- Alexander Hamilton, speaking of ex-presidents
I just finished reading Empire of Lies by Andrew Klavan, and I’m still decompressing.
I have a hard time imagining how this book can ever succeed commercially. But I sure hope it does.
As the story begins, the hero/narrator, Jason Harrow, a journalist turned realtor, is sitting in the back yard of his Midwestern home, watching his children play. He’s thinking about a girl who worked at his office, who’d made a pass at him. He didn’t take her up on it, but he can’t avoid a (purely hormonal) wistful feeling. Shortly thereafter he’s joined by his wife, and it’s obvious that they have an excellent relationship. She trusts him, and he deserves her trust.
Jason is being entirely honest with the reader. And that’s sort of the point of the whole book. He’s telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, even to his cost.
From the very beginning, references and turns of phrase warn us that he’s going to go through a terrible test; that he’s going to become famous, and not necessarily in a good way.
Jason goes inside the house to answer the phone, and (as so often happens in stories of this sort) the caller is a voice from his past. It’s Lauren, the woman he lived with in another life, when he resided in Manhattan, thought he was an intellectual, and was part of a very kinky sex “scene.” Jason is a Christian today. He’s turned his back on all that.
But when he agrees to go to New York to help Lauren out with a problem with her daughter, he doesn’t tell his wife about it. He has to go anyway, because his mother recently died and he needs to empty out her house. He doesn’t plan to break his marital vows. But his motives aren’t entirely pure, and he can’t bring himself to bring it into the open.
When he sees Lauren, he’s somewhat relieved to find that she’s changed. He no longer finds her attractive. But she talks him into looking for her daughter Serena, who has disappeared.
He finds the girl, sick drunk, in a night club and takes her to his mother’s house when he finds that Lauren isn’t at home. The girl is raving, and one of the things she says is, “I didn’t know they were going to kill him.”
And that, along with a serendipitous “true crime” television report, puts Jason onto the trail of a murder that becomes a conspiracy that becomes a terrorist plot. And he, out of his concern for the girl, is drawn further and further into the puzzle.
And all the time he’s fighting with himself. He’s fighting his male nature, and the sexual temptations of a man away from home. He’s fighting to live up to his responsibilities as a man, a husband, a father, and a redeemed sinner. He’s fighting to hang onto his faith when the world makes no sense, and God begins to seem distant and cruel.
And he’s fighting, in a way, for his sanity. Because his mother was insane, and her delusion caused her to see conspiracies everywhere. Jason doesn’t think her condition was hereditary, but how can he be sure? Maybe he’s just seeing things that aren’t there.
The climax, involving a flamboyant act of terrorism, is over the top and highly cinematic (though there’s not a chance in the world this book will ever be filmed, unless something very unexpected happens suddenly to Hollywood politics). Klavan commits all the political sins in Empire of Lies. He affirms Christianity and Christian morality. He affirms western culture American exceptionalism. He affirms the traditional family, parental authority, and traditional sex roles.
And yet I can’t recommend it unconditionally to all Christian readers. There are many among us who believe that coarse language is never justified under any circumstances. Such people should stay away from Empire of Lies. Part of Klavan’s method here is to present his hero “warts and all.” That involves him being honest about his thoughts (good and bad), his fears and his motivations. Also about what is said. Including the expletives.
Frankly, I think Klavan goes a bit far in this regard. Jason, although he says he’s living as a Christian now, seems to drop bad words more often than I’ve observed in the Christian community. I think it would have been better for the character arc if he’d started out talking clean, and then gotten increasingly vulgar as the pressure rose. I suppose Klavan gains credibility with secular readers through the “honesty” of profanity, but that seems to me a sort of pandering, and this isn’t a pandering book in other respects.
There are other flaws, from a Christian perspective. At one point Jason talks about the essential differences between Christian and Islamic culture, and it seemed to me evidence that Klavan’s epistemology is weak.
But you know what? This isn’t a book of theology. It’s a novel by a relatively new Christian. And this new Christian, in writing this novel, is essentially obeying the call of Christ to “sell all you have and follow Me.”
Klavan is a bestselling author. Two of his books were turned into major films starring Clint Eastwood and Michael Douglas. He himself has recently begun writing screenplays.
That will be all over now. With Empire of Lies, he's slapped Hollywood in the face.
He’s also slapped the faces of the liberal news media and the academy, two more institutions that can make or break an author’s career.
He has dared to tell the truth about those institutions, and you can be sure the institutions won’t forget. For that alone, aside from the other virtues of the book, Klavan deserves our support.
If you can handle the language, and the intense honesty, I recommend Empire of Lies to you with the highest praise.
[Here’s a future I can imagine. I can see Empire of Lies becoming a “cult book.”
Back when I was in college, there were cult books—books that weren’t on the official syllabuses, but that students read in order to be "sophisticated" and "avant garde" and "transgressive." Books by Kerouac, and Vonnegut, and dirty books like Candy.
Empire of Lies is the ultimate transgressive novel for our time. Any student who reads it in secret will be committing an act of rebellion.
Read it yourself, if you think it’s your kind of thing. And give it to a college student.]