In 2008, the Seattle International Film Festival hosted the film Battle in Seattle as its opening night gala presentation. Battle, a fictionalized account of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, had the pedigree of a successful film: it starred Charlize Theron, Outkast’s Andre 3000, Woody Harrelson, Ray Liotta, and Channing Tatum, and it was scored by Massive Attack. At the opening night screening, the room clearly wanted to be on the film's side; Seattle desperately loves to see itself legitimized through adaptation, even if nine times out of ten it’s portrayed onscreen by Vancouver. But by the end of that screening, almost everyone in attendance was cringing; even a friendly Seattle crowd couldn’t find anything to love in the film.
Battle was amateurish and earnest with its interpersonal drama — more soap opera than documentary — and outright bad at contextualizing the WTO protests in the greater scope of history. You would not know from watching the film that this was the birth of the modern anti-corporate unrest that inspired the Occupy movement and continues today. And the elements that were supposed to be based in fact seemed awkward and ill-researched — particularly the portrayal of then-Governor Gary Locke's Chinese accent, which was more than a little insulting considering the fact that Locke has spoken perfect, unaccented English since he was five years old.
It’s unclear exactly why it’s so hard to capture the WTO in fiction besides the very basic logistical issues of trying to pull a single cohesive narrative from a city made alive by the actions of thousands of protesters and police officers, each trying to outwit each other. Perhaps the particulars of a trade agreement aren’t the most compelling motivations, empathy-wise, to win an audience’s affection. Maybe WTO has already been eclipsed by other left-wing protests like the Occupy movement. Or maybe the solution is as basic as the fact that the story just hasn’t met the right storyteller yet.
Sunil Yapa’s new novel Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist seems like a promising attempt to capture the WTO protests: a debut novel from a worldly young writer who studied economic geography in college. It’s an ensemble piece that follows several characters — protesters, the police chief, a representative from Sri Lanka preparing to make a presentation, an apathetic drug dealer — through the chaos surrounding the conference. It sounds like it really ought to work. And yet.
Well. It’s a little overwritten, isn’t it? Heart is a book that is in love with its own adjectives, its florid descriptions, its stagy sequences. At one point, Charley Wickramsinghe, the deputy minister of finance and planning for Sri Lanka, finds himself on a plane next to a famous actress — we can tell she’s a famous actress because she is in the celebrity magazine that Charley is reading even as he sits next to her. Eventually, they talk about Sri Lanka and she surprises him by being knowledgeable about the world:
“I know you probably think I’m just another self-absorbed celebrity. But I’m not. I’m a human being. I have thoughts. I have feelings just like anybody else. I know what the world is.”…
…”Charley,” she said, “2.9 billion people are going to make less than two dollars today. Do you know how much I made for my last movie?”
He held her gaze, her eyes two impossibly blue bowls of ice above the embroidered rim of the blanket.
”Millions, Charley, millions and millions of dollars. And today twenty-two thousand children will die from things as stupid as malaria, and starvation and whooping cough.”
The actress who loudly proclaims she’s not one of those actresses is one of those constructions that only happens in movies. But perhaps it could work in this context, if Yapa could only stop objectifying her for a moment. It’s possible that Yapa was trying to make Charley’s lust for the actress into a comedic point — here she is telling him exactly what’s wrong with the world and he can’t look beyond her glowing skin and smooth belly — except Yapa, too, is hard at work extolling the beauty of those bowl-of-ice eyes. It’s a cliche of a scene that contains a pair of cliched characters discussing issues of global importance, which in turn makes the subject of the conversation feel like a cliche.
The above scene is not an aberration; Heart pushes pathos against bathos again and again. Seattle Police Chief Bishop’s 16 year-old son, Vic, ran away from home years before the events of Heart. Somehow Bishop never reported his son missing, and nobody noticed that the police chief’s teenage son had disappeared. And Bishop only heard from Vic in the most dramatic fashion possible:
Postcards. For three fucking years. The last one had featured a black man without a shirt sitting cross-legged in an intersection. A black man skinnier than any man Bishop had ever seen. A postcard of a black man on a hunger strike, his ribs protruding, his chest so narrow it was nearly concave. His skin dusty from the street, his face gaunt. Straw somehow caught up in his hair. He was a portrait of cheekbone and eye socket and dirty beard, his eyes two brilliantly bright watch dials marking the time. On the back Vic had written: Dad, does this man love the world?
And he had wanted to say, son, stop caring about people you don’t know and have never met. Just stop caring. It hurts too much. For five years his son had been gone and nothing more than postcards. It made Bishop, frankly, want to strangle the kid. Where had he gotten a postcard of a hunger strike anyway? Who made something like that?
It should not surprise you to know that Vic is at the WTO protests, and that father and son are on opposing sides of the battle. This conflict plays out in the most obvious way possible.
It’s a little strange, too, that Yapa chose to make his Bishop character Seattle’s Chief of Police in his novel when the real Chief during the WTO protests — Norm Stamper — was such an important figure. Stamper’s admission, years later, that the SPD’s tactics during the WTO were overly aggressive marked a significant victory for the protesters. By wiping Stamper out of history and replacing him with Bishop, Yapa is excising an important narrative thread from the real-life event he’s trying to portray, in exchange for a little daddy-issue drama.
On the whole, Heart is a perfectly acceptable novel. Yapa’s prose is compelling. And though the connections between characters feel artificial and overly manipulative, that’s an exchange many readers would be willing to take for a lively potboiler about a city in crisis.
But in the end, Heart doesn’t do justice to the women and men who came to Seattle late in 1999 to call global attention to an issue that they believed was a matter of grave importance. The themes these characters are discussing — race, the police state, globalization — are incredibly vital, and relevant even today. But those themes also demand more of Yapa as a writer; melodrama can only contain so much importance before it bubbles over into gaudy soap operatics. If only these characters deserved the right to discuss the issues they’re discussing. If only this book were worthy of the city it tries to portray.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant