“Just wanting information makes you a threat.” — Daniel Larison, in Inside Out
Barry Eisler’s new novel, Inside Out, is a spy thriller that takes off from the past years’ headlines about missing CIA torture tapes. But it is something even more: it is one of the most politically astute novels of our generation. No other work of fiction has pointedly posed the alternatives for those who would seek political change in the United States in the 21st century. And what are the possibilities in a system where conspiracy is impossible because “everyone is complicit”? Political nihilism, revolutionary adventurism, martyrdom, or subornation by the Establishment.
Or is there another way out? By the end of Inside Out, the book’s main character, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) black ops specialist Ben Treven, is pondering that very question, having begun a political consciousness-raising transformation that begins when he is tasked with a mission that pits him against the CIA, dangerous contractors, an ambiguous FBI agent, a former Vice Presidential Chief of Staff (David, ahem, Ulrich), and a renegade JSOC operative in the hunt for the torture videotapes that show more than the American people think they know about the Bush/Cheney CIA torture program. The result is a rollicking fun ride that takes us from Florida tract housing to the gay party scene in Costa Rica, from Washington D.C. secret meetings to clandestine Blackwater operations.
Already, Inside Out has achieved a degree of fame for its meticulous documenting of the torture scandal, which is the skeletal outline for the book’s action and the subtext for the book’s soul. What other novel comes complete with a full bibliography? In addition, Eisler continues the sly references to bloggers that began in the preceding Ben Treven novel, Fault Line, where Ben’s JSOC boss is one Colonel Scott “Hort” Horton. (Inside Out also introduces us to a fictional Marcy Wheeler and Juan Cole, among others, who are not quite the same individuals you may be familiar with.)
It’s Hort who comes and bails out Treven early in the book, after he’s gotten into serious trouble and been thrown into a Manila jail. The conditions in the jail foreshadow what the reader will learn about the fate of the torture prisoners in U.S. secret black sites, and late in the book Treven will draw upon these memories again at a crucial moment when his own soul must find its way through a thicket of bad options. Describing the Manila jail, Eisler writes:
In his few nightmarish days within the beast, he’d already run into guys who’d been here for years — years — without being sentenced, without even a hearing. He imagined that once you passed a certain point in a system like this one, the overseers wouldn’t let you up for air even if by some amazing coincidence they became aware of your case…. After a certain time without a hearing, being innocent would probably be the worst thing that could happen to someone in a place like this. What were they going to do, admit that for three, five, seven years, they’d caged up a guy who — oops — hadn’t done anything, and never even given him a hearing? Yeah, fat chance of that.
Yet Treven isn’t a Guantanamo prisoner. He’s a JSOC specialist, a trained assassin, and he’s rescued by his boss in order to track down former JSOC operative Daniel Larison, who apparently has stolen dozens of videotapes of CIA torture, including the torture of an untold number of innocents — ghost detainees, whose very existence is a state secret. At first, Ben Treven isn’t impressed by the politics behind the scandal. He’s a man appointed to do a job.
He was accustomed to thinking in terms of who. And when. And where. And how. But why? For the second time in as many days, he reminded himself that why was someone else’s problem.
As can be expected, Treven must fight his way out of a number of scrapes, not to mention figure out if FBI agent, the beautiful Paula Lanier, is really a friend or a foe. Such ambivalence makes for a dynamite sex scene. (For a taste of the novel itself, Barry and Ballantine Books have allowed Truthout to post the book’s very interesting Prologue.)
The heart of the book remains Treven’s political education, which is also the reader’s education. Treven — and the reader — learn that the government’s torture wasn’t really for interrogation, but to manufacture a supposed link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq. There are hints of other, more dire purposes, and today, we already have evidence that one of the purposes was human experimentation. In the end, American ideals and institutions are shredded as finely as if run through an Ecologia machine (you’ll have to read the novel to get that reference).
As one character explains it to Ben:
The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers… that’s all just window dressing now, the artifacts of an ancient mythology, the vestments of a dead religion. We need something different now, something suited for the modern world.
Treven’s attempt to make sense of it all — and no spoilers here, unless you don’t mind hearing that the book’s hero does not die — is a piece of character development it’s nice to see, although Eisler doesn’t overplay it. The JSOC assassin comes to care about what’s happening, even if he doesn’t quite understand it all:
Not so long ago, he honestly wouldn’t have cared…. But now… he did want to know. He wanted to know what all these people had died for.
Character development is one of Barry Eisler’s specialties, as anyone who has followed his John Rain series knows. It’s fun to think that Ben Treven and John Rain may be hooking up in the near future. And what is one to make of the fate of Inside Out‘s antagonist, Daniel Larison? More importantly, what about the options presented to Ben Treven after he is left with the fateful knowledge of the initiated? Is this not a question for us all, as the Obama administration and Congress appear dead set upon letting the past torture scandal sink into the unexamined past, while current governmental operations of black sites, assassination, even torture, continue under the current regime?
With these questions, and more, in mind, let’s welcome the author of Inside Out, Barry Eisler, to Firedoglake.