Early on in Glen Duncan’s A Day and a Night and a Day, before the proper violence has even had a chance to get rolling—before the explosions, the gunplay, the dramatic escapes; before our hero’s eye has been gouged out with the handle of a stainless-steel spoon—we witness a striking act of conceptual violence: a didactic book-burning. It is 1968, the golden year of political radicalism, and the novel’s hero, Augustus, is enjoying an idyllic retreat in upstate New York with his volatile girlfriend, Selina. She has brought along, presumably for a little light reading, one of the year’s literary sensations: John Updike’s Couples, a lushly descriptive novel about Massachusetts swingers that was so popular in its day its author (now sadly departed) made the cover of Time. It is not, it turns out, Selina’s cup of tea. She throws the book into the fire, then delivers a curt little manifesto about the moral imperative to create political art. “Two hundred thousand corpses,” she says, “and I’m reading about bourgeois bed-hopping … If we’re going to have art, let’s not have art that’s done like a hobby.” Although it’s famously dangerous to equate an author’s opinion with one of his characters’, in this case the trap is hard to avoid; Duncan, in the book’s publicity material, has issued a blustery little speech that neatly echoes Selina’s: “For better or worse the world—my world, yours, right now in 2008, is loud. Guantánamo is loud, Abu Ghraib is loud, Iraq is loud, Islamism is loud, torture is loud. There may well be a time for another novel about a disintegrating marriage in suburbia, but it isn’t now.”
The heart leaps. Indefensibly sweeping claims about the novel are one of life’s great pleasures—like hand-knitted Christmas stockings, the wisdom of small children, or injured bald eagles rescued from certain death and kept happy for decades in well-funded small-town zoos. The genre is notoriously protean, impossible to diagnose or legislate. (Should Madame Bovary have been withheld because of the loudness of the Crimean War?) Fortunately, real art always makes faces at its creator behind his back, and A Day and a Night and a Day—a meticulously artful book—defies, undermines, and complicates Duncan’s statement at every turn. It’s a political novel whose pleasures have almost nothing to do with politics; it argues, strenuously and subtly, against just the kind of cocksure certainty exhibited in Duncan’s statement. Even the book-burning scene undercuts its own didacticism by railing against Updike in quasi-Updikean prose: “She was standing on the hearth wearing only a T-shirt, her bare limbs pink from the heat … She watched the book curl as the flames caught it. Firelight picked out individual golden hairs on her mons.” (Her mons!)
A Day and a Night and a Day tells the story of Augustus Rose, a biracial American (black father, Italian mother) who, late in life, suffers a broken heart and becomes a terrorist double agent. He begins the book in a Moroccan torture cell, undergoing Bush-era enhanced interrogation techniques at the hands of a magnetic American torturer named Harper. (Duncan is a virtuoso of villains—his novel I, Lucifer is narrated, charmingly, by Satan—and Harper is irresistible, a rock star of amoral, casual cruelty fully worthy of standing alongside Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor: Imagine Dick Cheney’s terrifying grouch swagger crossed with the hippest American Studies professor in the history of grad school.) Duncan lingers, expertly, over his tortured hero’s psychology—the high-stakes calculus of accepting or declining a cigarette; the way blood “unpacks” from various parts of the body when it changes position; the sudden schizophrenia of time (“rushing, stretching, pooling, freezing”). The book’s structure ingeniously mirrors Augustus’s state of mind: “His memory’s in chaos. He knows he’s given up information but can’t remember what. Instead other bits of his past are vivid, as if his life’s been exploded and all its moments surround him in floating fragments.” The action skips, hypnotically, among three narrative levels: Augustus’s life before torture (bookish Harlem childhood, transcendent, scandalous love affair with the white Selina), life during torture (Harper, ceiling hook, memory trances, spoon), and finally life after torture, when Augustus, crippled and traumatized, waits to die a lonely, nihilistic death on a remote Scottish island but is unexpectedly pulled back into the rush of worldly events. The three narratives wander along—a nest of flashbacks, digressions, and big thoughts—until suddenly, satisfyingly, they all climax simultaneously. Duncan has managed to pull off a difficult trick: to splice a novel of ideas and a thriller without maiming either genre.
Although A Day and a Night and a Day is inarguably about politics—you can’t turn a page without running into an aphorism on torture, terrorism, 9/11—the book’s narrative spine is as apolitical as you can get. Everything pivots on Augustus and Selina’s tumultuously earth-shattering (and solidly bourgeois) love. Terrorism is consistently imagined as an existential phenomenon rather than a political one. Augustus suggests that Westerners secretly envy terrorists’ freedom from consumerism: “The fundamentalists might be crazy but they’re not anorexics or credit card junkies. They don’t know the peculiar despair of trying to project their individuality through a personalized cell phone jacket.” Harper suggests that we secretly crave it as a cure for post-Enlightenment self-alienation: “We’ve come within a hairbreadth of losing the myth of a secular End of Days. But wait! Into the disappointment has walked apocalyptic anti-reason in the shape of a medievally misogynistic death cult that simply doesn’t want anything from us other than our destruction. Our thanatotic glands are juicing.” Middle Eastern poverty and political subjugation never really come up. Augustus’s two years in terrorism—during which he righteously infiltrates an Islamic cell in order to avenge his lost love—are referred to only in passing. Sex with Selina (and the arguments, and the estrangement, and the reunion) takes up much of the book. Perhaps we’re not as far from a novel about disintegrating suburban marriage as Duncan would like to think.