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The Room and the Chair by Lorraine Adams

The Room and the Chair

by Lorraine Adams

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I very much enjoyed Adams' previous novel, Harbor, a story of Algerians who stowaway on ship to the US and what becomes of them. Her latest novel brings us the story behind what could be headlines on any given day.

A pilot ejects from her F16 Viper just before it crashes in the Potomac River at night, the lights of the Watergate Hotel twinkling in the distance. The pilot is Captain Mary "Extra" Goodwin and it is her story that is the anchor line in this complex literary thriller.

The "room" of the book's title is the newsroom of a prominent D.C. newspaper, always a flurry of activity, but now scrambling to sort fact from rumor about the crash, and as fast as they can. We see how the newsroom works in fascinating detail.

The "chair" of the book's title is Will Holmes, former soldier and spook now running a secretive agency—the one responsible for the crash—which was testing a remote way to control a plane without the pilot knowing it, a way to stop suicide pilots—without Capt. Goodwin's knowledge.

The narrative moves In alternating segments between several plotlines, following numerous characters (some more prominent than others), in an elaborate, sometimes dizzying dance from D.C. to Iran and Afghanistan, as the author brings it all her pieces together. Her characters are wonderfully done, credible and fascinating each in their own way. I'm not sure I expected to be so totally mesmerized by this book, but the author carries us along, voyeurs to things usually unseen, and witnesses to the lives affected. It's hard to turn away. And yet, there were places where I got a bit lost, and there is something I can't quite identify that keeps me short of raving about the book (but please, don't let that stop you from reading it). ( )
1 vote avaland | Jan 23, 2013 |
A military pilot loses control over the Potomac and crash lands on Theodore Roosevelt Island. But was it an accident? An editor at the big Washington daily is curious and a Metro reporter eventually investigates. Meanwhile, a spooky type is feeling a little bad because the pilot is a woman and all he seems to have wanted to do was test his ability to remotely force a plane out of the sky, in case a terrorist gets a hold of it. Scene switches to Iran, where a nuclear engineer talks to his luggage, runs to a safe place, runs back, is possibly blown up in his hotel room. Back to the pilot, now out of Walter Reed and in Afghanistan, flying a nasty bomb drop and then going sledding. Tragedy happens. Back at the Post, erp, whatever it was named, a Woodward figure and a maybe Sally Quinn figure and the intrepid Metro night editor (night editors rock!) futz around, while the reporter sort of figures out the pilot crash story with the help of an underage prostitute. She also pinpoints the Important Facts buried in a Senate Intelligence Committee report that the Woodward guy may have had but was saving for his own book (okay that part rings true) and the sort-of Sally person had but was too wrapped up in her own drama to deal with it in a timely fashion. No matter. With the truth staring them in the collective eyeball, the AMEs still aren't buying the reporter's story, for vague reasons having nothing obvious to do with dead-trees and digital platforms.

Most of this isn't believable (really, would a Metro reporter drive out to NoVa and not first get her road directions straight?), although the adventures of Mary the Downed Pilot did keep me reading, even past the chapter with the nuke engineer, in which the fact that this is a Literary Novel was jammed down the reader's esophagus. ("During their one meeting...on a blasting cold sun of a morning, nothing moved Will's digit of a face." And, "Hoseyn couldn't summon his own phone number to mind. It felt as if he had a dowel in his cortex." And, "There was a knock at the door. It was a columnar noise.")

Ex-Postie Lorraine Adams might be trying to skewer people and things that deserve skewering, but to paraphrase a line from her effort: "[She] could have parachuted into the field of potatoes when it was in the onions where [she'd] been supposed to land." ( )
  wortklauberlein | Jul 17, 2010 |
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Though Adams’ work as a reporter supplies the book with a riveting authenticity, it’s the style of her prose that elevates this from a spy novel to a truly striking work. She plays with rhythm like a poet, moving from staccato to slowness as needed.
Adams can’t seem to decide what she wants “The Room and the Chair” to be — a corporate drama about the newspaper business? A John le Carré-esque spy novel? A story about flyboys on the front lines of the war on terror? It’s a wild and often fascinating ride, but like Mary Goodwin on her disastrous sledding adventure, I was left confused and disappointed, out in the cold.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0307272419, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2010: Lorraine Adams's second novel, The Room and the Chair, has the raw materials of the sort of political thriller that has a target superimposed over the Capitol on the cover: a fighter pilot downed over the Potomac as part of a deniable covert program and a nuclear spy trying to get out of Iran, while star journalists and rookie reporters try to connect the dots. But in Adams's hands, the materials stay raw: she scrapes away the outer skin of her characters to bare their complex and contradictory motivations. (Imagine Mary Gaitskill writing a novelization of Syriana.) Adams, a former Pulitzer-winning reporter at the Washington Post whose first novel was the mesmerizing Harbor, writes about her old newspaper (or one that looks a lot like it) with acid affection, and about the capital with high style: "Washington was as louche as any city; it just hid from itself until the heat set it free. Those who made the city's daily bread--accusation--slowed in high temperatures." Adams is an elliptical storyteller, and she doesn't supply some of the satisfactions you expect from such a plot, but the satisfactions she does provide--of character deeply understood, of consequences met or avoided--are intense, surprising, and rare. --Tom Nissley

A Q&A with Lorraine Adams

Question: How did your time as a newspaper reporter inspire The Room and the Chair?

Lorraine Adams: I mostly felt like the tenderfoot in a gang of the self-satisfied during my newspaper days. But I got cynical in one way. I saw over and over that the more important something is, the more difficult it is to ascertain and convince not just editors, but a certain Greek chorus of the thinking public, to want to know it. It was often amusing during the 1980s and 1990s, but entirely less so in the last ten years, a decade of warfare. As everyone knows, our wars now rarely take place on a battlefield, but in an international every-space formerly reserved for domesticity. We fight house-to-house, jet-to-house, on buses or trains, down a residential street where people are going about their hapless, hopeful existences. Everyone is something of a warrior and yet no one knows enough about why we fight or where we should fight.

Question: You’ve said that the story that Vera Hastings is writing is an example of the fact that sometimes the best stories never make it into print. Why? Did this ever happen to you when reporting?

Lorraine Adams: Editors think all the best stories get into print. Reporters think not enough of them do. It seems to me that the idea of what constitutes a good story is undergoing tremendous pressure and yet not changing very much for all that pressure. One of the reasons is that newspapers are run by a coterie of people who have the most noble intentions but never seem to get around to innovating. They remind me of Detroit automakers. They have yet to move outside the dozen or so types of stories that in their eyes constitute the "best" stories. Regular human beings not in the coterie recognize that the complicated and contrary world they live in cannot be shoehorned into these types of stories: "Top dog gets his comeuppance," "Little dog prevails against all odds," "Agency fails to connect dots," etc. In a culture where technological innovation proceeds at hyper-speed, breakthroughs in storytelling have been almost non-existent since the 1960s era of New Journalism.

Question: "The Room" is the newsroom, a place you know well from working at the Washington Post for over a decade. "The Chair" is within the military intelligence community. How did you gain so much knowledge about this intelligence community? And why did you link these two worlds--including in the very title of the novel--together?

Lorraine Adams: After my first novel was published in late 2004, I was still in touch with some of the suspected terrorists, and one convicted terrorist, who I had met when researching that novel. As it happened, someone in the military intelligence community appeared one night at a friend’s dinner party. He was curious about some of the people I knew. I was curious about the work he and people like him were doing. I spent years getting to know him and his work and at a certain point he introduced me to someone who, prior to his retirement, had been in charge of special access operational intelligence activities (in common parlance, "black ops") outside the CIA’s purview.

As I said above, I’ve been obsessed with recent changes in warfare and journalism. I knew the newsroom. This man was a window into today’s strange new combat. It gave me a chance to show how two powerful classes in Washington--the writing class and the warrior class--create what we think of as reality. It helped me understand how that "reality" sifts down into the lives of a few individuals.

Question: The events that drive The Room and the Chair forward never actually happened--it is, after all, a novel. But you’ve said that you couldn’t write about this if it wasn’t within the parameters of the novel--or if you were still a reporter for a newspaper. Why? Is there real news in the book?

Lorraine Adams: This individual who opened up the military intelligence world to me never would have spoken to me if I had been a working journalist. Talking to a journalist was outside his experience and taboo for someone like him.

While all the events and characters in the book are fictitious, some of the information about the way military intelligence operates is based on what I learned in my research.. As I was learning about this world, I was surprised what I discovered and that many things were actual and I’d never read about them anywhere.

Question: In the novel, newspapers and other media outlets seem unable to get to--or disseminate--the truth, perhaps especially about military and intelligence stories. Why? What do you think about the way the traditional media covers the military?

Lorraine Adams: The intelligence community worldwide works hard to stay secret. Every so often great reporters like Dana Priest at the Washington Post manage to find out some of the secrets. The rest of it remains unknown. Whether that’s good or bad turns into pretty predictable polemics that as a novelist I’m much less drawn to than questions about how it affects our humanity, and how an individual in that unknown world goes about their daily life.

(Photo © Mary Noble Ours)

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:42 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Imagines the lives of individuals who are impacted by present-day wars, from a ridiculed newspaper editor and an overburdened nuclear engineer to a woman fighter pilot and a religiously impassioned novice reporter.

» see all 2 descriptions

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