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Codrescu novel satirizes our communications glut

When Andrei Codrescu looks at modern America, he feels overwhelmed. So much material, so little time. What's a Romanian immigrant bent on social satire to do?

"Things are so goofy sometimes I have to give myself hickeys to keep from bursting out laughing," Mr. Codrescu writes in a recent interview conducted by e-mail, the most obvious, and pervasive, technological opiate now enveloping the masses. "Having a President who talks to God, an Attorney General who speaks in tongues and covers up the breasts of statues in the halls of Justice, a nation traumatized by a televised nipple, you name it, we live in a Golden Age."

It's this Golden Age that Mr. Codrescu, the cantankerous and cryptic National Public Radio commentator and poet, tackles in his new novel, Wakefield. The book includes thinly veiled references to his beloved adopted hometown of New Orleans, as well as a comic but sobering perspective on the droning buzz of a society that feeds on instant -- and constant -- communication.

The title character is a wayward success: He travels the country delivering high-priced motivational lectures known for stirring doubt and anxiety rather than faith and optimism.

Wakefield is a contemporary echo of a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story written in 1835, bearing the same title. In Codrescu's novel, Wakefield suffers in fin-de-siecle America, and is sent on a surreal cross-country odyssey courtesy of a deal with the Devil. Satan comes calling one day at Wakefield's book-filled apartment and tells him his life is at a good stopping point.

"You're a failure," he says. "Time to die."

Wakefield isn't thrilled by these unexpected plans. Being a well-read man, he begins bartering with Beelzebub. When the devil turns down his soul, an altogether different bargain is struck: Wakefield must find an undefined thing that proves his successful search for an authentic life, not the somnolent downloaded existence he's stumbling through when Satan steps in. He has one year to tap into a life of meaning.

Codrescu gets the set-up out of the way early on. With the foundation for skewering everyone from lesbian supermodels to paranoid dot-com slackers in place, Wakefield begins rushing through the American zeitgeist with headlong fury. He clambers onto planes stuffed with Super-Sized couch potatoes, disgusted by the "surf of fat beating against the tender shores of his body."

He sleeps with attractive women who ask for little in return, certainly not commitment. He delivers top-of-mind lectures. Somehow, they work. The Devil pops in and out, alternately thrilled or disgusted, depending on his victim's lack of progress or occasional profundity. El Diablo can't stick around for long, though; after all, he's enduring existential pangs of his own.

Hell, it seems, has become entangled in bureaucratic snafus. The Old Goat, much like the weak-fleshed creatures he mocks, holds no sway over cell phones, computers, cable TV and the rest of the electronic clatter cluttering up homes, cars, planes and every other place. The noise drives him crazy, his back's killing him and the cultural milieu of Satanic splendor is in a rut.

"I went from being revived at the Bolshoi to being deified by Khomeini and Falwell," he tells Wakefield. "Since then it's been a mess. A bunch of religious freaks spouting tacky rhetoric, demanding apocalypse-size work. I don't want to play World Ender for these lunatics."

Being from the land of Dracula, Codrescu drums up the perfect analogy for the wonky WiFi laptop era. Everyone's a vampire now, but they're not out for blood. The juice they need is for their computers, their cell phones, and the power to check e-mails and wade through endless entreaties to partake of pornography and penis enlargement. Without the gadgets, we quiver, get the shakes, wonder at the idea of quiet.

The novel suffers from a surfeit of satirical subjects, if anything. Codrescu can't help but compose little NPR-ready essays on the follies of Midwestern towns bearing names such as Typical. He can't stop himself from slipping in polemics on the global village. And he can't stop Wakefield from discovering the most disquieting notion of all in modern life: quiet itself.

Of course, peace of mind isn't won without a life-or-death struggle. In Wakefield's case, he believes solitude -- listening -- might be the answer. Problem is, he can't hear it, since he returns from his travels and encounters a neighbor obsessed with constant home restoration. Perhaps Bob Vila could offer a cameo in the Hollywood version.

As Codrescu himself points out, such struggles illustrate the tragicomic consequences of our world: We're forever plugged-in, but we're also forever hopeless. If only eBay could put quiet and introspection up for bid, we'd all have a Merry Christmas.

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