Mark Costello's novel Big If is a superb and unforgiving comedy of American life involving a low-level Secret Service agent who must get reacquainted with her estranged computer-genius brother when she takes a respite from the paranoid turns and twists of her nerve-rattling job.This is a book of richly skewed characters doing their best to make sense of their lives, or at least have their lives take on a fleeting semblance of normality. The quests, individual and collective, aren't what anyone would expect—this novel takes a hard left turn from the Anne Tyler/Paulo Coelho fictions that insert everyday mysticism into the complications of city life—and the results are habits, tics, behaviors, and alienation from self that comes close to home, in the heart of the nest: the bedroom, the dining room, the kitchen, the places one lives the most and gains small satisfactions or walls themselves off to unreachable Siberias of the psyche.
In many ways, this is one of the best novels to investigate what one might do without God, or even a convenient social construction of The Public Good. All points of reference in Big If are minimized and negotiated from relevance. Costello's prose is alive with the things of our life, and is superb at demonstrating the clash between the happiness material items promise and the world that denies such rewards. He is the master of setting forth a metaphor and letting it travel through a storyline just beneath the surface, operating silently, mostly invisibly, always effectively.
Their father, in the first portion of the book, is a moderate Republican insurance investigator of scholarly reading habits who happens to be a principled atheist. You cannot have both insurance, the practice of placing a monetary remuneration on unavoidable disaster, and assurance, which has religion promising protection from evil and disaster.
The children, in turn, assume careers that seem to typify the dualism their father opposed, son Jens becoming a programmer for the Big If online game for which he writes "monster behavior code" that attempts to outsmart human players and have them meet a hypothetical destruction. Daughter Vi, conversely, becomes a Secret Service agent, schooled in the theory encoded in The Certainties, a set of writings that lays out the details, nuances, and psychology of extreme protection. These are world views in collision, and Costello's prose is quick with the telling detail, the flashing insight, the cutting remark.
The problem, of course, is that no one can define what "good" is. Big If is excellent, and what makes it work is that Costello accomplishes the dual difficulty of handing us a small town/suburban comedy the likes of John Cheever would have admired. The other is with the rich detailing of the other Secret Service agents who work with Vi Asplund.
There is something of a domestic comedy seamlessly interwoven with a skewed Washington thriller, with the elements of each spilling over and coloring the underlying foundations of both. In the first part of the novel, we have an atheist Republican insurance investigator who has a habit of crossing out the "God" in the "In God We Trust" inscription on all his paper money, replacing the offending word with "us". Vi, years later, winds up in a job where "in us we trust" is the operating rationale, as she and her fellow agents strive to protect their protected from the happenstance of crowds, acting out on intricate theories and assumptions that can only be tested in the field.
Costello is wonderful at the heightened awareness in the ways he presents his details, his comic touches. A beautiful agent who still receives alimony checks from her smitten ex-husband carries on a correspondence with him via the memo line of the checks, where he continually writes "come back to me". She writes "No, never" each time, deposits the check, knowing that her ex will see the reply when he receives the canceled checks. The book is full of these fine touches. We have a sense that it's the small things, the small frustrations, as much as the larger disasters that conspire against our happiness.
On view in Big If are different models on which characters try to contain, control, or explain the relentless capriciousness of Life as it unfolds, constructs through which characters and the country and culture they serve can feel empowered to control their fate in a meaningful universe. The punchline is that Life goes on anyway, with its fluctuating, undulating, chaotic dynamics that only occasionally seem to fall into place. Costello wrests a subtle comedy of manners from the small failures of anyone's world view to suitably make their existence unproblematic. This is a family comedy on a par with The Wapshot Chronicle, but in an America that is suddenly global, an air that makes even the most familiar things seem alien and fantastic.