Impersonation/Identity theft are themes that have been mostly used in crime/spy fiction. The reason could be that in earlier days it happened only when serious crime and a lot of planning was involved and hence it was something that seemed to happen only in novels and very rarely did we get to hear about it happening in real life to someone we knew. So we never got to know the actual ramifications of the identity theft other than that the affected person caught the perpetrator and brought him before justice. The only related point to this in 'general' fiction has been the concept of identity/doppelganger used for philosophical musings as in for instance 'The Double' or 'The White Castle'. But in our digital age, identity theft is not something that is so difficult to do. Just leave your credit card unattended for some time and some one can take up your identity at least for the duration of a single transaction. T.C Boyle takes up this concept and has tried to give us an insight on the people affected and the perpetrator of the Identify theft, traversing a different path from the thriller genre, a path that is relevant for our age.
'Dana' a 30 something hearing impaired woman leaps a signal and is stopped by the police. And this is where her life turns completely around and becomes a never ending nightmare. A routine check on her reveals crimes like non-payment of days, jumping of bail etc and she is jailed. She manages to prove that it's a case of identity theft and is released but her problems are just beginning with creditors showing up everywhere. The rest of the novel is about Dana and 'Bridger' her boyfriend trying to find the person behind this identity theft.
The first portion of the novel is the best part of the book. The impact that the sudden collapse of one's carefully constructed world has on a person is brought out in a frightening manner. Have you ever faced a situation where you have faced unforeseen trouble or any other situation which is completely unexpected? How do we react or handle it. First the incredulity that that something like it can happen to us, the refusal of the mind to believe what has happened, then the optimism that things will soon be alright, then the sneaking suspicion that the issue may not be solved as soon as we initially thought and finally getting to a state where we are almost numb and end up accepting what has happened. Dana goes through all these emotions when she is jailed. Being jailed on a Friday afternoon, she has to spend the weekend too at the Jail without bail till Monday. It may not be something out of 'The Trial', but Dana's internment is also horrific. Dana is not even then sure why she has been jailed and with communication problems, the general apathy of the police to convey what exactly has happened or to even listen to Dana complicates matters and it's 2 days of hell for her in the jail.
Dana is a feisty, spunky character and Boyle has made sure that she is neither someone who needs others help for everything nor some kind of superwoman who can take on the world on her own. She lives life on her terms yes, (even teaching at a non-hearing impaired school which she has wanted all her life), but she is not beneath calling Bridges to help her out. The details of her everyday life may seem a bit extraneous, but give us an idea of how challenging is their everyday life and how they take head on things that we take for granted. For e.g. the light that goes on in her room when someone rings the door bell, the answering machine which gets cut off automatically after the recorded voice of Dana asks the person calling to send an email instead of leaving a message. These little things build up a fleshed out picture of Dana which in turn makes the reader relate to her better.
The relationship between Dana and Bridger too is handled well. Yes, they seem to love each other, but it doesn't mean that they are all lovey-dovey always. There is also a bit of practicality involved in it. When Bridger first goes to the police station after learning about Dana's imprisonment, he has to wait there for a long time without anyone telling him what's going on (the 'State' seems to behave the same way in all countries doesn't it). During the whole time, a part of his mind is on his office and the work he has left hanging, thinking how he can convince his boss. Later he tries to get a lawyer and when learns of the cost involved, he doesn't proceed further as he cannot afford it and decides to wait till Monday. No selling of whatever he has for the beloved like a 'true' lover should do. The friction in their relationship due to this is actually the main thread of this novel, even supplanting their search for the person behind the identity theft. The first hints of the friction comes when Dana rants and even kind of assaults Bridger at his office, where she has come after knowing that she has been terminated from her dream job. So what does Bridger do? Is he the concerned lover understanding what Dana is going through, consoling her and taking her losing her cool in his stride. No, he too snaps at her and calls her crazy. So when the two set of on a road trip to find the person behind all this, you are actually thing whether their relationship would survive at the end of all this instead of thinking about whether they will achieve what they are setting out for.
Boyle now shifts his focus to 'Peck Wilson' the man who has stolen Dana's identity. It's interesting for a bit to see Wilson, as we try to understand his motives, the person behind the facade Wilson is showing to the world. There are some genuinely thrilling moments when Wilson becomes aware that Dana/Bridger have come to know about him and he starts taking counter measures. At this points, you are fully rooting for Dana/Bridger and hoping that whatever Wilson is attempting now ends up as a failure. But unfortunately, the novel starts going downhill from this point on. Wilson ends as some kind of borderline psychopath, not the kind that would go around killing people, but a kind where the person is at war with the whole world, a person who thinks that the world owes him everything and when things go wrong starting blaming everything and everyone else except himself. Now, it's not bad if you have a villain who is the embodiment of all evil as in crime fiction. But Wilson ends up being neither an arch villain nor a well formed character. As I said above the only thing we can take from the novel about him is that he seems a bit psychotic. The to and fro moves between Dana/Bridger and Wilson too end up not amounting to much. I didn't expect highly thought out actions by the characters, as in a crime fiction (indeed I would have been disappointed if it had been like that) as the clash is between 2 normal people and a person who though is a con man is clearly not in the league of the professional criminals. So you wouldn't/shouldn't expect a page turner kind of intensity in this chase, but even considering that Dana and Bridger's road trip seem to be a journey to nowhere and you just want it to end. The end just before the epilogue was too cheesy. It's like Boyle wanted Dana to have a epiphanic moment where she confronts her own fears and put it in the ending. It is so unlike Boyle to cater to such soppy moments, but maybe he wanted to give the readers a boost at the end. I think the moment may actually be liked by many and I am be a minority in not liking it, but it left me cold.
Boyle is back to form though, immediately in the epilogue. As a contrast to the event before it, I think the epilogue may actually be hated by many, but I dug it. It's typical Boyle and long time readers would relate to this more. One can talk a lot about selfishness, self-preservation, ingratitude, but that's the way life works out a lot of times and anyway one cannot judge another, without going through what the other has and even then every one reacts differently isn't it?
Life all Boyle novels, this too left me in two minds, neither liking it very much nor hating it. One thing however is sure. You can rant about his works, hate them, but one can never accuse Boyle of repeating himself. Every book of his is a different journey, a canvas which you have not seen in his earlier works. he can just about take you anywhere. Now you may hate the journey, never even reach the end or could love the whole thing, but the freshness of it all cannot be denied. I guess that's what keeps me going back to Boyle's works, especially his novels which I haven't like as much as his short stories.