A Review of Colin Dodds's WATERSHED

There are many features of Colin Dodds’s latest novel WATERSHED that a review could focus on. The novel’s near-future United States grapples with issues that remain relevant in the present, such as the intrusion of digital technologies into human relationships or the connection between wealth and political power. Dodds’s navigation of genre could merit its own review, which might explore the novel’s combination of spy-style duplicity with dashes of humor and forms of bodily maintenance and modification found in speculative fiction. There is also discernible within the novel an interest in walking through urban spaces, revealing certain psycho-geographic maps of New York City and DC. that lead a pair to Washington Square Park after a late-night interrogation or a pregnant woman to the White House in order to avoid a pursuer. More conventionally, WATERSHED is a love story, which includes moments of strife that test the bond between Norwood and Raquel, who meet after one literally falls from the sky; there are explosions, including several ejaculations, but also a casino dramatically destroyed by remote-controlled detonator; there are murders, some of which are intensely gripping in their graphicness, a feeling increased by the characters involved and the work done by the novel to construct empathy even for deeply flawed characters. Less conventionally, WATERSHED contains glimpses of a longer, deeper narrative about transmigration and quasi-daemons intervening within the agency of the living. But two elements of WATERSHED remained with this reader: the Ludlites and the re-performance of the events of 9/11.

The group’s name, Ludlites, is a play on the Luddites of nineteenth century England. Through their own resistance to digital technology, the Ludlites take on the popular associations of the Luddites as regressively fearful of technological progress. The Ludlites live without internet or cell phones, a commitment that both creates and reinforces a sense of separation from a society hyper-connected through continuous media consumption. Like the Luddites, the Ludlites undertake material forms of resistance, such as destroying infrastructure to disrupt cell-tower functionality. In their physical creating and maintaining of Ludlite communities as distinct pockets set within the larger city, they reveal urban space as a site of struggle over different ways of organizing collective human living.[1] But much like the prevalent understanding of the Luddites, whose machine breaking is not acknowledged as legitimate political expression, thus serving to further diminish their contestation of the apparent inevitability of nascent industrial capital’s work regime, WATERSHED does not give the Ludlites an articulable politics.

WATERSHED is ultimately ambivalent about the Ludlites. They are given a prominent position, most obviously through Norwood who is himself a Ludlite and the novel's main protagonist. As the story progresses, Norwood and Raquel, a non-Ludlite, former escort whose expected baby becomes a site of struggle within the novel, navigate various Ludlite communities across the United States as they flee from the harassment of a wealthy and powerful man that many believe is still in a coma. Time spent amongst these communities provides many opportunities for Norwood and others to articulate many not unfair, or unfamiliar, critiques of an America that is within imagination: a society characterized by distraction, interruption, and mass surveillance. However, there are moments in the novel where acts and articulations of resistance seem driven not by progressive political ends but by membership in something resembling a secular cult. This is revealed most clearly in the Geomettress, the enigmatic figure at the center of a large Ludlite community in Idaho where Norwood and Raquel briefly take refuge in flight from the wealthy and powerful man's claim on Raquel’s baby. Though the novel notes the heterogeneous nature of the larger Idaho community, it is not the gravity of possibility that attracts people to the middle of nowhere. Instead, it is the Geomettress herself: “The Geometress attracted a lively mix.” The figure comes to stand in for, and as the source of, the Ludlites’s material and ideological practices. When the Geometress’s interests in Raquel’s baby appear obsessive and her intentions unclear, this suspicion and distaste tarnishes the Ludlite ethos of collectivity and alternative possibility ostensibly being pursued in Idaho and beyond. Further, other characters’ comments about the Ludlites make them appear naïve, youthful idealists who are deeply out of touch, a sentiment hardly undermined by the other Ludlite characters themselves.

One of these is Lyla. Lyla finds a way to insert herself into a public spectacle of massive destruction. Her suicide is live-streamed and she quickly becomes associated with the saying, CONTENT HAS A COST. Lyla’s act is described variously within the novel: as selfish and shortsighted in its failure to consider the emotional impact on those who knew Lyla and as a drastic measure to communicate a repressed, but necessary, truth. The vacuousness of the saying, which is simply descriptive in its adoption of the language of communicative and finance capital, encourages the sense that the Ludlites are more youthful than political. Within the novel, the responses become more about Lyla, the individual, than any insight into actually existing conditions of material exploitation. But in many ways, Lyla is simply a tiny speck within the womb of a larger event: the re-performance of 9/11.

What the event calls forth overflows its explanation within WATERSHED as “the biggest insurance scam and real-estate bailout, disguised as a fireworks display.” This straightforward explanation fails to account for the details of the event or the responses to it. The event is billed as “the first-ever September 11 National Day of Remembrance and Unity” and involved “the ceremonial redestruction of the World Trade Center.” Instead of the Twin Towers, there is only one, the 1,776-foot tall One World Trade Center. Spectators watch from the balcony of surrounding Manhattan buildings as two passenger planes arrive. Inside the second plane are:

members of a Minneapolis jihadist group, convicted of a plot to release a predatory strain of corn into the Midwest, and for killing a hard-ware store clerk. Instead of lethal injection, they would ‘pilot’ the remote-controlled passenger jet into the massive, empty World Trade Center.

The placement of this group inside one of the planes is particularly cruel punishment as it collapses the fantasies of homegrown terrorism and its destructive nature with the spectacle of violence that sustains Islamaphobia. After the planes hit, a variety of responses emanate from the gathered onlookers, including chants of “U-S-A” but also “Death to America,” which presumably come from what one character describes as millionaires from “the Arab world.” The co-presence of these responses reveals something strange about the notions of statehood, memory and togetherness in National Day of Remembrance and Unity. When the tower finally falls, Norwood overhears someone complaining that the collapse looked like a controlled demolition. This comment sets off an aesthetic discussion within the novel but also gives a wink, intentionally or not, to 9/11 conspiracy theories. Perhaps the characteristic that the reproduction shares most with the original is its tendency to reoccur: the event concludes Part I of the novel, but reappears on the margins as the narrative moves forward.

On the day of the event, Norwood finds himself working for a non-Ludlite friend who uses an array of digital cameras to capture the building’s destruction with detailed precision. Jinn explains to Norwood the goal of this extensive project:

With the data we get, we’ll be able to create nearly any kind of explosion and structural collapse in complete detail. And the data will be of such high quality that we could use it for movies, TV, all kinds of entertainment. This is the beginning of a genuine empire.

For Jinn, the destruction of the World Trade Center becomes the model upon which all other explosions can be based, the particular containing all universal possibilities and permutations. The empire referenced is implicitly a media empire built on the ability to reproduce the spectacle of destruction with precise detail across multiple entertainment platforms. But like the event itself, Jinn’s reference to empire exceeds the story it receives within WATERSHED.

This is because it is the original events of 9/11 that mark the end of an empire rather than its beginning. Rather than the confirmation of American military superiority, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States, followed by the subsequent instability in Iraq and Syria that has led to displacement of millions of refugees, are testaments to the decline of American hegemony, which is what makes Jinn’s declaration in anticipation of the reenactment so jolting. Interestingly, this subsequent history following the fall of the Twin Towers is absent from WATERSHED. This absence reveals the way in which spectacular capture functions to elide the history preceding and following it.

From outside looking in, WATERSHED’s modified repetition of 9/11 holds out an enticing but unfulfillable promise. It is not only a return to the sight of loss, a replaying out of a national trauma, but is a planned return where the radical loss of self that comes with trauma is replaced with cynical knowledge and affective detachment from what is being perceived. And while the spectacle is described and captured from a variety of angles so it can be replayed over and over with small and large variations, what followed it disappears. Perhaps it is history that is the target of the society of the spectacle, which would make the resistance of the Ludlites a contest for the space of history as much as that of the city. What WATERSHED reveals in this strange scene from an imagined future is the extent to which the American imagination of the present continues to be haunted by a spectacle that hides as much as it reveals.[2]

[1] There are precedents for this imagining, as in the u-l sector in Samuel R. Delaney’s Triton.

[2] Colin Dodds’s poem “Eternity and Who to Blame” was published in Issue III of The Blackstone Review.