The Exception: a philosophical thriller

Thousands of thrillers have used genocide as the big threat -- like the Holocaust that hovers in the background of so many World War II yarns. But in his novel The Exception -- his first to be published in English -- Danish author Christian Jungersen puts mass murder front and center as a trigger for suspense but also as the chief topic of debate for his characters. A philosophical thriller, The Exception considers the question who among us could commit atrocities, and sets it not among soldiers or sadists but the staff in a Copenhagen think tank devoted to studying genocide. In other words, take the most humanitarian, high-minded Westerners around -- people like us, you know, the best people -- and given the right circumstances, circumstances that needn't even be that extreme, we will still savage each other.

In this case, it's ordinary, petty office politics that turn terrifying. In The Exception, the female researchers and librarians at the tiny Danish Center for Information on Genocide receive death threats, anonymous e-mails that possibly came from one of the Serbian war criminals they've written about. What's more, the center itself is in danger of a takeover by a larger nonprofit.

The tense atmosphere causes staff alliances to turn poisonous. One researcher was kidnapped on an earlier mission to Kenya, and her flashbacks make her panic. Another was bullied growing up and turns resentful and paranoid. Their boss is up to his own bureaucratic tactics to save the institute, and while he's out of the office, staff members are soon breaking into files for evidence against each other or ostracizing one member in an effort to drive her away.

In between these efforts, the Center's staff write about Darfur or Cambodia, allowing Mr. Jungerson to load in fascinating historical and psychological data on torture -- like the infamous Stanley Milgram experiment which found that the great majority of people are willing to deliver supposedly fatal shocks to our fellow test subjects. Or the Stanford Prison experiment which saw ordinary people who played at being guards or inmates fulfilling their roles with a vengeance.

In effect, The Exception is one of these experiments, with Mr. Jungerson setting out to demonstrate what these studies have shown: It's not just mad racists who torture and kill. No matter our country or background, 60 to 80 percent of us would be willing lynchers or death camp guards.

And that's one of the novel's weaknesses -- the feeling that the office workers are just lab rats in Mr. Jungerson's maze. We get his point long before the staff members do. Another weakness is the novel's flat-footed prose, whether that's the fault of Mr. Jungerson or his translator, Anna Paterson, I can't say. But when he's reporting grim ethnic cleansings, it works chillingly to the book's advantage. For pages of everyday dialogue, it can plod.

Despite its disturbing subject, Mr. Jungerson's 500-page novel has been a bestseller in Europe. And if it were about 100 pages shorter, The Exception truly would be exceptional. As it is, it's a thought-provoking thriller, part PhD thesis, part cliffhanger.

A version of this review was broadcast on KERA-FM, public radio for North Texas.

August 24, 2007 1:15 PM | | Comments (2)



If you click on the continuation of "Who's your book/daddy?" you'll find the original photo still available. I plan on keeping them all in that particular "Dorian Grey"-like basement.

Everyone tells me I should work in TV -- I've just never heard it actually spoken by a TV producer offering me a salary. For a show I'd want to do.

Which, in these lean days, could be a job hosting You've Got No Talent! re-runs. I don't care. Someone just give me an offer.

But I should add that I've heavily Photoshopped the new photo of me. Unfortunately, I actually look more like ... um, George Clooney

Gasp! Another picture... (Note: this is not a mash note, but literary response, honest.)

Dang, you are cute enough to run for president!

Definitely could work on TV, you know. Hope something like that works out...

Meanwhile, are you keeping an archive of the pix?


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on August 24, 2007 1:15 PM.

Free radicals was the previous entry in this blog.

It's not available online, of course .... is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.