Captives by Todd Hasak-Lowy

Captives by Todd Hasak-LowyI have to admit my interest in the novel Captives by Todd Hasak-Lowy had a lot to do with a desire to see how what has become known as Bush Derangement Syndrome might get played out in a fictional work.

Let’s avoid for now, the discussion of whether BDS is an actual phenomenon or simply a creation of the fevered minds of right-wingers.  Put aside the author’s perspective, the emotions and opinions are certainly out there and an active part of culture and politics.  The question was: could someone take this issue/concept and make something intelligent of it.

To set the story up, and give you a sense what prompted these thoughts, here is the publishers description:

A sniper is taking down suits and politicians—in Daniel Bloom’s head.

Bloom is the kind of guy who ends most social gatherings with an alternately raging and despairing conversation about The State of the World. And recently things have taken a turn for the worse. His marriage is on the rocks, his teenage son is becoming increasingly unknowable, and his sense of hopeless impotence has reached a stage of spiritual crisis that’s no longer a matter of vapid dinner-party conversation.

So he decamps to his home office to work on his fifteenth screenplay, this time about a federal agent and a nameless assassin. The assassin is a sniper who targets the power elite: corporate chiefs who defraud their employees of billions of dollars in pensions, and political flacks who’ve rigged the system in their own favor. Only the federal agent isn’t sure he wants to capture the sniper.

Soon Bloom realizes that his screenplay hits too close to home: He really does want these people dead, so much so that this revenge fantasy takes over his life, sending him in search of salvation in an outrageous mentor, a possibly dangerous foreign country, and, finally, his very own backyard.

Seemed like appropriate reading material in these election obsessed days.

So how would I answer the above question having read the book?  Hmm, that is a tough one to call.  Bloom’s ideas, opinions, and feelings about the state of the world are, from my perspective, overly pessimistic and yet incredibly naive while tinged with a level of unhealthy obsession and narrow mindedness – just like BDS in the real world. And the screenplay at some point becomes almost moot except as an initial plot device.

Nevertheless, Hasak-Lowy uses this concept – a movie about killing off powerful bad guys that treats this violence as a potentially good thing – as an effective hook to pull the reader in.  The first third of the book is interesting no matter your political philosophy.  But this promising story line and Hasak-Lowy’s at times skillful writing never quite overcome the mess that is the middle of the book.

More below.

As I noted above,the initial story works.  A secular wealthy Jewish screenwriter in Hollywood is convinced the crooks and politicians who run America are destroying civilization as we know it.  Frustration with voters unwillingness/inability to do anything about it (pre-Obama) causes fantasies of a violent nature.  Once this political idea makes its way into his work world the question becomes is this a good idea and is it even possible to pull off (the screenplay not the assassinations).

Hasak-Lowy uses this idea to introduce us to Daniel Bloom and his world: the way his job gives him great satisfaction while at the same time drives him crazy and threatens the health and stability of his family; the oddballs who make up the movie making business; the political rage simmering just below the surface, etc.

The tension develops as Bloom tries to decide if working on this script will help him wrestle with his own personal demons or if it will push him over the edge; is this political engagement or madness?

But just when Hasak-Lowy has built up this tension, the story unravels.  Bloom heads to Israel in an ill-fated attempt to make sense of the mess his life has become at the suggestion of his unconventional rabbi.  It seems likely that Hasak-Lowy meant this foray as some sort of meditation on the role of violence and politics in the age of terrorism.  Bloom explores life in the foreign world of an Israel – or at least that of his Israeli guide – under siege by terrorism and seemingly unable to make peace with either the past or make sense of the future.

But the Israel interlude is, while interesting in parts, a giant distraction to my mind.  Bloom’s emotions spiral out of control with the likely help of pot and an inability to sleep.  His guide tries to help him with his screenplay but the ending is as elusive as ever.  Just as he seems to have hit bottom his wife’s car accident interrupts and he is sent rushing back home.

And once he is home we jump ahead to the physical unraveling to match his emotional state while away.  As his family and professional lives are slipping away, Bloom finally sleeps and seems on the verge of making a clean start.  The final chapters, if a bit over-wrought at times, are once again well paced and full of tension.

The problem is all of these parts don’t really cohere into something in the end.  In the first section the focus is the script idea and Bloom’s inability to keep his life in balance. Hence, the question of whether the script idea is in itself a sign of moral failure or unbalance.  While in Israel the focus slowly shifts to Bloom’s personal breakdown and the philosophical issues recede or at least become fuzzy; the script is more and more just an aspect of Bloom’s life – what he does for a living.  By the third section it is all about whether Bloom can manage to get his act together and set himself on the path of being a good father, friend, husband, etc.  The script seems almost superfluous; the book’s hook is no longer important.

In the end, I don’t think Hasak-Lowy actually had anything interesting to say about BDS or the interaction of politics and culture.  Instead, Captives is really about an obsessive screenwriter who can’t keep his career from sabotaging his life.

Hasak-Lowy is a skillful writer.  He creates some interesting characters (Bloom, Nadav the Israeli, Rabbi Brenner) and his portrayal of the way Bloom’s life comes apart is well done for the most part. The dialogue is usually crisp and often quite funny; even if not always relevant.  But the book is less than the sum of its parts.  It is too messy and too disconnected to make an impact.  There are a number of potential ideas and themes that would reward further exploration but that instead get lost. Hasak-Lowy can’t seem to stop himself from describing and exploring things that don’ help the plot or focus.

Captives might best be described as an interesting failure.  I can see what the author was trying to pull off, and can applaud his ambition, but I don’t think it worked.

Of course, as the debate surrounding BDS shows, defining failure can be a bit tricky . . .

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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