Cults can be cultural barometers. American cults seem to have a knack for dressing up our existential need for belonging in whatever the current cultural fashion might be. They turn strange brews of topical interest and existential dissatisfaction into movements. Take, for example, the Los Angeles hippie-collective-cum-rock-band-cum organic-vegetarian-restaurant, the Source Family, led by Father Yod (born James Edward Baker). The Manson Family tapped into a similar, albeit much more violent, counter-cultural zeitgeist. The Heaven’s Gate cult diluted itself with outlandish hopes of transcending millennial end-of-the-world dread using pseudo-astronomy.
It’s for this same reason that the Helix, the cult at the center of Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel, seems so recognizably American. Sort of a cross between a self-help seminar and Al Qaeda, the Helix is presented as a “therapeutic community” founded by Dan Thurlow ten years before the book’s 2005 setting. What began as a run-of-the-mill therapeutic movement to combat isolation has mutated beyond its creator’s control, with certain localized cells of the Helix even advocating armed insurrection against the United States government.
The cult in Woke Up Lonely combines a few traits common to American paranoid communities: local control of the Helix cells, a cult of celebrity surrounding its leader, and an irrational distrust of the Federal Government that tends towards violence. It seems that the core of this movement has inexplicably turned its attention towards arming itself against what it perceives to be an intrusive Federal government. Yet, even with its fear of the government and the background noise of second-term Bush-era politics (the PATRIOT ACT, for instance), this is not a political satire. Its political targets, if any, are too vague for it to be. Call it psychological. Even call it sociological. But it is not political. It’s far too broad in scope for that.
But as ominous as the Helix’s turn towards political violence might sound, on the whole, the members of the Helix are predominantly harmless. Thurlow founded it as a way to connect with others, cashing in on our nation’s inexhaustible supply of anomie. As he explains in the lines from which the novel gets its name, “Everywhere and all the time, people are crying out for each other. Your name. Mine. And when you look back on your life, you’ll see it’s true: woke up lonely, and the missing were on your lips.”
The Helix is an aptly named organization. The double-helix is the building block of life. It is one of the most basic pieces of physical evidence that we share a connection with each other. A helix in the singular, on the other hand, is just the description of some curved thing hanging alone in space. This lone helix is a fitting symbol for the two main characters in Woke Up Lonely, the cult founder, Thurlow, and Esme, the woman hired to investigate him.
To call Esme a loner would be an extremely misleading understatement. Employed by the government to spy on Thurlow and his organization, Esme has a complicated relationship with her quarry. She was married to him at one point, and has a daughter with him whom she ignores due to the demands of her job: stalking her daughter’s father. With his high security and extensive traveling, it’s no small task. In order to do this she dons a number of clever and somewhat hilarious disguises. It doesn’t hurt that Esme was born with a genetic abnormality that causes hairlessness and lack of fingerprints.
And there you have it: two main characters, each a single helix in need of the other. Esme’s life is centered on Dan Thurlow, and yet her obsessive attention is less than satisfying to her. She’s close to him, but in all the most superficial ways. They’re a family separated from each other, each isolated in their own private lives.
Woke Up Lonely begins slowly, but eventually the writing picks up speed and the book moves. Maazel has a natural and casual voice that smoothly pushes the narrative forward without ever tripping over itself or coming off forced. She conveys the kind of dark humor that gave her something of a cult following after the release of her first book, Last Last Chance. Her writing strikes a balance between cultivating the reader’s concern for her characters and pointing with cynical humor at the situations they find themselves in. There is enough of this humor to keep the novel from slipping into melodrama.
To paraphrase Paul Tillich, when we want to be alone, we call it solitude; when we don’t, we call it loneliness. The distinction between the two depends upon our intentions. It’s safe to say that we, generally speaking, are more comfortable articulating the woebegone torments of the lonely than we are learning how to cultivating ourselves in isolation. We value our romantic sense of disconnection so much that we are often unwilling to put any effort into imagining creative and fulfilling ways to be alone. Our economy, our culture even, provides a glut of ways to stay superficially connected to one another. All of those escape routes from isolation that simultaneously lead us away from intimacy.
Woke Up Lonely refers to the more extreme methods we employ to withstand isolation — joining cults or engaging in monomaniacal political crusades. Maazel’s novel is dark, funny, entertaining, clever, and moving. But as good as it is, it isn’t subversive enough to shock us out of what we think we already know about loneliness and disconnection