The Unknown Terrorist , by Richard Flanagan: A Book Review

As usual, I'm way behind the times. This powerful and still most timely book was published in 2006, and it came to my attention by pure chance, as I searched through my shelves to see what could be donated to the local library. Here was one, I thought, that looked interesting, and set it aside to read. I have no idea how it reached me in the first place.

It took only a few pages for me to recognize that Richard Flanagan is an exceptional writer. True, he writes about Australia in an unmistakably Australian accent (how do we hear accents when we hear no spoken words?) but it takes little imagination to transpose the post-9/11 Australia he writes about to America today. The social environment of Sydney in The Unknown Terrorist is a world governed by fear and greed, by paranoia, glittery materialism, and media hype. It's a world in which "success" and wealth abound, as do the poverty and self-destructive ignorance of the exploited underclass. Flanagan describes it all with a gritty realism that deteriorates, slowly, inevitably, toward the end of the book, into madness and nightmare. We are swept along by a prose that is rhythmic, unadorned, compelling -- I'd almost say hypnotic.

Let me call it tragedy. The Doll, the protagonist of this downward spiral into madness, is a pole dancer, a "westie" (i.e., from the wrong side of the tracks), the product of a dysfunctional family, and now the innocent lamb in the social slaughterhouse. She is sucked, naively -- and, yes, innocently -- into a vortex that is not of her own making, swept down with increasing speed and inevitability into its dark inner core. It starts with a spontaneous -- and, yes, innocent enough -- one-night stand with a charmer of Middle Eastern origin, who vanishes the next day and is (wrongly) identified as a terrorist at a moment when Sydney is experiencing a minor terrorist scare. A security camera photograph of the two of them in an (innocent!) embrace is used to identify The Doll as the "unknown terrorist," and she becomes the target of a media witch hunt, led by a sleazy, has-been, and vindictive TV journalist whose attentions she once spurned.

Soon abandoned by all but a single friend whose loyalty, too, is soon tested, she sinks ever deeper into the mire of a society run amok with hyped-up, irrational fear and racial animosity. She relives the traumas of her past life even as she struggles to cope with those of the present moment, in flight from the media, the cops, the terrorism "experts", the corrupt politicians -- all those who see in her a convenient scapegoat for their failure to address their rapidly unraveling world with reason or integrity. There are signs, everywhere, of erupting rage and violence. People everywhere, on the streets and in the bastions of privilege and power, resort to callousness and cruelty. The social fabric disintegrates into chaos.

All of which might seem bleak, and Flanagan does not spare his readers. He is capable of the most cynical of observations about his characters and their actions, of biting satire and mocking rage against the injustices and abuses that abound in a me-first society, in which the powerful take advantage of the powerless and the powerless are left to look after themselves. What saves him -- and us, as readers -- is his compassion for his characters. He shows us, convincingly, the confusion of their inner lives, the conflicts between reason and emotion, the inconsistency and the irrationality of their humanity, the sudden, uncontrollable flow between hatred and love.

I use the word tragedy advisedly. Tragedy, as I see it, is characterized primarily by the notion of inevitability. Call it fate, though it's really not fate at all, it's the result of very human action, very human interaction. Someone does something, innocently, perhaps. And this one thing leads inevitably to another. Tensions and conflicts build. Delusions formulate and gel, and the whole toxic mix continues to ferment in its own fetid juices, until the explosion is inevitable. The carefully plotted thread of Flanagan's story has that sense of inevitability. It could not have turned out any other way. And the end of his story is, despite its violence, strangely cathartic. We are left with the sense that what had to happen, happened; and, more importantly, with the sense of satisfying release that justice -- even strange, even arbitrary-seeming justice -- brings along with it.

Read this book: you'll love The Doll, as I did. You'll want to save her, as did I. But will you be able to? It's the suspense that carries you along until the very last page...