re doing.
And amid these current conditions, Scott O’Connor’s Half World arrives.
Half World is set against the backdrop of MKULTRA, a CIA mind control program that ran from the early 1950s through the early 1970s. The novel tells the story of Henry March, a CIA agent who’s sent to San Francisco to set up a site for these experiments. He initially runs small-scale interrogations augmented by largely ineffectual drug cocktails. The operation changes when a CIA psychiatrist shows up with the agency’s latest toy: LSD. In these new experiments, Henry and his colleagues use prostitutes to lure in unsuspecting subjects from the bars of San Francisco and then administer huge doses of LSD in hopes of breaking down the subjects’ personalities, essentially brainwashing them.
These experiments take a toll both on the subjects themselves and the agents. Henry is a family man. When he finishes an evening of mind control experiments, he goes home to his wife Ginnie to help raise their autistic son, Thomas, and their confused adolescent daughter, Hannah. These scenes are among the novel’s most poignant. In showing this, O’Connor breaks from the action of a thriller to show a loving father and husband. Entire chapters abandon the plot so Henry can take Hannah into the city or go for a walk with Henry or read poetry to Ginnie.
The overall effect is not meandering. Instead, these chapters remind me of a Japanese literary thriller, Remote Control by Kotaro Isaka. It follows a framed delivery man on the run from every type of authority Japan can throw at him and regularly interrupts its own narrative with flashbacks of the man’s youth and personal relationships. Both novels weave in their juxtaposing scenes to become part and parcel of their protagonist’s stories. Remote Control suggests that the real communities and governing bodies in our lives are not something as abstract and pervasive as national governments. They’re instead the people we engage with every day, whom we come to love and partner with in the slow, painstaking process of building a life from quotidian victories and failures. Likewise, O’Connor’s deviations from the MKULTRA plot and into Henry’s family life suggest that our attempts to build huge military, intelligence, and security apparatuses create only a Rube Goldberg machine. If we really want to protect our families and loved ones, the best method may be to spend our time and energy with those loved ones, growing and nurturing together.
This has to make a lot more sense than using LSD to brainwash unwitting pawns.
While these scenes of family life humanize Henry’s character, O’Connor avoids the cliché trope of a CIA agent just like you and me. Henry can’t be just like you and me. When he goes to work, he commits indefensible crimes. Sure, he has a conscience about it and feels bad, but he does his job anyway. The result of this combination of brainwashing government agent and family man takes the reader into political theorist Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” territory. While covering the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, Arendt posited that Eichmann wasn’t evil in the traditional sense. He didn’t set out to kill Jews out of malice or viciousness; he simply worked well within a bureaucracy. He made sure trains ran on schedule and cargo was shipped according to plan. If that cargo happened to be human beings, and their destination happened to be concentration camps, well, that wasn’t his department. While watching the trial, Arendt was intrigued not by Eichmann’s humanity in the human-like-the-rest-of-us sense, but by what a typical, boring middle manager he was.
Henry — while certainly not boring — is very much a product of his time. He is a Ward Cleaver-type when he’s at home. When he’s at work, he is the banality of evil, like so many Eisenhower-era defense and intelligence department employees, whose nine-to-five government jobs supporting a wife and two kids resulted in untold atrocities.
Of course, it’s not long before shit hits the fan on the San Francisco experiments. Henry March disappears. The novel jumps forward 16 years. It’s 1972, the year before the CIA’s abandonment of MKULTRA. March has been missing all this time and his family has been destroyed by his absence. His experiments are embarrassing for the very government agency that commissioned them. CIA mole Dickie Ashby has been sent to find him. His ambling hunt for Henry leads him to a Los Angeles preacher, a science fiction writer whose pulp series depicts fictional (though uncannily accurate) versions of the MKULTRA experiments and, eventually, Henry’s daughter Hannah, who is now a photographer in Los Angeles. The rest of the book follows the search for the missing Henry March and the gradual exposure of the experiments.
This search sends Dickie into an ontological tailspin. He can no longer be sure whether he is an agent or victim of government intelligence programs, or whether or not he was a subject of the MKULTRA experiments; and, what’s worse, he cannot decide between the paranoia of believing the government has meddled with his mind or the anti-paranoia of the government abandoning him in a wilderness of its creation.
Dickie’s tenuous hold on reality is familiar territory for O’Connor’s protagonists. Huddie Blaylock in Among Wolves is convinced that his family was replaced by imposters when he was eight years old; the Kid in Untouchable believes his father is lying about his mother’s death and that his own faith in her can bring about her return. Dickie shares this characteristic disbelief, this tendency to construct his own version of what people call reality. But his tailspin is easier to relate to than Huddie’s or the Kid’s: Dickie is forced to build his subjectivity in a world where the objective reality is that the CIA really does give people LSD without their consent or knowledge in an attempt to brainwash them; the government really does plant moles into resistance organizations to push those organizations into criminal activity. Ultimately, paranoia and denial really are so much easier and more comforting than the actual acknowledgment of the reality of government programs.
At its core, Half World is a thriller. O’Connor has clearly done a tremendous amount of research on MKULTRA and other invasive government programs of the 20th century. (The CIA, Army Intelligence, and the FBI’s COINTELPRO seem to all work together to create the wonderfully complicated character of Dickie.) The most sinister and seemingly farfetched programs in the novel are all fairly verifiable. Their documents may be littered with black lines and many may have been shredded prior to their exposure to the public, but enough evidence remains, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, for us to see that these programs did exist. O’Connor treats this research in a refreshing way, resisting the temptation to turn the LSD experiments into a spectacle. He avoids demonizing or romanticizing any of the players. Most of the characters are flawed — mentally ill, cancer-ridden, diabetic, obese, missing limbs, committing suicide on an installment plan, the list goes on — and complex. We come to like them at times and despise them at times. And when they’re faced with their end, we greet those scenes with a mixture of sadness, relief, vindication, and disappointment.
Just as O’Connor is generous with his character development, he never sacrifices rich prose for a thriller plot. Even when Dickie is kidnapped, tied up, hooded, intermittently drugged, and neglected, O’Connor gives him time to reflect on his life. Dickie thinks back on his days working as a government mole in a student resistance organization, and he remembers the woman he loved and betrayed:
Mary Margaret crosses a beam of warm orange sunlight, schools of dust motes swimming, following her movement. The hair on her arms shines as she passes through the beam, the holes in her old undershirt flashing, circles of freckled pink skin beneath, on her shoulder, her lower back. The first light coming to her apartment slowly, at oblique angles, entering to the side of a wooden shutter bent open like a window.
Lush prose like this tells the reader more about Dickie’s internal conflicts than any type of exposition could. It shows us his guilt and self-deprecation, the way he continues on the path to so much self-hatred.
O’Connor’s previous novel, Untouchable, earned him a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers award and launched what looked to be a promising career. Half World satisfies that promise. It’s a beautiful literary thriller, as political and philosophical as Graham Greene’s strongest work. Like Greene, O’Connor recognizes that the power of a political thriller lies less in the exposure of governmental or corporate corruption and more in our relationship with this corruption. O’Connor populates the novel with characters who seem like they could bump into us on a bus, sit next to us on an airplane, or live in the apartment down the block. And some of them even seem like they could be us.
Toward the end of the novel, as the characters (and to some extent the reader) must reconcile with their complicity in such a corrupt world, we share something just short of an epiphany with Hannah, now returned to San Francisco:
At the top she looked out across the Embarcadero to the dead prison and the bay and then turned and looked at the faces of the building on the hill. They were mostly new, recently built condominiums, pricey water views. The cement of the sidewalk was new. Someone had scribbled a name and a date into one of the squares with the end of a stick or a finger.
She waited, trying to feel something, ghosts, standing on the street until the shadows got too long and the light too low.
Thus, her contact with MKULTRA forever shifts Hannah’s perspective. She realizes now that the program is just one more event in the United States’ long history of aggression and exploitation, and that she is complicit in these events. Even if she was born into her complicity, brought into it before she had a choice, her advantages are a direct benefit of this capitalist enterprise. The same can be said for much of what she now sees in San Francisco. The new condos with their bay views carry the stain of the Cold War, government meddling and surveillance, and corporate America’s legacy of violence.
While Half World is a historical novel that ends in the early ’70s, it’s also very much a novel about 2014. O’Connor doesn’t have to go out of his way to map the parallels between MKULTRA and NSA spying or the continued operation of the prison in Guantanamo or even the creepy fact that Amazon owns the CIA’s servers. By highlighting real CIA programs like MKULTRA, real science-fiction-worthy American horrors that we have somehow learned to accept, O’Connor invites us to share his characters’ crises. Like Hannah, we are left struggling to feel something among these ghosts until the light fades away.