Children of Paranoia. By Trevor Shane. Dutton. $25.95.
Imagine if the title of Intel cofounder Andrew S. Grove’s famous business book, Only the Paranoid Survive, were actually descriptive of the world. Then imagine that not even the paranoid survive. Then you have first-time author Trevor Shane’s world. Children of Paranoia is one of the bleakest dystopian novels of recent years, so packed with violence, terror and underlying anomie that it would be genuinely upsetting if its foundational premise were not so ridiculous.
Shane’s problem is that he works so hard to stack the deck against his protagonists that, when he succeeds, there is nothing surprising about what happens to them. Upsetting, yes – he writes well and with intensity, and even though readers know that things are sure to go horribly wrong for Joseph and Maria, Shane makes the way things go wrong so distressing that readers will worry, gasp and be upset. Repeatedly.
But about that stacked deck: Shane’s idea is that there is a centuries-long war going on of which most people are unaware, but that consumes the lives, bodies and minds of those involved in it. Fair enough; readers may think of, say, long-term Mafia vendettas. Furthermore, the origins of the war are lost in history – no one is sure what either side is fighting for or about, except that one side is purely good and the other purely evil (each side thinking itself the good one, of course). Still fair enough, if a little hard to accept, especially when Shane goes out of his way to show – repeatedly – that “why” questions about the war are rarely asked, barely tolerated when asked, and apparently unanswerable by participants.
Ah, but there is more. It turns out that this war has utterly unbreakable rules – which means, readers will realize immediately, that they will be broken, with disastrous consequences. One rule is that innocent bystanders may never be killed, on pain of the hunting down of the killer by both sides in the war. Hmm…so much for any Mafia parallel. Another rule is that no one under age 18 may ever be killed – a bizarre formulation that both sides adhere to 100% of the time and that is so senseless and unbelievable that it is obviously put in place only as a major plot hook. A third rule, a corollary of the second, is that if anyone under 18 has a child, that child is turned over to the other side – to prevent either side from taking advantage of the no-killing-under-18 rule and breeding its way to superiority. All right, this is ridiculous, and the notion that the rules are never, ever, ever violated is more so. Well, actually, they are violated from time to time – Joseph tells a story of a man who inadvertently killed a civilian and survived all of six days before being tracked down and eliminated. And of course we know that Joseph himself will violate at least one of the rules, because otherwise there would be no story.
There is a story. It involves Joseph, who is nearly 26, and who for almost eight years has been a cold-blooded murderer – a conscienceless soldier in a war without meaning – falling immediately and intensely in love with Maria while he is on a job. And Maria turns out to be – to Joseph’s surprise but likely not to that of many readers – 17 years old. And although she is a college student and scarcely a virgin, she does not use birth control. And she very quickly gets pregnant. And because she is barely 17, her child and Joseph’s will be born before she is 18, thereby violating a cardinal rule of the war; and of course no one even considers abortion, which would stop the story in its tracks. Instead, Joseph and Maria immediately go on the run, even though running is utterly hopeless, and all sorts of awful things happen to them, and there you have Children of Paranoia.
All this makes the book sound worse than it is. The ridiculousness of the rules and the utter unbelievability of many of Joseph’s and Maria’s actions are actually played down by Shane – wisely so. Instead, he focuses on the couple, on the tough choices they need to make, on the peculiar and sometimes deadly interactions they have with everyone from Joseph’s mother to Joseph’s best friend from childhood. It is apparent from the start that Joseph and Maria are not going to get away; the question is how well they will fight the good fight (for each other and their child) while trying to escape the bad one (the endless and inexplicable war). Shane uses the bizarre nature of the war (which he may think of as a stand-in for all wars, but which is too strange to be thought of that way) to create some decidedly odd scenes. For instance, at one point Joseph is assigned to kill an old man from the other side; he is told to stay at a safe house, which belongs to an old man on his side; but it turns out that the two old men are friends, and Joseph’s success at his mission is fatal for the man on his side as well – which is just fine with Joseph’s boss, who says it serves the old man on Joseph’s side right for fraternizing with the enemy. Huh? Children of Paranoia is full of twists and turns like this one, and most of them are creepy. For that very reason, the book reads a lot like a movie script; it is easy to imagine it being filmed. It is certainly a fast-moving book, and certainly packed with enough adventure and violence to attract readers who love thrillers and do not care much about plot niceties. But it is not, ultimately, a very good book – its underpinnings are just too incoherent. Still, it is an exciting book, and that alone will likely garner it many readers and considerable attention.