Chick, the irrepressible illegal Chinese immigrant Jonathan Raban introduced in his lovely 2003 novel, Waxwings, resurfaces in Surveillance with a spiffy new identity: Charles O, Seattle parking-lot tycoon. Set in the paranoid near future, an era of National Identity cards and preposterous Homeland Security histrionics, Raban’s sequel finds Charles fixing up an apartment building he’s acquired and wondering if one of his tenants, Lucy Bengstrom, might make a suitable bride.
In a novel filled with misapprehensions, this one takes the cake. Lucy, a harried single mom and journalist, thinks he’s a pest; her neighbor Tad, an embittered gay actor who regularly appears in government-staged terrorist scenarios, sees Charles O as ”a smarmy shyster” and begins looking into his sketchy past. After Lucy is assigned to profile a best-selling Holocaust memoirist whose account she suspects may be fabricated, she embarks on her own snooping.
Raban writes about human foibles with authentic warmth and insight. But while Waxwings felt open-ended — like the delicate characters might take flight, if only briefly — this overdetermined follow-up is so freighted with hot-button cultural issues (fraudulent life stories, stolen identities, government surveillance) his likable human creations can never quite dig out from beneath them. B