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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

David Shafer

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To purchase Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Title: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
Author: David Shafer
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 422 pages
Availability: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot - US
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot - UK
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : good detail-work; the big picture too messy and underdeveloped

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Entertainment Weekly B- 30/7/2014 Jeff Labrecque
The Guardian . 24/6/2015 Alfred Hickling
New Statesman . 26/8/2015 Philip Maughan
The NY Times A+ 6/8/2014 Dwight Garner
Publishers Weekly . 16/6/2014 .
The Spectator . 27/6/2015 Jeff Noon

  From the Reviews:
  • "You get the impression that Shafer loved everything about Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged except its politics; the author relies too much on giant data-dumps of plot detail that should be parceled out more elegantly, and by page 422, the story is only getting started." - Jeff Labrecque, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Shaferís prose is whip-smart, funny and informal, though occasionally prone to made-up adjectives (...) which can feel a bit lax and slapdash-y. But the narrative maintains an edge" - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "WTF works smoothly as a thriller, but its main innovations -- whale-like data centres dropped into ocean trenches, digital contact lenses and photosensitive computers indistinguishable from plants -- make it feel a tad gimmicky and old-fashioned, using last yearís language to describe a revolution in thought and practice." - Philip Maughan, New Statesman

  • "What puts this novel across isnít its lucid, post-Patriot Act thematics, however, as righteous as they are. Instead, itís that the storyteller in Mr. Shafer isnít at war with the thinker and the word man in him; heís got a sick wit and a high style. (...) Mr. Shafer gets the playfulness-to-paranoia ratio about exactly right. (...) Mr. Shafer has written a bright, brash entertainment, one that errs, when it errs at all, on the side of generosity, narrative and otherwise. It tips you, geekily and humanely, through the looking glass." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "At times convoluted but never slack, the plot thrives on a realistic approach while seamlessly switching between such locales as Myanmar, London, and Oregon." - Publishers Weekly

  • "(D)espite the titleís promise, true WTF! moments are rare. (...) That sense of individualised struggle was missing for me, and without it my identification suffered." - Jeff Noon, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Whiskey Tango Foxtrot goes down pretty easy, most of the way. Its narrative alternating between three young characters before converging, Shafer nicely captures how each of their lives -- already teetering, as adulthood hasn't quite gone the way they might have wished -- suddenly well and truly flounders. In fact, he's much better with the floundering than when the characters transition to being purpose-driven; the female lead, Leila Majnoun, an Iranian-American working for a ("bush-league") NGO, Helping Hand, is the first on a mission (when her family is drawn into some trouble she gets herself into she fixates on helping her father out of a jam), and becomes too defined by that; the two males, former Harvard classmates and friends Leo Crane and Mark Deveraux, are left bumbling about much longer, in the far more convincing (though admittedly at times also enervating -- get it together already, guys ...) parts of the novel.
       Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a novel of great ambition -- ultimately way, way too much ambition -- but excels at the level of personal detail and action (at the level of world-encompassing conspiracies -- yes, there's that too -- ... not so much). The novel begins with Leila in Burma (Myanmar), where she's struggling as her NGO's representative, dealing with the local bureaucracy in trying to get some supplies through customs and generally accomplish something, anything. On a trip out of town she comes across something she shouldn't have; she's not even sure what it is, but it is suspicious, "in the middle of the forest, where there aren't even supposed to be any roads" -- maybe some sort of "new or high-value facility", with tech-support guys being flown in with bodyguards. Looking for information and help, Leila shares her information per e-mail with anyone she can think might be of help.
       She's stumbled into something big -- and those trying to protect the asset and the information know it (because they've got their eyes, ears -- and electronic-data-collection capabilities -- pretty much everywhere). They easily undermine any possibility of her continuing to work in Burma -- and then, less understandably, go overkill with their reaction, landing her father in the sort of trouble that ensures she'll do pretty much anything to prove he was set up.
       Leo is introduced as a child-care worker in Portland, Oregon -- one of the best chapters in the book, as Shafer riffs beautifully on Leo's life and activities there. His family is reasonably well-off, but Leo is the somewhat wayward son, never having really gotten a foothold in the adult world. He opened a bookstore after college, but that went bust, and he's continued to drift -- the drug use probably not helping. The day-care gig seems to be a perfect fit for him, but his new boss sees it otherwise, and soon Leo is even more adrift than usual.
       Former close friend Mark has been successful -- though he feels like a bit of a fraud. Parlaying an online essay, 'Motivation in an Unjust World' into a bestselling motivational/self-help book, Bringing the Inside Out, and the sort of attention that came with that, Mark has been flying rather high (yes, also with the occasional help of drugs) -- but can't seem to get on with the follow-up, which is due shortly. Mark does have friends in high places -- or at least a very generous patron, the extremely successful James Straw, who finds wisdom in Mark's words and has big plans for him. Straw is the: "founder of SineCo, the digital-search-and-storage conglomerate" -- an über-Google-Facebook-Amazon that, as it turns out, has plans for world domination on pretty much every level.
       SineCo and Straw's 'New Alexandria' are only part of a huge conspiracy launched by 'the Committee', which has: "founded a secret, sovereign corporate state to achieve its ends" -- and who already:

control seventy percent of the bandwidth in Asia, all the newspapers in contentious geopolitical zones, and the major pharmaceuticals. They control Sine, Skype, Facebook, all of that. They own forests and water basins and silica mines and railroads and airports. They have shareholders in the secret services of most of the nations in the world.
       Of course, where there are such bad guys, there are also good guys, trying to take them down, and Leila and then Leo and Mark are drawn into that circle. A network, actually:
We're called Dear Diary. We do not oppose, exactly, but we're hoping to move past the nation-state thing.
       And they certainly are opposed to the Committee, and find themselves at odds and at war with them.
       Shafer has a lot of fun with some of this. Dear Diary play the spy game very well, from fake identities (Leila becomes 'Lola Montes') to all sorts of switching-out tricks, but the Committee also has many resources, and seems constantly hot on their heels. There's good techno-thriller fun along the way -- but Shafer rather overextends himself here. Really overextends himself. He pretty much lost me when they pulled out the computers that: "don't need to be plugged in, although they do need to be watered and given sunlight", as well as the concept of a "connectivity" that sort of plugs individuals into a larger consciousness ("We call it the Common Language, but no one has a clue how to use it yet, or what to do with it") ... sheesh.
       They techno-conspiracy aspect of the novel ("A secret oligarchy has rigged the system past the point of its being correctable by legal political means") is cartoonishly over the top. The stakes are almost too high -- except that the whole set-up, as Shafer sets it up (barely sketched out), is hard to take seriously. And, indeed, Shafer is much more comfortable on ground level, with his three main characters. (Only one of them is lost in his grand design: spacey man-child Leo turns out to have more to him than anyone realized, and you almost expect the halo to appear around his head by the end. On the other hand, that does lead to one of the novel's best lines (in a novel that, by the way, is full of good ones) the unlikely and yet, at that point, beautifully romantic line: "I'm your square root". But it feels a bit forced too, Shafer setting all this up for that line; the Leo in the child-care center was a much more convincing and sympathetic human figure.)
       It's striking how good much of the novel is on that ground level. Shafer has a great ear, and a really nice touch with the observations -- just slightly off-kilter. Yes, he packs it on too thick at times, entranced by his writing and forgetting about moving the plot forward -- making clear yet again how this whole conspiracy nonsense isn't really his main concern. He surprises in nice ways on the detail-level too -- there's a pony, for example: perfect.
       The writing is consistently excellent -- "the cabin was about the coolest thing ever, hand-hewn and hobbity" -- with only the occasional jarring misstep:
She read the Irish Times, because she'd never read it before and because it was one of those gigantic broadsheets you need to have upper-body strength to hold upright.
       (Why, why the hyperbole ? How gigantic can a broadsheet -- still all paper, by the way -- be ? And, disappointingly, the Irish Times isn't even a particularly outsized one.)
       So Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is, especially on the page-by-page level, very good reading. But its ambition -- and the lack of ambition with that ambition, not making nearly enough of almost any of it -- make for a read that winds up being rather unsatisfying. Shafer posits a conspiracy of incredible, world-encompassing size and scope -- and a countervailing force that has a similarly incredible reach -- but it's either silly (the Dear Diary stuff) or a big yawn (the darker Committee plans). And, for those who do care about this clash of cultures and technologies, Shafer also takes the unusual step in a techno-thriller of leaving off at an inconclusive point. (This seems fine -- the whole idea seemed so silly it's better just not to deal with what happens next -- but surely will disappoint readers hoping for a definitive outcome and some closure.)
       So Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an odd piece of work. Very good writing, very good stories (mainly on the personal level), wrapped in an underbaked comic-strip-story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 August 2014

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Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction under review

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About the Author:

       David Shafer is an American author and journalist.

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© 2014-2015 the complete review

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