BOOK REVIEW by Shawn StJean
If Oliver Stone were twenty-five years younger, instead of shooting Wall Street (1987) on film, he might do as well digitally adapting The Boiler Plot (2012) for Hollywood, or at least Pinewood. Because while the technology of the media agents Stone likes to target may have improved how the times are recorded, the song of human frailty remains the same. Or, as Gordon Gekko might say: “Greed is [virtually] good.”
In U.S. author Emily McDaid’s debut novel–equally classifiable as thriller/suspense, tech-noir, or social criticism, the setting is modern east-London. The first-person narrative of heroine Alex Sanderson commences in media res, her reportage nearly buried amid the throng of an oppressive courtroom. Crimes have been committed, millions swindled out of hundreds of millions in cyber-cash. Some of the perpetrators have escaped, but others stand at the bar of justice, awaiting sentence. Outside, “the buildings were popping up like a line of dominos.” An apt conceit, and nice bit of foreshadowing. This e-book in no way resembles one’s average paperback. Alex’s voice is one of a young, professional Public Relations account manager, on her way up (a la Bud Fox,) and she knows how to turn a phrase that haunts the later narrative. In fact, a director darker than Stone–Christopher Nolan, perhaps– could easily frame the story as a noir procedural, with a world-weary voice from the future recounting the inevitable slide of events toward their sordid denouement. The bulk of the story demands, How did it all come to this? And of course, like any novel worth one’s patience, The Boiler Plot raises the question to a more universal level.
We aren’t merely witnessing the rise and fall of one particular cadre of mortals. The occasion may be the release of the latest, greatest internet-linked gadget (think iPhone 5 on steroids,) but no one escapes implication in the malfeasance, and malfunction. The world of the 2008 banking crisis envelops London like the ubiquitous fog of legend, and its organic tendrils drift everywhere, seeking purchase. The weakness and complicity of every person along the line (from the sociopathically capitalist creators of the scam, to the PR executives and their minions, to journalists who by turns parasitically endorse, or may bend laws to investigate, the companies, or passively fail to do homework altogether, and finally to consumers blindly begging to be in on the next trend, accepting its legitimacy as boilerplate) is exposed by McDaid, by slowly rising degrees. In the end, the dominoes can’t fall selectively. Blame the faceless corporate and media entities if you must for our slavish devotion to circuitry, but–as with redundant electronics–it takes more than one loose wire, to blow the whole board.
While, to this U.S. reader, the sense of the London media establishment’s claustrophobia, even amid the city’s byways, public spaces, and watering holes, is rendered as if by a native writer, the characters are sparely fleshed out, according to need. Alex is an inheritrix of the tradition of gothic heroines, intelligent, still-innocent if potentially cynical, and intuitive, but confined within a skyscraper-edifice rather than an ancestral mansion: “The bell pinged for the fifty-second floor and I stepped into our colourful, well-lit lobby decorated in primary colours. But the cheerfulness didn’t usually rub off the walls.” Replacing secret passageways, trap doors, and torture chambers, she must navigate the 21st-century equivalents for a career woman: minor tyrants taking credit for her ideas, casual workplace sexism, the lack of trustworthy compatriots (though McDaid’s Jay comes into his own here.) And worst of all, her slow indoctrination and sense that she can’t beat, and must join, with the old boys–even as an unwitting pawn. Second in importance is Noah, an industry tech analyst and investigative journalist, a love interest for Alex, compensating for the sins of his past with an almost-too-moral insistence –but can he be trusted?
Which brings me to the novel’s great strength: “Not everything in this room is at it appears.” The sense of paranoia engendered by the steady discovery of layers of embedded code, virus-like, enhanced by our advance knowledge of the crash and our narrator’s own suspicions, has us recurring to the great advantage books have over films: the power of own imaginations. I found myself repeatedly interrupting my reading to concoct or predict scenarios worthy of lesser writers, only to be happy in my disappointment later. McDaid doesn’t cheap out by steering her readers into a third act of overdone action or trick reveals–ultimately, the mode is realism, here.
In fact, if the book has a major flaw, it may be the schizophrenia of its legacy: a production by a transatlantic author. I found myself wanting a more “American” payoff to my television-conditioned sense of melodrama. But perhaps the British (adopted, in this author’s case) don’t write that way. Example: I fully expected, given the plot’s preoccupation with holograms, that at least one of the cast would reveal itself as a contemporary ghost, a techno-spawned phantom. Not much of a spoiler, to say I missed the mark there. But that’s a pretty fine compliment, if paradoxical, for a work of fiction: arguing to yourself, that no, after all, “they were all real.”
A bracing brew—highly recommended!