Cult Fiction

Robert Marshall

In the alternate, very recent past of Fiona Maazel’s second novel, Woke Up Lonely, Esme Haas, mistress of disguise and secret agent for the secretive “Department of the Interior,” is tasked with monitoring the Helix, a mysterious and unlikely cult. Originally formed to combat a national epidemic of loneliness and led by the lonely, well-meaning schlemiel Thurlow Dan, the Helix resembles a very popular Meetup group. One that has, however, grown wildly out of control. “Helix Houses,” whose residents may or may not be armed and dangerous (the reader never learns for sure), have sprung up throughout the land. Thurlow, whose understanding of international affairs reminds one of Dennis Rodman’s, has unwittingly been drawn into an absurd scheme involving North Korea. He’s also been involved in a failed relationship with Esme. The two share a daughter, Ida, whom he misses a lot. Esme, whose feelings about Thurlow are quite mixed, assembles an utterly inept team that she hopes will try but fail to infiltrate the Helix; they end up being taken hostage. Thurlow’s central demand for their release: to be able to see Ida. The trigger-happy Feds respond to this custody battle turned national media circus as if it were a crisis on par with 9/11. Thurlow’s inner circle, including his grumpy and self-absorbed father, desert him. Only the ambivalent Esme can save the day.

Maazel’s impulse to entertain too often inhibits our ability to empathize. But entertain she does, and does quite well. 

None of this is particularly believable, nor is it meant to be. Maazel’s is familiar Pynchon-by-way-of-Foster-Wallace terrain, full of subplots, jokes, and complex conspiracies. This style likely isn’t the best if her goal is to address the rather serious issue of loneliness. Maazel’s impulse to entertain too often inhibits our ability to empathize. But entertain she does, and does quite well. In Maazel’s frenetic counter-reality, she’s at her best on the level of the sentence, often even of the verb, as when she writes that Ida stands with “one bare foot flamingoed to her calf …” Later we glimpse the Ohio River “molared with ice …” Thurlow, in a lengthy video in which he tries to explain himself to Ida, describes how he was once “wallflowered while a couple made out next to me.”

Though in her sentences Maazel slices away at clichés, her scrutiny of the subject through which she chooses to explore the loneliness issue is nowhere near as incisive: she just doesn’t know much about cults. Especially their leaders. Unlike the poorly organized Helix, real-world cults are highly authoritarian in structure, attempting to control even the most minute aspects of their followers’ lives; Thurlow Dan is at the mercy of events. Cult leaders are brilliant seducers; Thurlow’s a flop on this front. Do such lapses matter in a deliberately antirealist novel? I think so. Even a fun-house mirror reflects the world: Vonnegut knew his World War II; Foster Wallace his tennis. This leads, at times, to a narrative muddle that Maazel’s brilliant sentences don’t entirely cover.

A Unification Church–organized mass wedding at Sun Moon University in Asan, South Korea, in 2009. Flickr / Jedimentat44

But there’s a bigger problem. To depict a cult as a mass movement arising from the bottom up, trapping a hapless leader such as Thurlow Dan, is not just implausible; it’s as disturbing as suggesting that Kim Jong-un is somehow at the mercy of the North Korean people. Am I just being a drag, not getting the joke? Maybe. But it’s likely that at least two million people in the United States are currently involved in these destructive, largely invisible groups. Unfortunately, Maazel is far from alone in not grasping the reality underlying the sensational stories that sometimes make the news. The bizarre surface aspects of cults—Scientology’s billion-year contracts, the Unification Church’s mass marriages, Heaven’s Gate’s attempted rendezvous with the Hale-Bopp comet via collective suicide—may frighten and entertain us. But unfortunately, they also distract from our understanding (and depiction) of how these groups really work. A few basics anyone addressing the topic should know: cults promise freedom and take it away. No one joins knowing that’s what he or she is doing; cults deliberately deceive recruits about their true nature. Whatever the individual self may be, it threatens the leader and needs to be destroyed. Maazel, in her novel’s North Korean subplot, knows she’s dealing with serious stuff. Her research shows, the absurdity is tempered, and some of the best writing results. I wish she’d known enough to be equally conscientious in writing about cults.