We all already know Google could own our asses. But any mention of this is usually greeted with the apathy of a depressed kidnap victim who couldn't imagine why anybody would want him. Portland author David Shafer's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Mulholland Books, 425 pages, $26) takes this cultural anomie almost as a precondition, before creating a world that rewards only paranoia. His thinly veiled fictional stand-in for Google—SineCo—is clearly out to get you. They can type on your keyboard and fill your dad's computer with kiddie porn. And they do.
But though WTF has been billed as a thriller by the Little, Brown imprint that also publishes SEAL Team Six: Hunt the Jackal, it operates much more subtly, and much more slowly. For one thing, Shafer has actual interest in documenting the foibles and cack-ups of the three 30-something protagonists who get wrapped up in Dear Diary, the resistance movement against total informational control. There's Leo, a self-hating Portland trustafarian who gets canned from a daycare for being weird; Mark, a drug-addled, accidental self-help guru adopted by SineCo's CEO as a trusted adviser; and Leila, an NGO do-gooder in Burma who accidentally stumbles across a secret server site and has her life ruined in the fallout.
Shafer's strongest sequences involve showing his characters in moments of tension—for example, when Leo's pot dealer cuts him off out of concern, or Mark's fumblingly venal triumph on a show that is an obvious stand-in for Oprah. It is delightful to watch the Oprah clone exult in arriving at a "consciousclusion" about her life.
But the long character exposition causes the book's first act to plod along for almost the entire length of the book. The big reveal of the horrible worldwide conspiracy emerges mostly as a series of tension-free info dumps in blocks of text or dialogue.
And so rather than an ever-rising feeling of dread as the net of a secret agency grows ever tighter, we feel much more keenly the pit-of-the-stomach uneasiness of a life wasted at age 35. Portlanders will note that the resistance to the world conspiracy gets planned under a chapter header reading "Beaverton, Oregon," with a co-conspirator arriving in a Radio Cab.
And as in Portland, the vast global conspiracy often fades far too easily from view, and it's all too easy to relate when a character—sweating the draconian contract on his second bullshit book—starts thinking that maybe joining the global conspiracy might not be so bad after all. As much as it's a thriller, the book might also be the unlikely story of someone actually growing the hell up.
GO: David Shafer reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Wednesday, Aug. 6. 7:30 pm. Free.