Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Lowe, The World Is at War Again (2021)

Simon Lowe, The World Is at War, Again. Elsewhen Press, 2021. Pp. 296. ISBN 978-1-911409-83-0. $20.00.

Reviewed by Don Riggs

Simon Lowe’s wearily titled The World Is at War, Again is not actually a war novel, in that there are no pitched battles on land, sea, or in the air, no ever-more-powerful bombs or other instruments of mass destruction. In fact, the only mention of the War itself is the frequently repeated statement that Things Aren’t Going Too Well With The War, the capitalized words indicating that this is a frequently repeated trope that all have heard many times before and probably will again. The identity of the two sides is unclear, except those on the side of seemingly all of the characters are called the “Unified Nations”—which I at first misread as the United Nations. The characters are all spies, specifically Agent Assassins, or AAs, that come from two families, the Misorovs and the Fandanellis. Mr. and Mrs. Fandanelli, whose son Peter is deposited at (or near) a special school for children of AAs, are in the Volunteer War Over Seas Aid Squad (VWOSAS), stationed on a Cruise Liner, to meet an unknown contact in an unknown manner to receive their instructions.

The novel is set in the indeterminate future, after an unspecified societal setback called the Regression. The machinations of the various secret agencies sending out their AAs to assassinate other AAs are confused and inscrutable, possibly intentionally so, and they have a 007-style set of gadgets that they are to use in their duties. In some ways this set of incompetent interactions are reminiscent of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, where no one is entirely sure what they are doing and why. In one particularly famous Agent Assassin family, the Misorovs, there is one especially efficient assassin, Nadia, who seems totally unscrupulous, assassinating members of her own family, possibly to establish her dominance. Much of the action revolves around her younger cousin, Chewti, who was not raised with an eye towards her becoming an assassin, but who becomes one anyway to strike back at Nadia. The reader (at least, this one) roots for Chewti, and is constantly on edge from fear that Nadia will kill her as ruthlessly as she has Chewti’s own mother.

Meanwhile, the Fandanellis are a married couple where the wife Maria is a social climber within the Assassins’ organization, and the husband Marco an apparent incompetent, in that Maria suspects he has “melted,” or gone beyond his usefulness due to living too long in a secure suburban community, possibly combined with early onset senescence. The use of the term “melted” is reminiscent of Bruce Sterling’s use of the term “faded” to describe centenarians in the novel Schismatrix who have lost their elan vital. The conversation is full of such terms that have been redefined in the intelligence-gathering community, such as “completed” instead of “killed.” There are also unexpected turns of phrase and images like, “Nadia makes her point with snowy, white capped teeth, like reflected mountain tops” (260). Another unexpected simile is, “It is a clear night, plenty of moonlight and twinkling stars, like an untouched join-the-dots picture” (110). Again, when Peter Fandanelli admires his roommate’s developed musculature, he—or perhaps the limited omniscient narrator—observes, “His arms are like snakes, filled with lumpy, undigested prey” (165). This last seems a particularly gruesome simile, but no actions that would warrant this feeling occur.

There is an oneiric progression of events that characterizes the plot, in that there is no discernible goal in view for any of the participants, except perhaps Maria Fandanelli’s aim to rise in the AA hierarchy, and possibly for Nadia Misorov’s drive to assassinate members of her own family. This repeated series of unexpected assassinations and alliances of undercover agents recalls the old MAD magazine’s comic “Spy vs. Spy” and “Spy vs. Spy vs. Spy.”

Nadia seems to withdraw from the scene near the end without “closing” her cousin, and there seems to be no evident reason for her to step out of the picture, rather like Darth Vader’s small space raider being knocked into space by the explosion of the Death Star at the end of the first Star Wars movie—seed for a follow-up novel, perhaps? The World Is at War, Again is an engaging read, even if the progression of events seems to follow dream logic rather than an Aristotelian plot arc.

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