When Fiona Maazel published her first novel, Last Last Chance, in 2008, her frenetic imagination and sharply etched characters earned her a spot on the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 authors list. Her 29-year-old narrator, Lucy, was heading into her seventh stretch in rehab; Maazel filtered her addiction, grief, self-involvement and fear through a scrim of dark humor.
There’s a comic overlay to her second, even more frenzied and inventive novel, Woke Up Lonely. But the tilt toward pathos is stronger.
Thurlow Dan is the creator of the Helix, a 10-year-old “therapeutic community” aimed at addressing the desperate loneliness afflicting Americans, including its founder. As Thurlow puts it in an early lecture to his followers, “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.”
First among Thurlow’s missing loves as the novel opens in January 2005 are his ex-wife Esme and their daughter Ida. The feds view the cult leader as a fanatic, and possibly a terrorist. Esme has kept him under CIA surveillance (and secretly under her protection) since leaving him nine years before, using a series of elaborate disguises (as Lynne Five-0, for instance, she poses as a much older, heavier woman).
When we meet Thurlow, he is just back from North Korea. He sees the isolated country as ripe for Helix-style intervention — but the North Koreans see him as a pawn and the Helix as a dissident movement poised to revolt. He accepts their money “in the name of friendship,” ratcheting up the CIA’s interest. Esme hires four Interior Department employees to spy on Thurlow; they end up as his hostages, with a full-fledged armed standoff at the Helix House in Cincinnati. Esme sees her mission as saving Thurlow. He sees Esme as his long-lost love, and is willing to risk everything to get her back. Will Thurlow and Esme reunite before the feds arrest him or blow him up?
Maazel layers her star-crossed soap opera with secondary tales and lavishly eccentric section headings like this one: “In which the Lynne Five-O creeps her team out. In which stories begin to assert themselves like pebbles thrown up from the sea. Cloud seeding, speed dating, clogs. The language of back then. A joust.”
Her sprawling cast of characters engage in Helix meet-ups and confessionals, heavy drinking, espionage and group sex. She has fun caricaturing North Korea’s Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, with his many doubles. At times she grows tedious, as in Esme’s 60-point written confession to Thurlow, which includes such briefing-style passages as this: “North and South Korea were about to sign a denuclearization agreement for the peninsula. The North had agreed to the IAEA’s safeguard protocols; the South had agreed to suspend Team Spirit … “).
In one sidetrack, as a hostage goes underground to escape from the Helix House, Maazel takes us through a subterranean sin city that offers brothels, gambling, extreme fighting by inmates, and the chance to customize or revise your “first time” at sex; at another point we’re with Esme on a clandestine assignment as she takes a train ride through the “wasted and unrelentingly depressed landscape” between Simch’ong-ni and Pyongyang — 380 miles, six days via North Korean rail.
Woke Up Lonely is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking, filled with swerves and contradictions. Thurlow, a former fat guy who counts his calories rigorously and tries to assuage his grief with Helix-besotted sex companions, seems less power-hungry than inept and lovelorn. Esme’s costumes and camouflage cannot hide her most painful secrets. Even the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives muses about “that anguished and desolate feeling you had every morning for just waking up alive.”
Through some final exuberant sleight of hand, Maazel rigs her convoluted plot so that the endpoint — in which love triumphs, briefly — is both poignant and unpredictable.