Book review: “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David ShaferAnother day, another book review! This one’s for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, last year’s debut novel by David Shafer.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a comic adventure centered around three characters: Leila, an NGO worker who wonders if she’s wasting her life fighting through developing-world red tape to accomplish something positive; Leo, the spaced-out heir to a board game fortune whose dedication to the slacker ethos is matched only by the volume of the voices in his head; and Mark, a celebrity self-help guru who finds it more difficult than he’d expected to sell his ersatz philosophy without actually believing in it. One day Leila sees something on the border of China and Myanmar that she was not supposed to see, and catches the attention of the kind of people whose attention is hazardous to your health. Her discovery leads her into a clash between a corporate titan’s secret plan to control the world’s information and a loose network of activists bent on stopping him — a clash that she needs Leo and Mark’s help to get out of intact.

The prompt that got me to add Whiskey Tango Foxtrot to my reading list was an absolutely glowing review by Dwight Garner in the New York Times last year, which starts off by asking “[i]s it too late to nominate a candidate for novel of the summer?” and only gets more gushing from there. The book earned other raves as well, such as a slot on NPR’s “Best Books of 2014” list, so I cracked it open with high hopes.

It falls to me, then, to tell you an unpleasant truth: I have no idea how Whiskey Tango Foxtrot earned all those raves. Literally no idea. It baffles me, in the same way that I am baffled by the appeal of Aziz Ansari and Chipotle. I just cannot comprehend it.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t a bad novel, per se. I never felt the urge to put it down and walk away from it. And Shafer is clearly a talented writer; he has a gift for memorable turns of phrase, and his characters (the main characters, at least) are really well drawn. Leila especially has a three-dimensional realness to her that’s rare in comic fiction; she’s not “Action Girl” or “Magical Girlfriend” or “Hypercompetent Sidekick” or one of the other clich├ęd stock types you typically run across in this type of book. She’s an honest character, grounded in reality. I liked her a lot.

The problem with Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, though, is nearly everything else.

The book starts off with Leila in Myanmar, trying to get a shipping container full of relief supplies released from the local bureaucracy. This material is really strong; like Leila herself, it’s grounded in reality, and it’s interesting to watch her work. (This may just be a quirk of mine; I like stories that show me the ropes of a profession, especially one that’s different from my own.) Then we meet Leo and Mark, and they’re both doing recognizably real stuff as well, and those scenes work well too.

But then, after giving us all this strong, naturalistic stuff, Shafer takes the plot and stands it on its ear. Suddenly these realistic characters are entangled in a Giant Conspiracy with Secret Armies Battling in the Shadows, Etc., Etc., and — here is the killer — none of that stuff makes a damn bit of sense. Not one bit. Despite words being piled endlessly upon words to tell us about the two sides, what they want, and why they want it, it’s all more or less as vague at the end of the book as it was at the beginning.

The bad guys are led by an evil billionaire, because of course they are, and he spends the book walking around wearing an “I’M WITH EVIL” t-shirt and fearlessly withholding even the smallest bit of information that would help us understand his motivations. His nefarious plot centers around making a giant backup of all the world’s information and storing it on hard drives at the bottom of the sea (!), which he will use to take over the world by… well, that’s never explained. Yes, dear reader, it’s a completely non-ironic use of South Park’s Underpants Gnome scheme:

  1. Copy all the world’s information
  2. Profit!

Meanwhile, the good guys (whose global alliance is weirdly called “Dear Diary,” for reasons Shafer never bothers to make clear) are put forward as obviously good, because they’re against the evil billionaire. But we never really get a handle on what exactly they stand for, or how the world would be better if they were in charge than it would be if the evil billionaire was. Indeed, they came across to me as creepy in their own way.

An example. They recruit new members by giving them something called “the eye test” — a sort of burst of visual stimulus that unlocks parts of their brain that used to be closed off. If you pass the eye test, you not only get to be a member of Dear Diary, but you also get heightened senses, a sense of “connectivity” (whatever that means), and the ability to perceive the unique numbers that describe your personality and the personalities of everyone you meet. Pretty cool, huh?

Sure, why not. But here’s the thing — it’s established in the course of the story that the changes the eye test makes to your brain are permanent. Once you take it, there’s no going back to the person you used to be, for good or ill. But despite this, Dear Diary runs around giving people the eye test without explaining its consequences to them. It’s just, “Hey, look at this! Oh, by the way, we just completely rewired your brain. Hope you’re OK with that.”

That’s pretty creepy, don’t you think? Shouldn’t the good guys be getting informed consent from people for that sort of thing? Isn’t it dangerously close to brainwashing to spring it on them without any warning? But never mind, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has no time to grapple with these sorts of questions.

There’s other problems too, alas. Leila and Leo fall in love, with zero motivation; it felt like it happened because it was the sort of thing that was supposed to happen in this type of story. The plot is driven by information technology, but Shafer appears not to understand how information technology actually works. But those aren’t the biggest things that turned me off about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. The biggest thing that turned me off was that it completely lacks an ending.

Yes. You read that right. You’re moving through the story, and it seems to be building to a big, climactic third act where the two sides of the secret war have their big knock-out throw-down clash, and then the book just… ends. Before we ever see any of that third act! The story just falls off a cliff.

If you read the Amazon customer reviews for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, you’ll see lots of people complaining about this. Many of them speculate that the sudden ending was Shafer setting up a cliffhanger for a future sequel to resolve. But I don’t think that’s the case, because cliffhangers don’t work that way. A cliffhanger cuts off right at the climax of the story — after the final resolution, the third act, has begun, but before it’s clear what its result will be. Stopping the story before the resolution even begins isn’t a cliffhanger, it’s just… stopping the story. Perhaps it was an artistic choice, Shafer pushing against the expectations readers bring to these sorts of stories; I dunno. All I know is it is really unsatisfying.

The sad thing is, you can see the bones of a really good book underneath Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. If Shafer had taken those three characters, and built a naturalistic, character-driven story around them instead of throwing them into a semi-coherent conspiracy story, it could have really been something. Skip the evil billionaires and the Death Star yacht and the plants that are also computers (don’t ask), and just take us for a walk with these interesting characters, you know? Let us live inside their heads for a little while. Trust yourself to tell their stories without all the conspiracy hoo-hah. That’s a book I would love to read.

Want more? Links to all Summer of Fiction book reviews can be found here.