JANUARY 4, 2019
ON A RECENT EPISODE of the Hidden Brain podcast, Shankar Vedantam explored “The Cassandra Curse,” specifically why we’re willing to heed some threats and completely dismiss others. During a particularly brutal news week, filled with political domestic terrorism, bomb threats, and deaths committed by enraged right-wing partisans, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lisa Brackmann. How does it feel to be Cassandra?
Black Swan Rising is a suspense novel steeped in the fierce anxieties and terrible realities of contemporary life. Author Lisa Brackmann writes a tremendous book, expertly leading the reader through one terribly plausible event after another, weaving a familiar present. After we have turned the last page and closed the book, we wonder, sadly, if in this work of fiction she is documenting the inevitable.
The novel opens with a grotesque email to our protagonist Sarah Price: “YOU FAT SLUTTY CUNT WHY DON’T YOU GO SUCK A TWO-INCH COCK.” Brackmann announces the misogyny to come while hinting at something terrible in Sarah’s past. A young and reserved staffer on congressman Matt Cason’s campaign for reelection in San Diego, Sarah has a secret that has already cost her her previous existence. She’s moved to the West Coast from Connecticut, changed her name and appearance to flee its reverberations and repercussions. Yet someone has found her new email address, and sent her this vile, threatening message.
Even before she reveals the source of Sarah’s shame, Brackmann gets the reader to feel her emotions fully: the tentativeness, the inhibition, the aspiration, the inner tension of moving forward on her wishes and desires while constrained by the fear of something in her past, of her secret coming to light, of those people stalking her finding her and exposing her new identity. As we read we feel protective of Sarah, and suspicious of the man calling himself Wyatt Gray, a “Deep Throat”–style informant who feeds her opposition research over the phone. What’s his game, his agenda? As the novel progresses, Sarah self-protectively keeps to herself, unsure about her co-worker Ben’s intentions (friendly, inclusive, or politically territorial?) or her boss’s motives (hitting on her, or simply giving her a taste of a politician’s charisma?)
Alongside Sarah’s story is that of Casey Cheng, a determinedly ambitious San Diego local television reporter. When we meet her, she’s reporting on an active shooting, recording herself from in front of the building where the shooter has taken position on the roof. Moments later a bullet knocks her to the ground, and Diego, her photographer, hauls her to safety. Post-recovery, she faces a crisis of meaning, with her family, her boyfriend, her work. Wanting to understand why this happened to her and the other victims, she and Diego start investigating the dead assailant Alan Jay Chastain’s history.
Brackmann pointedly blends characterization with plot and subtext. We feel Casey’s painful recovery, as well as her mixed emotions toward her on-again, off-again boyfriend. What should have been a welcome, warm reentry as couplehood turns into something else. He tells her:
“You need to be more careful.”
“How? I was just doing my job. I had no idea it was going to be dangerous for me to walk to my car after shooting interviews at a giant thrift store.”
That shut him up.
“All my life I’ve been hearing people tell me how everything I want to do is dangerous. And it’s shit like this! Walking down a street by myself. Going out on my own at night. […]” […]
“It’s more dangerous for you. That’s just reality.”
She laughed. “Really? A man with a gun can kill you as easily as he can kill me.”
But as aggravating as it is, women find themselves at risk in this novel, as they so often do in real life. Men brush up against women to intimidate them; they make sexual jokes, they harass them. Sarah began her new life to escape the virulent online sexual harassment she received and is terrified that it will begin again. Casey wants to continue to be a fearless reporter. Brackmann underlines the inequity, the vulnerability of being a woman.
It is also a campaign novel, and Brackmann deftly gives us political context:
“San Diego is majority minority, just like every other big city in California,” Ben had told [Sarah]. “But there’s a strong nativist sentiment here. There’s people who hate living on the border. All they care about is building higher walls. They’ll tell you it’s to keep the illegals and the drugs out.” He’d laughed at that.
Matt Cason, Sarah’s candidate, is a veteran, and running on a progressive platform. There are further acts of violence as the election date draws near. Mr. Gray feeds Sarah information that proves relevant. Matt Cason and his wife, Lindsay, continue to raise funds. Unexpected violence emerges at a city park event.
Kim Tegan, the woman running against Matt Cason, is about to escort Cason’s wife to the hospital after he’s been assaulted, the outcome unsure:
Tegan rested her hand on Lindsey’s shoulder. “It’s not a problem. You just let me know.” Then Tegan patted her hip. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We’re protected.” She hitched up her bright orange blouse a few inches. The edge of a black elastic band with flirty pink trim was just visible above the waist of her pants — a holster, the butt of a pistol in easy reach.
Contemporary life is complicated.
As Cheng pursues the social media links to Alan Jay Chastain, she observes that his name has transformed into a social media hashtag — #AJLA, short for the Alan Jay Liberation Army — and is linked with other threats of impending violence. She comes across connections to an odd comic book series called “True Men.” Brackmann immerses the reader in the filthy and violent world of lurking misogynists, with the fictional hashtags of #AJLA and #TrueMen. It honestly makes me shudder to contemplate the research she had to do, and the ugliness the author had to confront in order to effectively and accurately portray this kind of incipient violence in her novel. The effect is terrifying and mesmerizing.
The city park assault ultimately forces Sarah to share her secret with the campaign staff, and get in front of the impending uproar by providing an exclusive to Casey Cheng. These two women join together to find what really lies behind the hashtags. They plot to confront the comic book author. Will they find him linked to the #TrueMen movement? Is he the one pulling the strings, directing the attacks? Just what is his incendiary agenda? Even more menacing, who are all these men posting with these hashtags, and who is harnessing their hatred? Conspiracy theories are comforting in the sense that there is not only some sort of ordered master plan, but some master in charge, some master able to be taken down. Brackmann asks us to consider the alternative: What if there is no single “master” mind behind the ugliness of taunts, threats, sporadic attacks? What then?
Brackmann gives us a spectrum of male behavior, and we see different portrayals of masculinity, from toxic to tender. One of her characters takes down an assailant in an appropriate use of self-defense, until he crosses the line into pure, uncontrolled rage. This book was being written long before “incel” made its way into our common vocabulary, but it is clear Brackmann is exploring our culture’s norms for masculinity, our culture’s acceptance of entitlement alongside an encouraged limited emotional repertoire for men. More chillingly, she displays what happens to masculine impotence and frustration when it is distilled into the only emotion they feel free to fully explore: anger.
The author weaves multiple contemporary issues together: gun violence, men’s rights activists, issues of sexual violence, all against the backdrop of a tight run for Congress. She combines these terrible ingredients into a book that pulls the tense reader along until its closing moments. In a tremendous display of skill, she weaves contemporary issues together in an organic manner, and builds to a jolting and unanticipated climax. In weaker hands, this might come across as opportunistic, “ripped from the headlines” kind of writing. But Brackmann is skillful and canny, coolly relating a story that is not only plausible, but shocking in the sense that it has not quite yet unfolded this way. Not quite, and not yet.
Engrossing and provocative, the novel truly lives up to its title. Black Swan Rising is a contemporary thriller with an apposite title: we don’t see it coming, we don’t see it coming, until we close the book and wonder, why hasn’t this already happened?