Anomie of the people

A new satire distills a screenwriter's political rage.

LOOK BACK IN ANGER Hask-Lowy's novel was inspired by the Bush presidency.

LOOK BACK IN ANGER Hask-Lowy's novel was inspired by the Bush presidency. Photograph: courtesy of

As Todd Hasak-Lowy remembers it, 2005 was a real low point for liberals such as himself. George W. Bush’s first four years as president were seen as a disaster, and the prospect of four more produced feelings of rage, fear and helplessness. Hasak-Lowy became obsessed with the belief that “the world is really, really going in a bad direction.” His response was to write Captives, a live-wire satirical novel about this particular dread. “It’s about what happens to a person in the moment when once and for all they’re swallowed up by all these feelings,” Hasak-Lowy, 39, tells TONY from his home in Gainesville, Florida. “This novel was my effort to capture something right at that moment.”

Daniel Bloom, the protagonist of this debut novel, is a successful Hollywood screenwriter whose résumé includes romantic-comedy blockbusters such as Helsinki Honeymoon. He’s also emotionally adrift and barely able to relate to his wife and son. Early in the book, he begins working on a script about an assassin who kills those responsible for the “deterioration of the last few years,” starting with “the corporate scum” and eventually moving on to elected officials. Before long, he realizes that his passion for the film’s plot is a kind of wish fulfillment that reflects the anger, disappointment and hopelessness that has overtaken his increasingly empty life and dominates the culture around him.

Ultimately, his screenplay is not a call for violence but a declaration of crisis. “He realizes the moral underpinnings of what he’s writing are troubling,” Hasak-Lowy says. “With fiction, you’re supposed to make things up, but he’s a writer who doesn’t want to make things up anymore.”

A professor of modern Hebrew literature at the University of Florida as well as the author of a well-received short-story collection titled The Task of the Translator, Hasak-Lowy had felt much the same impulse when in 2005 he put aside a novel he’d been working on for years and set out to write Captives. “I wasn’t writing about what I really wanted to write about,” he says, “which is my inability to ignore what’s been happening in the world since 2000.”

For a book seeking to address matters of such urgency, Hollywood may sound like an unusual choice of setting, but to Hasak-Lowy it made sense. “If you’re trying to write about an absurd moment, write about it in an absurd place.” Not surprisingly, the novel’s take on Hollywood morals is biting, right down to the producer who sees dollar signs in the violent vigilantism of Daniel’s script. While the novel intelligently explores the deeper implications of America’s obsession with violence as seen through Daniel’s growing sense of unrest, it also finds time for moments of pure absurdity, such as when Daniel scores psychedelic drugs from his passive-aggressive rabbi. As for Hollywood’s politics, they’re best illustrated by Daniel’s blissfully apathetic agent, whose idea of political engagement is going bowling on behalf of “those who cannot.”

Despite its heady premise and bleakly comic impulses, Captives also has elements of a frustrated spiritual journey. Following the wisdom that you should write about what you know, Hasak-Lowy sets part of the novel in Israel, a region he has studied extensively. Daniel goes there in search of greater meaning. What he finds there, particularly in the character of Nadav, a pothead slacker who shows him around the country, are people, like himself, who are faced with a crisis they don’t know how to respond to. “Nadav’s basically a depressed person who would agree that the world is a broken place,” Hasak-Lowy says.

Hasak-Lowy believes there are telling similarities between the two nations. “Israel is the U.S. on steroids. It’s America a little further down the road, a place confronting problems that at the present time it is incapable of solving,” the author says. “Daniel goes there as an escape but arrives at a place where he hasn’t escaped anything.”

Looking ahead to next month’s presidential election, Hasak-Lowy, who describes himself as “to the left of Karl Marx,” admitted that for a while he wondered whether an Obama victory, and the hope that it would represent for liberals, would lead people to read his novel as a document from another era, “because they’ll feel they’re now in a different moment.” But he soon concluded that while the feelings of 2005 may begin to recede further and further into memory, the problems of the world are unlikely to fade away so quickly. “If Obama gets elected, maybe we’re out of the darkest moments,” he says. “But it’s not going to be a movie that has a neat ending and a happy resolution any time in the near future.”

Captives (Spiegel & Grau, $24.95) is out now. Hasak-Lowy reads Fri 24 and Sun 26.

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