It shouldn't come as a big surprise that Jonathan Raban has written a novel called Surveillance. He is an intensely watchful writer. Since leaving his native Britain for America in the late 1980s, he has subjected his adopted country to an unflinching gaze. So completely does Raban inhabit the role of observer that it can be hard to know on which side of the line separating acceptable vigilance from unwarranted nosiness he falls. In his 1990 travel book, Hunting Mister Heartbreak, he describes subrenting a Manhattan studio apartment belonging to a woman he has never met: "With blundering caution I sniffed and snooped, trying to get the measure of this new rented life . . . Her kitchen - a narrow tiled slot, like a shower stall - revealed a preference for herbal teas and decaffeinated coffee . . . The bathroom cabinet gave nothing much away . . . I liked the smell of her shampoos." Later, he spends a few hours with a department store security guard watching a bank of CCTV screens. It's an experience he evidently enjoys.
For Raban, closely watching others isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you're a writer (especially, perhaps, an immigrant writer), it's practically part of the job description. And all of us get snooped on from time to time. Recently, however, Raban has become concerned by the sheer volume of surveillance in modern society. In an article in the Guardian, he suggested that the internet has turned us all into amateur spooks. "When I'm going to meet a stranger at dinner, I'll routinely feed her name into Google and LexisNexis to find out who she is and what she's been up to lately." But this ordinary private snooping has a more sinister corollary: the rise of state surveillance that has accompanied, and been justified by, the war on terror.
Raban's new novel is set in Seattle, three or four years in the future. America seems not so very different from now, except that the machinery of state security has been stepped up to the point where it has become impossible to ignore. There are spy cameras in schools; travellers are subject to endless security checks; men in uniform are omnipresent; and the department of homeland security stages regular public mock-ups (or "dress rehearsals") of terrorist atrocities in order to test the security services' readiness for the real thing. Naturally, the government maintains that all this is a necessary defence against a genuine and imminent threat of attack. Others are not so sure.
Raban marshals a small cast of characters, all of whom are defined by their attitude towards questions of security and surveillance. At one extreme is Tad Zachary, an actor who lives in an old apartment block in the city centre. A lifelong liberal, Tad is instinctively distrustful of the government and inclines to the view that the war on terror is one big hoax, designed to keep the public in a state of abject pliability. Tad, who is gay and whose partner died of Aids some years ago, has become a kind of surrogate father to Alida, a precocious but pesky 11-year-old who lives with her mother, Lucy, in the apartment across the hall. Lucy, the novel's main character, is a journalist who writes for such prestigious publications as the New Yorker and GQ. In Raban's political taxonomy, she inhabits the centre ground. She shares some of Tad's concerns about the level of intrusion, the extent of the threat and so on, but, ever the impartial reporter, is unwilling to commit to a definite view.
The novel opens with Lucy receiving an assignment from GQ to write a long profile of a man named August Vanags, a retired history professor who has recently written a bestselling childhood memoir describing his miraculous wartime escape from the clutches of the Nazis. She travels to his home on Whidbey Island, a short ferry ride away. In person, Vanags proves to be a bumptious know-all, but he is intriguing both as a subject and as an eloquent advocate of what Tad disparagingly but accurately identifies as the "neoconservative" view. Within minutes of meeting her, Vanags is lecturing Lucy about such matters as the fragility of democracy, the dangers of appeasement and the greatness of Ronald Reagan. Significantly, and plausibly, he links this outlook to his own experience of persecution. As he tells Lucy: "See, people like you, you've never known what it's like to not be an American . . . It teaches you how easy it'd be for America not to be America any more."
As far as the plot goes, that's pretty much it. Having established his characters, Raban simply observes them for a while. What makes this such a good novel (and it is one of the best attempts so far to engage with the post-9/11 world) is Raban's pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, his attention to detail and the clever but never schematic way in which he develops his themes. For example, the snooping motif turns up in a number of guises: there's a sub-plot involving Lucy's landlord, another right-wing immigrant (and a character in Raban's last novel, Waxwings), who rifles through her underwear drawer; and one of Alida's classmates is discovered to be a high-level computer hacker. Another of Raban's themes is the impossibility, in a society dominated by fear, of distinguishing fact from fiction: this idea is amplified when Lucy finds cause to suspect Vanags of fabricating parts of his memoir.
Having devoted his career mainly to non- fiction, Raban is becoming one of our most insightful novelists. Surveillance is a work that confirms him as one of the most original commentators on the times in which we live.