Scott O’Connor’s Half World is based on the CIA’s clandestine operation in the 1950s known as Project MK-ULTRA, in which unwitting American and Canadian citizens were subjected to drug and mind-control experiments. It is categorised as a thriller, but it regrettably lacks thrills, and while there are some excellent descriptive and ruminative sections, the narrative is confusing and its aims unclear.
A novel relying on some understanding of real-life historical events, its most interesting aspects are the genuine issues it confronts, particularly ideas relating to government experimentation and surveillance.
Half World asks the question, how much can a person be changed by observation? And further, how much is the observer changed by the observing?
There have been many books (and films) that predicted a future surveillance state resembling the one we increasingly find ourselves in today, which have used observations of security excesses to shed light on our behaviour: Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, of course, but more acutely Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, J. G. Ballard’s Super-Cannes, Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, even Poe’s The Raven. Half World instead looks backwards in order to make sense of the now, but in doing so it mires itself in the details – in a messy melange of characters (some of whom change names more than once), timelines and places. The result is that a coherent narrative flow, and any lasting conclusions about its subject, are largely lost.
Perhaps the most interesting element explored by O’Connor is the role of photography, with several characters idolising the camera as a tool to access the past, and their own identities, as well as the present moment and those closest who share it. O’Connor labels the mechanics of photography a “magician’s secret”, and this theme deepens to conclude that the actions of a person are ultimately unfathomable.
It’s telling that the novel’s epigraph quotes John 8:32, inscribed at the entrance of CIA headquarters: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” In the half-plausible world of Half World, truth lies outside the frame, perhaps outside the sentence, frustratingly inaccessible. TW
Scribe, 432pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 14, 2014 as "Scott O’Connor, Half World". Subscribe here.