Fiona Maazel’s ambitious second novel, “Woke Up Lonely,” is largely about the kind of loneliness experienced by the sort of person so fundamentally damaged and/or unappealing that he or she cannot help but alienate almost everyone in sight. Set at the turn of the millennium, it also evokes the disaffection felt by many on the Left when George W. Bush was elected for the second time. In spite of its dour subject matter, the book is not a total downer; bountiful jokes, a strong sense of absurdism, and the manic energy of Maazel’s prose prevent it. “Woke Up Lonely” is a comic and cerebral novel about one of life’s worst feelings, and a uniformly entertaining novel at that.
At its center is one Thurlow Dan, a guru under federal suspicion for amassing a stockpile of weapons and traveling to North Korea to meet with its leader, Kim Jong-il. When the novel opens in the early 2000s, the group Thurlow founded, the Helix, is attracting acolytes in record numbers thanks to the “galvanizing and inexhaustible resource” of American loneliness spurred by the divisive political climate. Thurlow thinks of the Helix as a therapeutic movement, but some — like the US government — believe it to be a dangerous cult.
Maazel leaves most of the Helix’s history and inner workings to the imagination, teasing the reader with evocative and amusing details that satirize self-help. Thurlow’s marathon-length speeches to robust, enraptured crowds in remote warehouses provide some of the novel’s best jokes. His insights sound like a cross between pop sociology and Oprah b-roll: Americans are “crying out for each other” because they are “more interconnected than ever but lonelier than ever;” “loneliness is changing our DNA” and “making us ill.” These bromides seem to attract self-involved types who feel sad in spite of their relative comfort. “I like cheese sticks and corn in a can,” cries one, addressing her absent husband, “and when no one’s looking I wet my finger and dip it in the rainbow sprinkles at the back of the cupboard, and you love these things about me, you know me, and why can’t I be reached?” Oh, the humanity!
In addition to his followers, Thurlow Dan has an estranged ex-wife named Esmé who left him because of his infidelities. She now works as a government spy, keeping tabs on her former husband, often in elaborate disguise. A complicated plot maneuver has Esmé hiring a group of ne’er-do-wells to work for the Department of the Interior and infiltrate the Helix. In writing about these characters — a self-conscious virgin, a beleaguered suburban husband, a trust-funder who masturbates in a Star Wars costume — Maazel evinces both scorn and sympathy, demonstrating considerable gifts as a gentle ironist.
These feats amply prove Maazel to be a very interesting and promising writer with incredible energy and an amazing sense of humor — qualities also on display in her first novel, “Last Last Chance.” This is not to say “Woke Up Lonely” is a perfect book: the plot’s Byzantine twists can be wearying, at times coming across as self-consciously virtuosic, and the wordy chapter headings (“In which some women bat their eyes, others sit down and write. Guided by voices. The inconsolable child,” is one) are too precious by half. Still, Maazel has written a more-than-worthwhile novel that should appeal to readers with a high tolerance for whimsy and pyrotechnics. It’s thrilling to imagine what she might do next.