"Big If" by Mark Costello

A smart new novel about the folly of second-guessing the unexpected probes the minds and lives of Secret Service agents and computer programmers.

By Laura Miller
Published June 20, 2002 10:03PM (EDT)

When conversation turns to the dismal state of contemporary literature, someone usually complains that we don't see very much fiction about work these days. That's an understandable gripe, since work is what many of us spend most of our time doing, and a lot of us, according to some sociologists, find satisfactions there that we don't get from family and friends. Mark Costello's new novel "Big If" is a thrilling corrective to fiction's phobia when it comes to the subject of gainful employment, so lamenters take note (unless you'd prefer to go on complaining, in which case, by all means, horseman, ride on!).

"Big If" takes in the lives of an assortment of characters, most of whom are part of a team of Secret Service agents assigned to protect an unnamed vice president campaigning in a presidential primary in the late '90s (any similarities to Al Gore seem to be purely incidental). They're elite members of what the team's chief of detail, Gretchen Williams, calls "the protectocracy," which makes them acolytes of former senior plans analyst Lloyd L. Felker, "veteran of Carter, veteran of Reagan, veteran of Hinckley, author of fity-seven seminal white papers known collectively ... as the Fifty-seven Certainties." Felker is the architect of a theoretical something called "the Dome ... the cities of security in which each protectee moves and never dies ... the instructors taught it as a diagram, a picture on a page, circles within circles, zones of pure control, a dot inside the circles labeled P for protectee."

Most professions have their own modest traditions -- a combination of ethical codes, trade secrets, lore of the past masters and hallowed rituals -- but the jobs that might cost you your life need something more than that; they need a mythos. Although the agents in "Big If" all know that they might be called upon to stop a would-be assassin's bullet at any time, mostly they don't dwell on it. Instead, they hew to the theories of Felker, whose "methodology, his quirk or tic of mind, was to work backwards, to counterplan, to imagine an assassin and defeat him in advance, to plug every hole, shore up every weakness, until none remained, and this was safety."

Eventually, the conundrum of anticipating every possible attack becomes too much for Felker, and he requests a transfer to regular agent detail. That's how he winds up on Gretchen's team, along with Vi Asplund, an agent in her late 20s and the closest thing "Big If" has to a main character, as well as Tashmo, a weathered but still stylin' Service veteran who goes way back with Felker in ways he'd prefer not to think about.

Vi is mourning the death of her father, Walter, an insurance claims adjuster and something of a lodestar for the novel, one of those slightly starchy midcentury New Englanders, "a solid seacoast burgher, a complicated man, a cheapskate and a brooder and a reader of the sort of books most people only read in college (Mill, Locke, Thucydides, 'Moll Flanders'), a man who laughed at jokes but rarely told them, who got his hair cut on the same day every month, who shoveled his own driveway and ironed his own shirts." A Republican, but also (as a result of an excess of intellectual and moral rigor) an adamant atheist, Walter, at his most intransigent, "sat up in his den when his family was asleep, writing on his money, striking out the GOD from IN GOD WE TRUST lest anybody think that by paying with the slogan he was buying into it."

As may already be obvious, Costello is an irresistibly quotable writer. "Big If" is studded with such fascinating nuggets as the theory of riot control -- why, for example, there's nothing scarier to the authorities than looters "in possession of excessive sporting goods" -- and the fact that "Texas would always be the Valley of the Shadows to the Service. They had come here once with a president and left eight hours later with a completely different president." Although there's a shouldering toughness to Costello's prose (his first book, writing under a pseudonym, was a crime novel), the avidity with which he plunges into his characters' lives, furiously generating details of taste, memory, observation and fleeting inclination, betrays a kind of tenderness, an insatiable appetite for their humanity. Perhaps his biggest challenge in this is Jens, Vi's brother and the husband of her girlhood friend Peta.

Jens is a computer programmer who, after bouncing around from one idealistic start-up to another (mostly AI and robotics), settles for working at BigIf, a violent multiuser computer game where he writes "monster logic" for creatures with names like Skitz the Cat and Farty Pup. Vi thinks, "there was a whiff of sellout and lost promise about [Jens]. The sad thing was he smelled it too." When the head of Creative at BigIf announces "we need more dread" and pressures Jens to finish programming a creature called Monster Todd, "a boy of fifteen, slouchy, acned, callow, carrying a backpack ... like a million kids who played the game," because "We need human monsters. People want to shoot a face," Jens, painfully aware that Walter disapproved of BigIf, reaches the limit of his capacity for compromise.

And yet, Jens is torn. He reminds himself that the game's main software shell, which he helped create, is exquisite, "eighteen million lines of beautiful cold code. It's the 'Finnegans Wake' of software." His work isn't that different from Vi's, or for that matter, Walter's; each of them is in the business of anticipating and accounting for the unaccountable -- catastrophe and human aggression, madness and bad luck. (Walter had a handbook that detailed how much his insurance company paid people for such lost items as limbs or eyesight.) At BigIf, Jens writes dense, "thought-like" trees of "IF-switches and WHILE-loops," described in a typically bravura flight of Costello prose, and guards against "the single slip in syntax, a semicolon missing from ninety million lines" that "could send the system brute computing to its crash, so power becomes doubt ... which was also thought-like."

Of course, Jens' and all similar efforts to master the unexpected are doomed, as was the particular species of certainty that presided over Walter Asplund's lost midcentury America. It's Peta, a real estate agent specializing in the high-strung second wives of new-money billionaires, who forms the nexus of confidence in the book, a woman who understands how to ride the turbulence of emotion and chance. She seems to understand instinctively what Felker learns only through hard experience at the outer edges of the Dome, "that there are no theories in the field, no zones of pure control, there is only waiting, boredom, preparation, and the crowds are always out there, a seascape of potential threats, waves in all directions, cresting and receding and re-forming somewhere else."

Our next pick: An artist in turn-of-the-century New York is commissioned to paint the portrait of a mysterious woman who no one has ever seen.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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