Woke Up Lonely

By Fiona Maazel


Graywolf Press
April 2013

Reviewed by James Orbesen


Fiona Maazel's latest novel, Woke Up Lonely, is about a lot of things. For starters, there's the CIA. Maazel also tosses in a secret city nestled underneath Cincinnati, whispers of armed revolution, North Koreans, a Department of the Interior employee bent on controlling the weather, a hostage standoff, and a cult/social movement predicated on curing societal ills. Aside from all these elements, however, it's loneliness that dominates the text.

It's always interesting reading about loneliness. What activity is more inherently isolating than reading? It triggers a whole cascade of self-reflection that starts nagging me, suggesting I might be better off if I just set Maazel's damn book down and went outside to play. But then I'd miss her beautifully written work. Sporting an enticing plot worthy of the best political thrillers with none of the supermarket-checkout-counter crassness, Woke Up Lonely is, in the best way possible, immensely readable.

Focusing on an ensemble cast of characters, Woke Up Lonely begins by introducing us to Thurlow Dan, a lonely schlub at the head of The Helix. Part shadowy cabal, part self-help movement, The Helix is Scientology on steroids. Oh, and with lots of guns. But Dan comes from a good place. In his words: 

I said, "But this isn't about me. It's about us all. Because everywhere and all the time, people are crying out for each other. Your name. Mine. And when you look back on your life, you'll see it's true: woke up lonely, and the missing were on your lips."

Dan just wants to help cure the loneliness he feels soaking American culture. If that requires him to reach out to North Korea for funding, so be it.

The U.S. government, fearing an impending Ruby Ridge or Waco, sends in Esme Haas, a CIA agent and master of disguise, to take Dan down. Here things get sticky: she's his ex-wife. Although separated, the two are very much holding on to unresolved feelings. In other words, "They were together. In their way." Esme, under orders, assembles an incompetent team for a mission that's doomed to fail. Expecting a harmless goose chase, she ends up precipitating the very showdown at The Helix's headquarters in Cincinnati that her superiors feared.

The plot is very good, though I'm often leery of plots that may just be a cover for slipshod writing. Maazel doesn't have this problem, however. Sentence by sentence, she wields language that is surprising, engaging, and playful. At times, she deploys sayings and abbreviations (re: the re:) that come a bit too close to the jargon you might find in David Foster Wallace, but it's forgivable in the long run. I forgive her because the tone strikes a fun balance between deadly seriousness and near-absurd farce.

Nevertheless, Maazel can turn on the pathos when necessary. Ned Hammerstein, one of the agents sent on the botched mission, escapes captivity. Rather than turn to the police, he heads off to California to track down a sister he never knew he had. But the jig is up when the Federales beat him in delivering the news, informing Ned's long lost sister that she is not an only child:

He felt so cheated, he almost could not move. Thanks to the feds, now he'd never know how she had felt in the instant she learned she wasn't alone in this world, either. Not without blood family. Did the news come as a relief? Would it moor her to the universe and save her life? In receipt of major news for the first time, a face cannot lie.

Likewise, consider another agent, Olgo Panjabi. His beloved wife left him for The Helix. He cannot fathom why she would leave behind decades of history and companionship. Again, after escaping from Cincinnati, he tracks his wife down at a compound in Virginia where he's taken in as a lonely soul:

And he took the long view. As a professional, he'd been reared in the ways of empathy and the seminal texts that gave it name. He knew all about having to activate something in yourself so that you could apprehend the thing or person before you. But he also knew about the urge to apprehend nothing, at least nothing coherent, and to be redeemed from the anguish of trying. What did he really know of other people? How had he spent his life divining intent and motive and need without having the vaguest idea of what went on in anyone's life but his own? And not even his own, for which failing he now had ample evidence? He took the long view and floated right up and out of his body. This woman had offered him help. His wife was on her way.

Woke Up Lonely is filled with characters looking for a connection. Though some find it more readily than others, what Maazel does is give her readers access to their inner worlds. Like any good novelist, these inner worlds are suitably rich and full of longings and contradictions. But having this access helps us to know these people, to connect with them, and thereby to abolish the shared loneliness. The characters might not know it but the reader does: you are not alone.