Monday, July 15, 2013

Book review: 'Brilliance' by Marcus Sakey

One thought kept surfacing as I plunged through Brilliance, Flint native Marcus Sakey's fast-paced new thriller, which will be released tomorrow: this would be a great movie. It was no surprise, then, when I found out that the rights to the film had been purchased by Legendary Pictures four months ago, even before the book's publication date. The high-energy chase scenes, the political intrigue, even the casting of a Henry Cavill or Matt Bomer as protagonist Nick Cooper--the story reads as if already on the big screen.

Mr. Sakey has created an alternate reality, the March 2013 America that may have existed if, starting thirty years ago, one percent of our population were inexplicably born "gifted." (Mr. Sakey even takes a jab at our regular world in the novel, writing a fake Times review of a book about the way the world might have been if the gifted had never been born: "war with the Middle East, the rise of violent religious fundamentalism, and a planet on the verge of irreversible ecological damage." Good one, Mr. Sakey.)

Some brilliants have benign gifts, like multiplying large numbers quickly, or unprecedented talent as musicians. But some of the gifted--or abnorms, or, pejoratively, "twists"--are considered "tier one," which, if harnessed for evil, are seen as potential threats to national security. Nick Cooper, with his ability to "read" people, is one such brilliant. He is also one of the most effective agents in Department of Analysis and Response, a federal agency created to hunt and eliminate dangerous gifted, by any means necessary.

Cooper is two parts Jason Bourne, one part Ayn Rand hero, with a dash of Liam Neeson in any movie where he has to rescue his daughter. The conflict writes itself: he is torn between dedication to keeping order in his country and loyalty to his family and personal identity. His journey is snappy and suspenseful, and if moral clarity comes on a little abruptly and conveniently, it is all to further the storytelling.

While the brilliants can be compared to many persecuted minorities throughout history, parallels the characters repeatedly make, Mr. Sakey draws particularly strong lines to our current age of terror--the gifted are American Muslims and the US government is…the US government. (No need to conjure up Satan, I guess, when the bogeyman is real.) Cooper's boss explains their agency's role in combatting gifted terrorism in this way: "I mean that when the evidence is clear and the danger is real, we will act before they do. I mean that instead of waiting for terrorists to attack our way of life, instead of allowing them to push this country toward a war against its children, we will act to prevent one." Unfortunately, this kind of language has become so commonplace in our national politics that it was almost difficult to muster the proper level of rage.

In the novel, the primary antagonist for Cooper and the US Government is John Smith, once a popular and outspoken activist for the gifted who has turned violent terrorist. Mr. Sakey puzzles over this seemingly inexplicable transformation, and I must believe the story of Anwar al-Awlaki--the Muslim cleric who, within a decade, went from being "here to build, not to destroy…the bridge between Americans and one billion Muslims worldwide" to claiming that "jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding upon every other able Muslim"--was rattling around Mr. Sakey's imagination. Anwar al-Awlaki, like John Smith, was also on the US Government's "kill list," the first American citizen to be so identified. Mr. Awlaki was killed in a US drone attack in Yemen on September 30, 2011, an event well-publicized in the United States.

Cooper muses, in alternate-America, referencing the government's plan to target John Smith for extermination:

"A president caught on tape authorizing the murder of innocent citizens? He'd be crucified, face jail time, maybe worse."

Good one, again, Mr. Sakey.

However, there are some less flattering action-movie tropes that this book is guilty of. First, the language sometimes reminded me of the Calvin and Hobbes Tracer Bullet voiceover, absent self-awareness and parody:
Smith smiled. Layers of meaning. Who knew how deep they ran. 
"So we're here," Cooper said, "for symbolic reasons, right? Two guys waiting for the sunrise. No baggage up here. Can't climb with it." 
"Something like that, yeah."
 Sometimes the cropped, overly dramatic dialogue works, effectively moving the story along to its next point of suspense. Sometimes it removed me completely from the plot, jarring me like one of Cooper's chops to the throat, and I had to take a second to shake it off.

I cringed again during most of the romance scenes between Cooper and Shannon, his gifted partner-in-crime. Their conversations felt embarrassing and their relationship obligatory, an artifact of the movie genre this story was destined for. Their one-dimensional exchanges made me think this might be one of those exceptions where the movie is better than the book: we've become accustomed to flat, ancillary romances on the big screen, but they feel very uncomfortable to me in print.

Mr. Sakey's novel ultimately works best when it is acting as a thriller preoccupied with the due process clause. It reads like cotton candy at the fair: so fun while you're taking it in, but you only end up with a nugget of substance. Luckily, summer is the perfect time for the fair, and for cotton-candy reads full of high action, double-crossing secret agents, and national-ethics-infused mystery.

Last week's Michigan book review: I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman.