Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran SEP 08, 2002)Jonathan Franzen, the 21st century's poster boy for drama and dysfunction, especially since Franzen gives him a ringing endorsement on the back cover. But now that I've had more time to reflect on it, Big If doesn't seem too much like either of these categories. It's a very original and inventive work, and in more than one sense, a world, unto itself.
That world is populated with a bevy of interesting characters. The novel centers on Vi Asplund, a Secret Service Agent with the Vice-President's detail. The VP is running for president and accordingly, spends a good deal of time in New Hampshire, Vi's home state. From a town called Center Effing, a name that I'm sure is some sort of commentary on mainstream American culture, Vi is only one of a host of unusual, but well-drawn characters.
Costello gives brilliant, in-depth, and often humorous insight into such people as Vi's father Walter, Center Effing's most famous atheist. Walter, an insurance adjuster by trade, spends his off-duty hours altering dollar bills to read "In Us We Trust." Vi's brother Jens also plays a prominent role. Jens is the code-writing whiz behind the deep-immersion Internet game known as Big If. Jen's wife, Peta, is a crack realtor who specializes in shepherding "Mrs-illionaires" through the home buying process. Vi's Secret Service colleagues also are woven into the story. There's Gretchen, the single-mom lead agent who seems to be in a continual bad mood. There's also Tashmo, an aging Lothario given to reliving his glory days on the Reagan team. Not exactly the ideal father, "Tashmo thought the best way to watch a child grow was to see the kid something like once a month. That way you really noticed the progress. Tashmo did not share this insight with his wife." Costello provides a meticulously researched picture of life as a Secret Service agent. Each agent must block out any gleam of a personal life in order to enact "The Dome," their term for complete and total protection. Trust me, you'll never look at news footage of the president walking a ropeline the same way again.
While it may seem unusual in a review to spend this much time dissecting the characters, you have to understand that this "background" information on the characters makes up the bulk of the novel. It doesn't have a plot per-se; it is more a collection of character studies linked by a thread of an idea. The sooner you realize this, the more enjoyable the novel will be. I spent almost two-thirds of the book waiting for something to happen, finally around page 280; I gave in to the idea that nothing was really going to happen. Well, something does happen at the end, but at that point it seems almost incidental. The whole novel resembles Jens' Big If game where subscribers pay to move an animated figure across the post-apocalyptic West in hopes of reaching Los Angeles. Costello also must have thoroughly researched the world of online games as he spends several pages describing the code-writing process. I must confess to a bit of the MEGO (My Eyes Glazed Over) effect here since the last computer game I played was Pong. Both Jens' and Vi's jobs force them into micro-minutiae. Vi must analyze every street and tree, almost every step along the Vice-President's jogging path. Jens' latest contribution to the computer world is to have written the code for the shadow of some smoke coming from a crater. Neither Jens nor Vi copes well with life in the macrocosm.
The best part of Big If is that Costello convinces us his characters are real. They aren't heroes, they aren't zany computer nerds, they are real people, with hopes and aspirations and major-league shortcomings. Since the novel's goal seemed to put characters first and plot second, well maybe even third or fourth, I'd say Big If is a rousing success.
- Amazon readers rating: from 30 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
Co-written with David Foster Wallace:
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- BookMunch interview with Mark Costello
- Norton page on Bag Men
- BookMunch review of Bag Men
- Read an excerpt of Big If at Norton
- ABA article on Big If and Mark Costello
- Salon.com review of Big If
- Boston.com review of Big If
- ReviewOfBooks.com collection of reviews for Big If
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About the Author:
Mark Costello was born and raised near Boston. He made his fiction debut six years ago as "John Flood" the pseudonymous author of Bag Men, a book the San Francisco Chronicle called "exhilarating," and Scott Turow said was "pure pleasure." At the time he was pursuing a career as a federal prosecutor in New Jersey and thought that it would not be appropriate to publish this tough view of prosecutors and police under his own name. Costello now teaches at Fordham and lives in New York.
Big If was a finalist for the prestigious 2002 National Book Awards.
Note: This Mark Costello is not the same as the short story writer.