Anyone picking up Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely will wonder if, among her many talents as a writer and critic, Maazel also serves as a fortune teller. What else could explain the multitudes of eerily spot-on predictions in this melancholic tale? How, in crafting a story of espionage, religious fanaticism, and long-lost love set during the Dubya presidency, did she also manage to know that we’d be reading her book next to headlines about Korean dictators, Scientology, and labiaplasty? A novel doesn’t need to be spot-on with its cultural references, especially a novel as sharply funny or mournful as this one — but all the more credit to Maazel, then, for doing that while also delivering one of the best pieces of fiction and social satire of the year.
On the surface, Woke Up Lonely reads like a spy vs. spy thriller. Thurlow Dan is the leader of the Helix, a Scientology-like religion that promises to cure loneliness. Loneliness is much more than a momentary sensation, says Thurlow, who may be one of the mildest and most romantic cult leaders imaginable. It is the product of “an age of pandemic and paradox. [We are] more interconnected than ever and yet lonely than ever…Loneliness is changing our DNA.” Thurlow knows loneliness well: his childhood love and ex-wife, Esme, left him 10 years ago, just after giving birth to their daughter, Ida. Of course, Thurlow has no idea that Esme is still tracking him as an undercover agent. This job perfectly suites Esme’s skill set: her distrust of people, her tendency to eavesdrop and undermine, and her lack of fingerprints — and yet she longs for Thurlow, and tries to keep him safe from government inquiry. (The investigation of Thurlow stems from an ill-advised visit to North Korea, where a Helix fundraising trip looked like espionage and treason.) When Esme sends a team of bumbling government agents into Thurlow’s Cincinnati compound, she silently prays for them to botch the operation. Yet when Thurlow decides to take the agents hostage, asking to trade them for Esme and Ida, the story veers into an epic battle: not of wits, but of contradicting impulses. Who will win out — the man who wants his family back at the expense of his organization, or the woman who will stay away just so the man she loves can be safe?
As Thurlow notes, “The very thing that lets you apprehend feelings for other people also tends to keep you severed from them.” Maazel has crafted a band of super-sensitive misfits to negotiate this notion. Esme’s team of agents includes Anne-Janet (who longs for a romantic partner yet cannot escape the shame of her own body), Ned (whose recent discovery of a long-lost twin sends him reeling), Olgo (whose long-standing marriage may be challenged by his wife’s commitment to the Helix), and Bruce (an aspiring filmmaker who would rather capture other lives than his own.) Every character carries a personal burden that makes it impossible for them to do their jobs, most of all Esme. She may be cut from the same cloth as a Carrie Mathison, fiercely independent yet terrified of cutting ties completely. As she recovers from a concussion, she writes notes detailing her espionage, which Maazel lays out as though it were whispered in a confessional. Instead of seeking out Thurlow, she had “ignored the need, boxed it up, put it away, acquired new experiences to box and pile until her tower had grown nine thousand boxes high and there was no chance she could feel that first box on the bottom, right? Princess and the pea.”
Of course, all this longing can get a little sappy — and Thurlow especially can be as florid as a boy band. “I’d rather treat loneliness like the air I breathe, and breathe it with you.” But Maazel pulls away from any treacle by grounding the narrative in specific details of loss. (The framing device of the eerily prescient international threat helps as well — reminding these characters that time is short, that “all it takes is one North Korean twink with a pompadour, and wham: the day after.”) When Thurlow kisses Esme’s knuckles in her hospital room, and when Esme peels her prosthetic disguise off with her fingernails, you see just how many layers are standing between these people and their ability to have real relationships. One of the most beautiful moments comes as Anne-Janet, held hostage in the Helix compound, removes her burlap hood and gazes at Ned in longing.
She tilted her head as though they were lying next to each other and tried, just for a second, to imagine herself into the miracles she’d heard about. You wake up in the morning and someone else is there. Maybe this someone is already up and looking at you. And because you are loved, you do not have to think about the crust in your eyes…just that this person is pressing your forehead to yours and saying hello…this person who loves you has just woken you up in elegy and homage for the happiest you have ever been.
A musician friend once told me that he stayed away from dating because the music didn’t come if he didn’t need it to feel better. As I lost myself in Maazel’s gorgeous, dryly comic prose, it made me wonder about all the great love songs of the past: do we not write songs about the ones that come easy? Or do we hope that in capturing loneliness, as Maazel does so very well, we can better understand it, face it, and appreciate its possibilities?