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Fiction Wrestles With Global Terrorism

Taylor Antrim applauds Lorraine Adams' stellar new novel for being even better than nonfiction at capturing our messy world of politics, espionage, and journalism. Plus: View his picks of other great novels based on current events.

02.22.10 8:21 PM ET

There is the familiar pleasure of reading a really good novel, and then there is the greater thrill of reading a novel both topical and important in that way that usually only journalism gets to be. Lorraine Adams’ The Room and the Chair is suspenseful and transporting—fine, many good novels are—but it is also that rarer thing: part of the conversation about our seemingly endless War on Terror.

Or it should be part of that conversation. In the stadium of geopolitical debate, fiction writers get the cheap seats. Don DeLillo predicted terrorism coming to New York City in 1991’s Mao II, but when was the last time you saw him opining on al Qaeda to Meet the Press? Yes, I understand: Fiction writers make stuff up—but aren’t all those politicians talking to David Gregory doing the same thing?

View a gallery of Antrim’s favorite novels inspired by current events.

We turn to journalists to expose skulduggery at the White House, the CIA, and the Department of Defense—Jane Mayer and Seymour Hirsch and Bob Woodward come to mind—but of course they are often praised for writing like novelists, using narrative and dialogue and scene to achieve you-are-there immediacy. How different a breed is Adams (whose first novel was 2005’s widely acclaimed Harbor? She’s done her research, traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran; she’s made at least one contact in military intelligence (who would not have spoken to her if she were a journalist, she’s said). I’d argue, in fact, that there is an even greater value to Adams’ spidery, upsetting novel because she forces us to question our trust in Woodward et al., as well as in those Brooks Brothers assassins at Langley.

The Room and the Chair By Lorraine Adams 336 pages. Knopf. $25.95.

The Room of the title refers to the newsroom of Washington D.C.’s best-known paper, here called The Washington Spectator. Adams spent 11 years on staff at The Washington Post and she convincingly conveys the crosscurrents of rivalry, pride, and (very occasionally) empathy that prevail in that pressurized atmosphere. An F-16 has mysteriously crashed in the Potomac and veteran night editor Stanley Belson thinks there’s more to the incident than his executive editor believes. That editor, Adam Sanger, is preoccupied by, among other things, the privileged status of his colleague Don Grady. Grady has “unimpeachable access to power’s highest balconies” and though nominally on staff at the Spectator, he’s rarely in the newsroom and saves his reporting for his bestselling books. Remind you of anyone?

So Belson encourages a young cub reporter named Vera to take a closer look at the crash and in good gumshoe fashion she begins to connect it to an obscure intelligence subagency called Media Exploitation Component Services. We already know, thanks to Adams’ braided narrative, that MECS is a cover for Will Holmes, a DOD spook with direct access to the White House. Holmes occupies The Chair of the title, though Adams leaves the exact parameters of his job obscure. He is that new kind of warrior, an information expert, a digital killer—though he’s done a bit of wet work, too.

There’s much more here: The F-16 pilot survives, recuperates at Walter Reed and deploys to Bagram, where she is recruited for a black ops mission in Iran involving a double-agent nuclear scientist. And the leaking of a comprehensive Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report (known to insiders as Sissy) causes a newsroom crisis at the Spectator. The varied settings, intricate plot, and deep cast of characters suggests a cross between Syriana and the fifth season of The Wire—but Adams’ novel is subtler than both. And more deeply felt. Through a roving, omniscient point of view, Adams manages to convey the all-too-human fears and desires of even the more minor players in her drama. This is the great advantage of fiction: It accommodates, more naturally than journalism, the dimension of feeling behind current events.

One complaint: Adams is, mostly, a limber and inventive stylist. She’s capable of great music and rhythm; here’s a dinner party moments after Grady hints he’s readying a scoop, “What had been a lolling denouement, an evening tending to a reclining, sat up.” She can be metaphorically succinct; here’s the F-16 pilot’s assessment of our presence in Afghanistan: “It was detached, this war. It hung from the side of the country.” And yet, many of her sentences struck me as showy, or straining toward cleverness. “He’d been part of so much peligro that there was something of rigor, as in mortis, about him.” “Vera hid what she was in tracksuits, tainted all she saw with resentful bale.” And what’s with this mannered stutter-step: “[War] made so much, even northern Virginia roads, into, at the least, a set-to, and, all too often, sloppy arguments, sometimes loud, in the glass offices lining the Room.” Belson, Adams’ likeable editor-hero, disdains a vocabulary that calls attention to itself, preferring “a language of straight timber” (itself a lovely phrase). Wonder what he’d think of Adams’ sentences?

But even the occasionally overheated style serves a purpose here, never letting us forget that for all its hot-button relevance, The Room and the Chair is not a book that aspires to be anything other than it is. In other words, Adams’ exceptional novel, as penetrating and provocative as journalism, does not have an inferiority complex.

Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.