Published May 1, 2008
Reviewed November 10, 2008
An interesting paradox of modern media is that while there is a glut of information from podcasts, blogs and news networks, it always seems to be the little ideas that cultivate the highest interest. It’s a concept seen in elections where one quote or recording dominates the news cycle for at least three days, or when one video released on YouTube can build thousands of viewers just by word of mouth.
And of course, the problem with so many of these ideas is that most of them are ones that people are better off not paying any attention to, either founded on false pretense or being simply idiotic. Christopher Buckley explored this idea in “Boomsday” where a blogger suggests exterminating the baby boomers to save the government funds, and Ellen Hawley has now explored it in her novel “Open Line,” an intriguing yet unsatisfying look at saying the wrong thing at the right time.
Trapped in the echo chamber that is late-night Midwest talk radio, Annette Majoris finally succumbs to her boredom and off-handedly suggests to a caller that the Vietnam War never actually happened. As the topic begins to generate calls from veterans and conspiracy nuts, it also attracts the attention of the equally disaffected Stan Marlin, who quickly sees that her theory can be a unifying issue for his conservative political group.
Soon, thanks to Stan’s research and a rapidly growing listener base, Annette finds herself turning into a star. She begins dating the wealthy Republican lobbyist Walter Bishop, engages in serious talks with the governor about putting her listeners on his side and finds her show pulling in listeners on all ends of the political spectrum. As her fame grows, so does the level of protest and her own ambitions, everyone forgetting that it’s built around a train of thought alone.
It’s a compelling idea, both in concept and in the paranoia it suggests, but it quickly gets quashed under the foibles of its cast. Bishop has an odd fascination with puzzle toys, Stan’s thought process periodically centers on popping open the buttons on Annette’s blazer and Annette remains fixated on New York like some sort of promised land. They’re more realistic than Buckley’s unsubtle cast, but there’s nothing to make them endearing or even likeable – in fact, “creepy” is the most appropriate word.
A great deal of this is credited to the fact that the book focuses more on the reaction to Annette’s idea than the idea itself, and as a result the characters and the plot feel shallow. The back cover implies that there may be some truth in it but the shadow government idea never even begins to materialize, and it’s never answered whether or not it exists beyond bored people looking to march behind any issue. Other side plots, such as a power play between Stan and a zealot member of his group, are pushed under the rug in favor of Annette’s accelerated growth.
Though the base of “Open Line” is unsteady, it does have some strong supporting elements. Hawley, who used to work for a Minnesota radio station herself, makes Annette’s broadcasts realistic down to the assertive clip of her voice and the calculations inside her head to avoid dead time. Several passages are well-crafted, particularly one instance in the upward phase of Annette’s fame where she feels trapped in a hotel stairway despite no real evidence that anyone is after her.
When exploring paranoia or showing the growth of popular opinion, “Open Line” does provide a bleak satire of how the media can make a great deal from almost nothing. However, like most mass media, when it comes to digging deeper or creating people of any substance, the book just tends to make a reader feel uncomfortable.