Tuesday, November 03, 2009


Dear Mr. Unabomber by Ray Cavanaugh wasn't quite what I expected it to be, but in some ways I think that made it better.

From the publisher's website:

In the best classical tradition, this epistolary novel strives to make sense of the world in which the letter-writer finds himself, alone and misunderstood by everyone.

Whom is a young man to call upon to share his yearning for a simpler, more natural life? The narrator appeals to the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, whose deranged Santa Claus image transfixed him as a boy and whose terminal anti-tech vendetta now captivates him in these ever-more-simulated days.

Having procured the Unabomber’s inmate address from the Internet, the narrator uncaps his pen and starts writing letters. Lots of them. Letters about college that feels like glorified obedience training; about the prospect of mediocre careerism sitting on his head like an obese girlfriend; about relationships guided by fashion-magazine tips; about the conservation land where he puffed his first joint being paved over for luxury housing; about his best friend gradually opting for more cyber-chat and less real-life interaction . . .

With humor, self-deprecation, and irony that are only intensified by despair, Dear Mr. Unabomber explores the barrenness and lavish conformity running ghostlike in circles of the MySpace hell. When you have no one else to turn to, Ted Kaczynski must become your BFF.

Although each letter starts off by "talking" with Kaczynski about how he can relate to his end goal, or reminiscing about how long it's been since he--Kaczynski--has touched a bomb (fourteen years), each chapter quickly moves from there to a whole range of subjects, including imagined IM conversations between Paris Hilton and Kaczynski, musings about what night classes are the easiest, failed attempts to find someone via Match.com, the letter writer's attempts at dating, and a whole host of other wild tangents. Choosing the Unabomber because he too yearns for a simpler, easier way of life (note: he really doesn't), he relates his adventures, missteps, and frustrations, seeing in himself someone who can relate to Kaczynski... (although he has no plans to do anything quite so drastic.)

Despite my misgivings about his character--and I mean the character's character, not Cavanaugh's creation--I liked him. He pointed out flaws that are readily apparent in modern society, although he couldn't seem to spot them in himself. He's lost, confused, but so sure he's on the right path--and that he's the only person who is. How can you not enjoy a character like that?

Content aside, it's a thought-provoking book about what happens when someone who can't relate to the modern world latches on to someone else who can't--or won't--relate. I have to say that I'm not quite sure where the letter writer is going at the end of the book, having graduated college but feeling like he failed anyway; it's got one of those ambiguous endings that get me thinking.

But then I sign onto Twitter. Things always become clearer then.

Disclaimer: I had to look up "epistolary."

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