cover image Woke Up Lonely

Woke Up Lonely

Fiona Maazel. Graywolf, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-1-55597-638-5

Reviewed by Manuel Gonzales. Maazel’s sprawling and ambitious new novel (after Last Chance) follows the rise and fall of the Helix, a cult of the lonely who believe that true human connection can only arrive with full disclosure. Think Facebook and Twitter but without the pesky computers. Speed dates, rallies, and confession sessions abound, full of strangers accosting one another to divulge their deepest secrets and most closely held fears, all in the hope of stemming the overwhelming tide of loneliness that is modern existence. Shifting between Washington, D.C., and Cincinnati, Ohio, Maazel’s novel pivots off the controversial 2000 presidential election, creating a fictional United States full of people ripe to band together in an ambiguous fight against loneliness and powerlessness. In the center of it all is Thurlow Dan, estranged from his wife and daughter, who began the Helix to fight his own solitude, but who, despite his hundreds of thousands of followers, remains the loneliest man on Earth. To make matters worse, branches of the Helix want armed revolution, the U.S. government has deemed Dan and the Helix public enemy number one, and in a desperate effort to win back Esme, his ex-wife, who is a covert CIA operative, Thurlow creates a hostage situation that threatens to bring everything tumbling down around him. Through all of this, Maazel casts herself into the lives of her characters, and it’s through these interludes that the novel obtains most of its heart. Through characters like Ned, who loved his chair “as it did not love him,” and Anne-Janet, survivor of cancer and sexual assault but forever alone and pining for love, Maazel mines disparate and singular modes of loneliness. At turns satiric and heartfelt, Maazel’s novel brims with energy and life. Her wit is dark and acerbic, contrasting sharply against the over-indulgent, over-telling philosophy of the Helix. At times, however, the Helix itself, large and unwieldy and difficult to imagine, becomes an elaborate and somewhat unnecessary set piece that threatens to overshadow what’s best about the novel and Maazel’s skills as a storyteller, namely her exploration of the different shades of loneliness. As one character claims, “just because the energies of the lonely tended to mobilize in vigilant and constant pursuit of an end to loneliness, that did not make their aggregate any less lame,” so, too, can the aggregate energies of Maazel feel somewhat misdirected when the novel returns its focus to the Helix. Regardless, Maazel manages to pair absurd situations and backgrounds with real fear and desire. Maazel shines when she backgrounds the Helix and the satiric elements of her story and penetrates the inner lives of her characters—Dan, Esme, their daughter, Ida, and four bumbling government agents—whose stories are rich and compelling. In those moments—and there are many of them—when she brings forward the doubts and faults of her characters, she shows these to be no less than our own, and then shows us, too, that their moments of triumph—however minor and fleeting, and no matter the obstacles that still stand in the way—can also be ours. Agent: Stacia Decker, Donald Maass Literary Agency. (Apr.) Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Miniature Wife and Other Stories.