June 30, 2005

BOOKS: Improbable, Adam Fawer (2005)

Every now and then, a thriller comes along with a plot so loopy that you just have to give in to the wackiness and let yourself be pulled along for the ride. Earlier this year, there was Kevin Guilfoile's Cast of Shadows; now, there's Fawer's Improbable.

Our hero, David Caine, is an epileptic statistics lecturer whose gambling problem has gotten him over his head in debt to the Russian mob. In hopes of getting his seizures under control so that he may once again hold down a steady job and pay his debts, he takes an experimental drug; as a side effect, he finds that he's having visions, apparently of the future.

Meanwhile, David's schizophrenic twin brother, Jasper -- you see what I mean, right? And I haven't even gotten to Nava, the glamorous former KGB agent (now CIA, but secretly working for the North Koreans).

(And for what it's worth: Jasper? Jasper? Has any parent anywhere in the last 40 years or so actually named a child Jasper?)

It is admittedly hard to scold this book for its astounding heaps of coincidence. The book is called Improbable, after all, and when the hero is given the ability to see all possible futures and pick the one he likes best, coincidences are no longer far-fetched, they're practically obligatory. Even so, I couldn't make it through the last chapter without giggling, as every minor character in the book is revealed to be connected to every other minor character.

A somewhat more serious flaw is found in the book's frequent dumps of exposition and math lectures; we are given a lot of statistics and probability along the way. It is to Fawer's credit that he makes the material comprehensible to the non-mathematical reader, but there are a few too many passages of 3-4 pages that feel like a freshman math class.

It's a wacky mess of a book, but Fawer keeps things moving fast enough that you don't have much time to think about just how implausible it all is.

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