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21 august 2012

Caught features Harlan Coben's typical extravagant and suspenseful plot, but is even more interesting for its surrounding fears and obsessions. It's a 2010s take on the thriller of suburban angst that Coben wrought to such a fever pitch in previous decades. To explore some of its intricacies, I'll have to "spoil" the plot a bit in what follows. But heck, I do that so much here that I ought to post a general warning: abandon all hope of being surprised by the plot of a book, ye who enter here.

The plot of Caught starts briskly but simply enough, and then snowballs downhill adding characters, crimes, and coverups till the reader bounces along madly trying to keep his balance. Coach and youth-services leader Dan Mercer is the initial first-person narrator, and it seems that he's a pedophile, about to be the title participle by crusading TV reporter Wendy Tynes. But from the very start you know that things can't be as they seem. Aside from Lolita, awfully few books give us a pedophile first-person narrator, however briefly. Once you hear from a character directly, you have some sympathies with him; you hate to believe the worst about him. And in Dan Mercer's case, it turns out you're correct.

A judge, in fact, throws out the case against Mercer, because he's been entrapped by Wendy Tynes and her news crew. But Mercer is hounded from the community, and then apparently murdered by the father of one of his victims. Is Mercer also guilty of the murder of a teenage classmate of Wendy's own vulnerable son (who'd lost his father to a drunk driver years before)? And why have all four of Mercer's Princeton roommates suffered from scandal and disgrace in their own lines of work?

And fifty other things. If there's anything to fear and loathe in the Jersey suburbs, from drunk drivers to pedophiles to preppies to rappers to hedge-fund operators, it works its way into Caught, which becomes positively a catalogue of postmodern worries. Chief among them is the Internet and its fiendish sidekick, the iPhone. Wendy Tynes becomes aware that people can put "blogs" up on the Web, which then go "viral" and bring down reputations and careers. You can sell music that way, and you can insinuate that someone's a sex criminal that way, and everybody believes every random piece of nonsense they read on a computer, so reality is eroding all around us at a terrifying rate.

Except … that's not how it works, is it? If anything, the Internet has vastly increased the average person's capacity for bullshit detection. Granted that conspiracy theories and extremely tenuous "knowledges" flourish on the Web (as they used to via ditto machines and the US Mail), it does not seem to me that people believe any random piece of crap that gets repeated a few times on a few blogs. There are bullshit artists out there, but we also have snopes and Cracked.com and Mythbusters. And "viral" Internet memes don't really work the way that Coben imagines them. Aspiring good musicians never go "viral." Star Wars Kid goes viral. And is meaningless, like most of the stuff that people pay the most attention to on line.

But the realities of the Web don't much enter into Coben's architectures of hysteria. If people aren't out there on the Internet trying to destroy you and your identity, they're corrupting your kids, embezzling your life savings, shooting you in parking lots, splashing your name on TV talk shows, hiring shyster lawyers to deflect your lawsuits and prosecutions of their misdeeds, buying beer, smoking, OMG what is the world coming to.

Yet I do like Coben's books – they are extremely diverting – and I think because of their very pulpiness, they have their finger on the pulse of some of our current obsessions and terrors. So many of us (at least, the cultural work of this novel insists) imagine a world full of anonymous and malignant Others – with all the old institutions for verifying and vetting those Others shot to hell. It's enough to make you want to pull the covers over your head – as long as there's a flashlight and a Harlan Coben novel handy.

Coben, Harlan. Caught. New York: Dutton [Penguin], 2010.