In a media universe where it is now possible to watch some flavor of Law & Order or CSI at any hour you’d like, it is de rigueur for legal thrillers to draw upon contemporary events for plots. When a legal thriller lifts plots from the headlines of the day, though, its purpose is rarely to illuminate some social woe or to propose a solution. Either the show or novel sensationalizes the material in order to attract attention, or it subordinates the material to an exposition of some dynamic internal to the legal system. Why this might be so is fairly straightforward: It’s difficult to maintain the requisite suspense or pacing if you always have to stop the narrative to do justice to the nuances of real-world phenomena, especially those with a long history.
Not coincidentally, Richard North Patterson has complained about being identified too closely as an author of legal thrillers, despite his success in the genre. His novels tend to be “about” social debates such as guns, reproductive choice, and the like. Exile, his 14th novel, is no different: it is about the Israel/Palestine question — indeed, in effect it is a brief for a two-state solution. Exile showcases Patterson’s skill in crafting legal drama, his ambition in ameliorating political injustice, and his persistence in researching contextual information. The result is a novel that’s both informative and gripping, though usually not quite at the same time. Whether it quite lives up to its ambition is another question: The resolution of the overall plot cannot quite also satisfy, even in fantasy, the larger geopolitical questions raised along the way.
The broad outlines of Exile‘s plot are simply sketched: The prime minister of Israel is assassinated by Palestinian suicide bombers while on a trip to San Francisco. David Wolfe, a Jewish-American lawyer with brilliant political prospects, is contacted by Hana Arif, a former lover from Harvard Law, when she is charged with handling the assassins. Despite the fact that it apparently terminates both his political career and his engagement to Carole Schorr, a well-connected daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Wolfe proceeds to defend Arif.
Exile‘s symbolic architecture thus couldn’t be starker: Wolfe must choose between his Jewish fiancée and his Palestinian former lover. And because Schorr is so close with her father, the Holocaust survivor, while Arif is obsessed with ensuring her daughter is able to live a free, modern life, this choice is explicitly presented as a choice between a woman who grounds her identity and hope on the past (Carole), and one who insists on the possibility of the future (Hana). Since defending Arif means repudiating his fiancée, Wolfe turns away from one vision of Jewish identity in order to create a symbolic partnership between one Jew and one Palestinian.
The novel abandons the courtroom for a long stretch in which Wolfe goes to Israel and Lebanon in order to uncover a possible conspiracy underpinning the case against his client. What’s striking about the novel is how it seems to have been written in two quite different tempos. The scenes set in San Francisco — basically, the legal and political scenes — are taut and gripping. When David goes to Israel, however, in the novel’s third section, “The Besieged,” all of that momentum leaks away. It’s not that the action stops: There are more assassinations, several apparently linked to a cover-up of the Arif plot. There is simply too much information, too many stories of misery, recrimination, and vengeance. This surfeit of well-motivated hatred amounts to Patterson’s chief insight into the conflict, and the novel clearly aims to bring up to speed an audience that may not have paid much attention to the nuances of this conflict before 9/11. However, it turns out to be pretty difficult to dramatize these nuances. On the one hand, a wealth of stories and information makes it into the novel, and David’s need to tour Jerusalem and the West Bank lets Patterson remind his audience just why people care so passionately about this stretch of land. On the other hand, though, this quickly begins to feel like a quasi-animatronic version of the region’s history. David moves from place to place, and at each stop he listens to another person or group recount their woes.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not confessing “compassion fatigue.” Instead, I think this dramatic problem points up a central weakness in the novel. Patterson in the author’s note and David in the novel alike denounce what they decry as a want of empathy: Displaced Palestinians can’t see that centuries of diasporic persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, might make Israeli Jews a little skittish about security. Meanwhile, Israeli Jews can’t see that the present means of attaining that security, not to mention the sixty years’ history of displacement, likely drive Palestinians, even potential allies, into terrorism. To bien pensant outsiders, then, the solution is obvious, if difficult: Give each side something, and move quickly to a two-state solution.
But there’s a problem, and the grand parade of misery drives it home: If each side has at least some moral claim, then they are spectacularly unlikely to be convinced by the recitation of another’s misfortune. Instead, when they hear the other’s story, they counter with their own, playing the world’s saddest game of “I can top that.” As the novel progresses, David increasingly mistrusts anyone who speaks for Israel, for the United States, or for Palestinians, and stipulates constantly the importance of his client’s interests. Indeed, from a certain point of view nothing is resolved in this novel at the political level: Collective needs or claims are explicitly not addressed, in order to allow Hana Arif’s story to reach its necessary conclusion.
In order to assess Patterson’s work, then, it might be time to give up the label of “legal thriller,” and reach back to an earlier genre: the so-called “social problem novel.” The canonical social-problem novels feature middle-class writers grappling with the traumatic changes of the industrial revolution: Hard Times, Gaskell’s Mary Barton or North and South, Brontë’s Shirley, Disraeli’s Sybil, and so forth. These novels aimed to introduce their middle-class readers to the horrors of working life, and frequently also to deprecate the factory owners for failing in their duty as Christians or Englishmen. What finally unites these novels is a weird sleight-of-hand whereby resolving a familial or a love plot is understood to represent metaphorically the author’s preferred resolution of national strife. When Charles Egremont marries Sybil Gerard at the end of Disraeli’s novel, we can feel confident that workers and aristocrats will spontaneously realize their common interests and vote Conservative.
The resemblance to Exile should be clear. Like Victorian Condition-of-England novels, Exile transparently argues for a specific political solution. Like those earlier writers, Patterson is willing to bring his narrative almost to a halt to showcase his genuinely impressive research. (How impressive? As he points out in the author’s note, he was able to meet Muhammad Abu Hamad, Jenin commander of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade — a meeting that can’t have been without risk.) And finally, like those Victorian writers, Patterson hitches his sociopolitical agenda to a crisis within a love relationship — one that in this case, as in so many Victorian versions, relies on a plot “twist” so transparent that a reasonably attentive middle-schooler might anticipate its disclosure. And like those Victorian novels, Patterson largely eschews asking his readers to bear any responsibility for the present state of affairs; indeed, characters in the novel are largely assessed by their eagerness to be like Americans. What we’re left with, then, is an exhortation to be reasonable, empathetic, and future-oriented, after 550 pages explaining that this can’t work. Empathy’s grand, but it’s hardly a political argument.