The Mole Chronicles

By Andy Brown

In a review a couple of years ago (the book was Jim Knipfel’s The Buzzing) I made the point that a lot of today’s writing had replaced Eliot’s mythical method with the paranoid method of conspiracy theory. I suggested Pynchon as the modern master of the form, but if we go even further back we’d probably find Kafka to be its prophet. Kafka foresaw the new man: a victim of technology and bureaucracy, alienated from nature and knowledge through urbanization and specialization, paradoxically made politically impotent by democracy.

The paranoid method is a response to chaos. Like the mythic method it is a way of “ordering, giving a shape and significance” to confusion. Only the method itself is a sinister deity. As Eco has one of his characters explain in Foucault’s Pendulum (another important early text), synarchy (the conspiratorial anti-anarchy) is both a form of psychosis and an alternative deity.

“Synarchy is God.”
“Yes. Mankind can’t endure the thought that the world was born by chance, by mistake, just because four brainless atoms bumped into one another on a slippery highway. So a cosmic plot has to be found – Gods, angels, devils. Synarchy performs the same function on a lesser scale.”

“On a lesser scale” means not concerned with the formation of the universe, but rather with the rejection of the role chance plays in our lives generally. Andy Brown’s The Mole Chronicles is the story of a Canadian K. (no given name) who, we learn early on, is accident prone. In fact his life seems determined by accidents. His mother was even lost in one.

Specifically, his mother was lost (that is, perhaps not killed but went missing) in a traffic accident. And his father’s job was to study traffic. See the connection? The pattern? The narrator’s sister Lesley does: “The traffic at the corner seems like chaos but she knows there is an internal logic.”

Of course the whole notion of an “accident” is the launching pad for most paranoid fiction. There are no accidents, really. What we see as an accident is only part of a larger, invisible network of purpose and meaning. This is where the novelist comes in, the one who can connect all of these seemingly random dots into a coherent narrative. And The Mole Chronicles is full of random dots, like those blemishes on the skin that may or may not have some sinister meaning and which are at one point connected by pen. The presentation itself is a sort of verbal pointillism, an attention-deficit kind of writing full of short words, sentences, and chapters that seems to have lost its narrative integument. We switch from place to place (Montreal to Vancouver and back again), from time to time, and even among different points of view. The prose has an abruptness to it that is nevertheless sharply focused and observed:

He was unsure what to do next. He looked at his hands, nicked and gray haired. He put the green flakes onto the paper and attempted to roll it. He lost a lot but that was fine. More a crumpled ball than anything else. Lick. Flame. He looked at the floor. The carpet had been ripped up, exposing plywood underneath. It had been weeks since the police were here. He was just being paranoid.
He coughed immediately. He had smoked cigars once on a trip to Cuba for a conference, but that was a long time ago. He tried to hold in the smoke but coughed most of it out. The light from the unusually clear day crept through the crack where the black curtains parted. He yearned for conclusions to things and not the things themselves.
Outside, the light was blinding. He took off his glasses and kneaded his eye sockets. The grass was unkempt but alive. An eagle took flight from one of the last remaining huge cedars on the block. A bicycle passed behind the fence, its rider whistling. He remained very still, crouching in the shadow of the pile of stalks. He was just being paranoid.

I like how he “coughed immediately.” Immediacy, the breakdown of the narrative medium, is what this kind of writing is all about. We can even be shunted in and out of a character’s head: “He lost a lot but that was fine. More a crumpled ball than anything else. Lick. Flame. He looked at the floor.” Other sentences come at us like jump cuts. Where, for example, does that last sentence in the second paragraph come from? How does it relate to anything that comes before or after? And how did we finally find ourselves outside, in the blinding light? What do the grass, the eagle, and the bicycle have to do with each other (assuming he doesn’t even see the bicycle pass behind the fence)? Should there be a connection, or is this “just being paranoid”?

As with the style, so with the substance. Yes, there plenty of weird coincidences (or are they?) connecting the various dots/moles. A mole may be something on the skin, a villain from an old Fantastic Four comic book, or a kind of spy. Here they are all of the above. And what would a conspiracy novel be without underground groups identified by their acronyms. In this case we get a double dose: the BLF (Billboard Liberation Front), commando culture-jammers who undermine the corporate messages on billboards, and DAGWOOD (Dermatologists Against Global Warming and Oncologists Opposing Dams). “It makes a good acronym,” one DAGWOOD member informs the narrator. And really, if you have a good acronym what more do you need? Certainly not a practical plot.

Yes, this book is a bit of an omelette. But the writing is fresh and invigorating and I found the Canadian-ness of Brown’s conspiracies (well-intentioned, benign) an interesting new take on what has become one of the major literary genres of our time. The result is a fearless and engaging first novel that rarely fails to connect.

Review first published online February 6, 2007.