One of the least remarked upon (and possibly least cared about) consequences of the Sept. 11 attacks is the utter disarray into which they have thrown the American novel. Used to be a literary novel was a taut, emotional family drama set in the Midwest about some sensitive kid coping with a crippling disease. Now books like that read like naive, escapist fantasies. These days it's supermarket thrillers that grapple with pressing geopolitical realities. Tom Clancy's world view has become more plausible and more relevant than Jeffrey Eugenides'.
Yes, some semisuccessful attempts have been made to accommodate the events of Sept. 11 within a conventional literary novel; Joyce Maynard's The Usual Rules and Nicholas Rinaldi's Between Two Rivers slink to mind. But there's something missing, something about the paradigm-pulverizing force of the war on terrorism that is simply not conveyable in the old forms. For a glimpse of the new word order, you could do a lot worse than pick up Lorraine Adams' endlessly fascinating, curiously disorienting debut thriller, Harbor (Knopf; 292 pages).
Harbor is set in a Boston barely recognizable to most American eyes. It is the Boston of illegal Arab immigrants, the claustrophobic demimonde of the recently arrived. Harbor follows the fortunes of Aziz, a 24-year-old Algerian who has just survived 52 days in the hold of a freighter. Speaking no English, Aziz is trapped in a shadowy half-life of dilapidated shared apartments and humiliating service-level jobs. He trusts nobody, and nobody trusts him. "It had been months," he thinks at one point, "since he had told a single human being a completely truthful sentence." His dislocation is so total, it's almost hallucinatory.
Americans who look at Aziz and his companions see only Arab solidarity, if not a terrorist cell, but the reality is far more complex and scary. Some of Aziz's friends are honest men looking for a better life, but some are con men (insurance grifters, identity thieves), and some are worse (drug dealers, terrorists). Some don't know what they are. With its international scope, its wandering point of view, its constant play of literary ambiguity and genre suspense, Harbor feels more contemporary than almost anything else out there. Sure, in an earlier era there might have been some hand wringing over a white American woman--a blond, no less--writing about the inner thoughts of Arab men. (Adams, a Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist, has covered federal counterterrorist investigations of Arab Americans.) Now we should just be grateful for Harbor. It may be an educated guess, but it's a convincing and utterly compelling one.