June 7, 2012

A Brilliant Thriller From a Promising Alum

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Thriller novels, the kind you find in the “New Fiction” section in the library, are ironically not very thrilling. Through literary natural selection, target demographic customers vote with their money to demand certain things be excised or enhanced. This is not necessarily a bad thing because people get what they want and authors are rewarded for responding to such democracy, but it does give rise to a template that tempts authors into lazy writing for short-term financial gain. Cinematic-style writing. The trauma-hardened polymath male protagonist. The all-powerful, ever resourceful conspiratorial organization. The unwitting woman that the male protagonist protects and falls in love with. Fantastical technology. Two certain authors, for example, hold a virtual monopoly on the bestseller list: one began his career extensively researching to make war with the Soviets believable, but now turns to bully-pulpit mediocrity (now that the Soviets aren’t around, he’s moved on to terrorists and China). The other didn’t try at all; almost half of his 100 books are “co-written” with others, using the same elements despite different planets, societies and characters. Copy, Paste, Copy, Paste.

Such a setting makes it difficult for new writers to break into the market, let alone try to deviate from the formula. Brian Andrews ’03, with his Master’s degree from Cornell’s Johnson School, probably knew this when he started writing his debut novel The Calypso Directive. How can you make yourself stand out from the rest? Some authors have used blood and gore. Others have gravitated towards the psychological thriller. Andrews wants us to use our brains.

Using a combination of social commentary and medical information, Andrews polishes up the thriller to appeal to a traditionally skeptical audience without forgetting who his core audience is. In the novel, Vyrogen Pharmaceuticals seeks a miracle gene that, combined with gene therapy, could drastically enhance the immune system. Andrews lays down the medical groundwork behind the mechanism, from gene mutations to lymphocytes, without sounding too technical or forced. The gene also has the potential to generate millions of dollars, and Andrews explains gene patenting and the grueling process of acquiring Federal Government contracts without being too politicized or overwhelming. Referencing facts to make thrillers more plausible has been done before (think The Da Vinci Code), but so far they have often been twisted or cherry-picked to fit the plot instead of the other way around. The Calypso Directive’s plot molds around unaltered facts.

It is not hard to tell why the thriller genre has had an aversion to the latter direction: though having a plot based on untainted facts is the holy grail of the plausible thriller novel, facts are naturally antagonistic towards the adrenaline-pumping stories that help thrillers sell. No one will find sequencing a genome as exciting (unless you’re a graduate student) in the same way as a free-for-all gunfight. Artistic liberty must still be used, but used carefully. Few authors have been able to manage it because this is a difficult approach to take.

So The Calypso Directive still has those unbelievable moments. Will Foster, the only person in the world to carry the miracle gene that protects against all disease, is escaping from Vyrogen and other parties who see him as a walking gold mine. There are ruthless mercenaries who make Foster’s capture personal. The shadowy Think Tank deploys hardened agents equipped with button-size wireless microphones and robot spiders who are aided by the upper echelons of government. Foster turns to a former girlfriend microbiologist for help and the two rekindle their love as they avoid pursuit and seek answers. Fight scenes, snappy dialogue and larger-than-life characters: it’s all there.

Thankfully for the novel, Andrews balances mellow truth and sensational fiction to ensure that neither overwhelms the other, using either only when appropriate. He brings up serious issues that are often ignored without compromising the narrative’s pace. When he inserts his opinions on gene patenting, he avoids taking the lazy route of the sermon. Criticisms of gene patenting are often intertwined with a basic story of greed, but Andrews’ use of the thriller template makes his arguments resonate. Thriller novels typically have a clear good and evil side polarized to an extent found only in video games, but Andrews devotes large amounts of space to the other parties’ candid and sinister moments so that no side is completely good or bad. Greed is everywhere because it comes from everywhere. Pivotal moments in The Calypso Directive, especially the ending, use this to deliver twists. They not only move the plot along, but also make the reader self-aware of the twist that further reinforces the commentary.

The Calypso Directive drives home the point that it is not what you write about that matters, but how you write it. Mimicking whatever is currently featured at the Strand does not guarantee good writing. Working with something that literary snobs look down upon has the potential to be good. Sadly, this is problematic for the book because the marketing focuses too much on the thriller elements at the expense of the things that set the book apart. It presumes that the book is compelling because of its place in the genre, and not the book itself. One has to wonder whether Andrews was part of the marketing process at all; the title of the book is mentioned once and never again, which is odd since it is the name of the initiative that sets the book in motion in the first place.

Disregarding the disparity between the cover and the pages, The Calypso Directive shows that thrillers don’t have to be brainless and political commentary doesn’t have to be pedantic; they can co-exist peacefully and even synergize. Andrews excises the kitsch from the kitschy thriller novel without losing focus on the basic thriller elements that ground the book’s identity. Modifying an existing template is much harder than creating an entirely new one, but Andrews succeeds in introducing new elements that reinforce each other to create an informed work. Though the marketing of the book ignores these things, it’s hard to blame the book for these faults — after all, Andrews just started and he needs to sell books. Going after a pre-existing demographic makes sense. Andrews, however, is headed in a promising direction that has the potential to expand beyond. Even if you’re not into thrillers, keep him on your radar because in the future you might just pick up a book that has his name emblazoned on the cover without realizing it.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng