The political thriller is a traditionally conservative genre, both ideologically and structurally: it rarely, if ever, ventures into questioning the sociopolitical status quo or exploring character and plot with any other literary technique than third-person realist linear narrative couched in unseasoned meat-and-potatoes prose. All those macho guys like Jack Higgins and Robert Ludlum would never mess with anything fancy like interior monologue or liberalism. Such popular fiction is mostly on the right, presenting unproblematised goodies and baddies: the good guys on the side of God, Queen (or President) and Country, the bad guys out to destroy Everything Decent People Hold Dear, and to hell with mixed motives and complicated moral perspectives.
Well James Reich has come to the rescue for those of us who enjoy suspenseful stories where huge stakes are in play but would rather read Don Delillo’s Libra than the Jason Bourne novels (the films are far superior, by the way). Bombshell: A Novel is a countercultural feminist thriller that pitches two complicated, driven antagonists against each other in a chapter-by-chapter countdown to showdown, a nuclear climax and an atomic anatomising of our collective death-wish embodied in the risk of our addiction to nuclear power in its bellicose and peaceful modes.
Varyushka Cash is a child of the meltdown at Chernobyl, born in that dreadful conflagration and marked for life by its literal and metaphorical fallout. She plans to cause the downfall of America’s nuclear power industry by a series of terrorist attacks culminating in the destruction of the power plant at Indian Point, near New York City. Robert Dresner is the CIA operative, skilled in the totalitarian arts of rendition and summary execution, who is burdened with the task of stopping Varyushka before she sets off her fantasy Big Bang. Varyushka and Dresner are mirrors of each other, both psychopathically motivated to serve a big idea – radical feminist liberation born of violence, a beautiful New Jerusalem constructed from the imagery of the SCUM Manifesto and Riot Grrl riff-rage, in Cash’s case; American power and its metonym the Agency in Dresner’s – but diametrically opposed in terms of sensitivity (Varyushka can love, Dresner can only fuck and possess) and sympathetic potential. Such is Reich’s skill in exposing the psychology of his characters that he can convincingly make the reader side with Cash, however ambivalently, and long for the fall of Dresner. Yet both are killers, leaving behind them the corpses of innocent people caught up in their schemes; both are able and willing to take human life in a cold, rational calculation of ends and means.
This is a brilliant trick to pull off. The author leaves the reader in no doubt as to the critical moral structure of the story, which draws in the major cultural and political developments that grew out of post-Los Alamos/Hiroshima MADness, examines the reformed-radicalism situation of 90s feminists who in one way or another have made compromises with the mainstream world (Reich isn’t judgemental about this, rather showing such realities as understandable if not necessarily inevitable), which uses dreamscapes, stream-of-consciousness passages and tour de force set-pieces to create character and make the reader anxious to know what happens next. But the emotional and intellectual development of Cash and Dresner (also of the heroic but tragic figure of transgender Vietnam vet Molly and various members of the feminist gang who raised Cash from a baby) is persuasively delineated so that the reader understands there is no clear-cut good-guy/bad-guy polarity here, knows Varyushka and Dresner down to the bone, down to the molecules, knows that in some ways they are both the preordained products of their specific circumstances and of 20th century America.
I invoked Delillo earlier, and his angle on modern American history is a useful comparison. This dazzling, absorbing book is working in the same area, taking on the big movements in postwar US society and joining them up with personal destinies, finding the continuities between the two, closing the gap between mass culture and the radical margins, overhauling the great machinery of modernity in a highly personal style.
Bombshell: A Novel is published by Soft Skull Press.