A wry eye from an American in Europe

A wry eye from an American in Europe

For the JC by Jenni Frazer Dec 20 2020

Derek Miller’s cv stretches to an intimidating 10 pages, covering his high-profile career as an academic and specialist in international relations and geopolitics. He studied in Washington, Jerusalem, Oxford and Geneva, and is currently Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Pell Centre for International Relations and Public Policy, Salve Regina University (Rhode Island), and research associate at the Centre on Conflict, Development, and Peacebuilding at the Graduate Institute, Geneva.

But it is only the last three pages which need really concern us, when Derek B Miller (there is a good reason for the middle initial), switches track from his long years of working with the United Nations, to becoming an admired novelist with his debut thriller, Norwegian by Night.

That book, published in 2013, garnered numerous awards and was described by the New York Times as having “the brains of a literary novel and the body of a thriller.” It charted the perilous adventures of the former United States Marine, the 82-year-old ineffably Jewish Sheldon Horowitz, who finds himself living in Oslo with his granddaughter and has to draw on his long-forgotten Marine skills — and his Jewish “smarts” — to defeat some nasty Balkan enemies.

Now Miller — properly Dr Miller, and whose middle initial serves handily to differentiate him from the children’s writer, Derek E Miller — has dived into Sheldon’s back-story, for one of three publications in 2021. Readers will have to wait for the prequel, How To Find Your Way In The Dark, until July.

First, however, there are two treats: a science fiction novel, Radio Life, to be published on January 21, and an audiobook, Quiet Time, to be issued this spring. Like his follow-ups to Norwegian By Night, American By Day and The Girl In Green, Miller’s two new publications offer a dry, understated humour, gripping plotlines with a prescient sensibility — and, for Jewish readers, a fascinating series of Jewish references, not always immediately apparent to the general reader.

With six novels under his belt — Quiet Time, the audiobook, was written as a novel — Miller says it is “very clear to me that I am an American writer, though I am not writing Americana”. The distinction matters because Miller, whose family is “Ashkenazi from the Pale of Settlement, textbook immigrants who went through Ellis Island”, was born in Boston and grew up in Massachusetts, but for the past 20 years has been living in Oslo. In fact he has spent more of his professional and academic life outside the United States than in it, so it could be argued that he looks at America from a European perspective.

And he has a Jewish perspective, too. Radio Life, his sci-fi novel, projects the reader 400 years into the future in which the world has shrunk and technology, and its uses, has all but disappeared. Humanity is divided into two main tribes, the Commonwealth and the Keepers, and over nearly 500 gripping pages we learn who ultimately gets the upper hand. Those in the Commonwealth are desperate to find out more about the once all pervasive technology of the past; the Keepers are just as happy leaving well alone and asking people to find joy in what there is, rather than what there might be. Is it, Miller asks, ignorance that will save us, or knowledge?

I suggest to Miller that the Commonwealth might represent secular, questing Jews, while the Keepers are the Haredi equivalent, content with things as they are. It’s not a reading he intended; he says: “the big themes, the big ideas, the big social challenges are rooted in the kinds of discussions that animate many Jewish conversations (though not exclusively, of course): how do we honour and remember the dead? What do we owe them? How do we move forward with hope and possibility with the weight of history on us and the fear of all the patterns repeating? Is it better to remember or try and forget to move forward?”

For Miller, Radio Life is a way of exploring “what it means to fix a broken world, the idea of Tikkun Olam. I’m asking, if the world is a broken thing by design, and we are participants in the re-creation of it, what do you do? How do you determine what is worthy and virtuous and good?”

He wanted both sides to have compelling arguments, he says. “It wasn’t enough for me to have the Keepers as villains who are trying to disrupt the good and obviously progressive work of the Commonwealth”. And this train of thought led naturally to the question, “why would you sacrifice what is, for what might be?”

It’s a question never resolved in this compelling novel, a sci-fi book full of philosophical conundrums — and a piano player, who doesn’t even know he is Jewish, called Moshe.

Miller began writing Radio Life in 2012 but its publication now is very prescient — there is even one chapter called “Lockdown”. The debates of today about climate change, technology and the future of society weighed heavily with him during the writing, and he expresses a great debt to the writer Walter Miller, author of the seminal 1959 novel, A Canticle for Liebowitz.

He doesn’t draw the same bleak conclusions as Walter Miller, he says, and brushes aside the question of whether he is optimistic or pessimistic about current global concerns. “I think there’s a job to be done, and you just do it. What am I going to do with optimism or pessimism, they are useless to me. Looking out of the window now, things are bad…it’s not great in Britain and it’s lousy in Hungary and Poland and Russia and a number of other countries, which are turning hard to the right and turning inwards”.

His hugely entertaining Quiet Time picks up many of the themes of Radio Life —specifically technology and how humanity deals with it — but sets such issues squarely in the present day.

It is, Miller says, “the most personal story I’ve written and draws heavily from my life. There are two main families and one of them is Jewish (not the protagonists, but the other family). It’s a very New England story, but speaks to social media, school violence, inter-cultural classes, middle age and relationships and sex, the challenges of growing up in this new tech/comm environment… lots of good stuff. It’s a fun and big story with a lot of comedy and dialogue”.

No spoilers, but Quiet Time looks at the fraught world of teenagers and their screen attachments, their compulsion to turn everything into fodder for social media accounts, and their apparent inability to function without a phone in their hand. We first meet the Livingstons, the Miller-esque family, in Switzerland, where father Robert (all-American, with a sliver of Jewish background), wife Mkiwa (British-Kenyan) and daughters Beatrice, 15, and Lindia (11) are living.

Robert, who has some sort of political-global consultancy career, not unlike Miller, is desperate to go back and live in America. And almost from the beginning the reader feels the abyss yawning as Robert takes innumerable wrong turnings and life decisions which affect his family. Ironically, it’s Robert who is the fish out of water on what is supposed to be his home turf, while Mkiwa and her pragmatic approach run rings round local worthies.

Miller and his Norwegian wife Camilla have a son aged 12 and a daughter of nine, and they try, he says, to keep their kids off social media as much as they can “but to some extent, sure, we are swimming in the problematics of all this”. The Miller offspring are not yet on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and don’t yet have to deal with the pressures of being “liked” — or not.

He freely admits he has drawn heavily on his own background to write this book, and also acknowledges a debt to the admired 1998 film, The Truman Show, in which a Waspy insurance salesman discovers that his life is really a TV reality show. “It’s a wonderful film, I have nothing but love and respect for it. But the thing about it — and the time it was made, too — is that there is a door, where Truman can get out. He just has to overcome his fears, say goodbye and walk out into the great unknown”.

But the Quiet Time kids (and in fact all present day kids), says Miller, “cannot leave social media. They are going to be in this world for ever. And this is how you manage the inescapable, inevitable whirlwind of constant connectivity.”

The Russian doll aspect of social media captivates Miller, who describes how teens apparently take part in events in order to load them up on TikTok to “prove” that they are worthy participants in their own lives. It is a bewildering and at times worrying phenomenon, perhaps causing those of us no longer teenagers to be grateful that we are not.

His central message to post-modern writers, says Miller, is that “you can play with tech all you want, but everything you’re thinking has already been done. None of it matters unless the story’s any good. If they don’t add to the pleasures of a fictional dream, then they haven’t accomplished anything, other than a mental exercise”.

His basic intention, says this most intellectually challenging of novelists, “is to touch the human heart”. And he does.

  • 13 January, 2021