In if we trust

Security is an impossible dream. We are all immersed in dread and, in the end, after doing our best, we die like salmon.

Mark Costello’s Big If is a troubling book in many ways. It’s thematically dark, although quite funny, and complex on a nuts-and-bolts-craft level. Readers who need a straightforward narrative story line will have difficulty with the novel. Readers who demand a happy, tight ending may also be unsatisfied. On the other hand, readers who like intricate tales, or those who think the novel is an art form, above and beyond written entertainment, are going to find a lot to enjoy. Big If is like one of those 3-D posters—either you see a bunch of little images or you see the dolphin leaping out of the frame.

There is no hero in this novel, at least not by the usual criteria. Vi Asplund, a Secret Service agent, comes closest to filling the role. The relationships within and among three main families—the Asplunds; the Secret Service agents protecting the vice president, who is campaigning to be president; and the BigIf, a violent, multi-user Internet game corporation (think EverQuest)—set the story line. Jens Asplund is a programmer at BigIf.

Frankly, drawing a Venn diagram of the relationships between the various characters would produce something that looks like the petals on a chrysanthemum.

A story synopsis imposes a somewhat misleading order on the book, but for purposes of illustration, here it is: Vi and Jens Asplund grew up in the New Hampshire town of Center Effing, children of an insurance claims adjuster, Walter Asplund. Walter, a moral atheist, dies, which is the novel’s leaping-off point. Vi and Jens must come to terms with their father’s death and their own lives. Each of the supporting characters has a relationship with Vi or Jens. Peta Boyle-Asplund is Jens’ wife, a real estate broker. Gretchen Williams is Vi’s boss. Tashmo is Vi’s associate, an aging serial philanderer. Lloyd Felker is another associate of Vi’s, a brilliant personal-protection strategist, going slowly insane.

There are many more secondary characters and subplots that make up the strands to this Celtic knot of a story. Many of these subplots are on one level distracting, but on another, enhance the story’s tension.

And tension is what Big If is all about. The suspense begins to build in the opening chapter, as Costello shades in Walter Asplund’s character. Walter idiosyncratically scribbles through the “God” from “In God We Trust” on paper money. He replaces the “God” with “Us,” so that people won’t think he buys into the slogan or the religion. When a novel begins with an affirmation of trust in mankind, the reader can assume that trust will eventually turn out to be misplaced.

Each character is moving toward something. It is apparent that there is going to be a date with destiny for the presidential candidate, and Vi is brought along for the ride. Jens is at a crisis point as well—he has to get over his disillusionment at work and accept that he is either to do what he’s paid to do and accept mediocrity, or move on. It’s a testament to Costello’s storytelling ability that we care about all these characters and sympathize with their issues. The only (intentionally) undeveloped and therefore unsympathetic character is the vice president.

Costello is an extremely talented novelist. He has an acute eye for telling detail, and he can journalistically summarize a scene or character in very few words. Big If is a great second novel (his first, Bag Men, was written under the name John Flood). It’s a wonderful, rich story about the dignity of humanity and our pursuit of the elusive dreams of safety and security.