Stoops, Julia. “Parts Per Million”, illustrated by Gabriel Liston, Forest Avenue Press, 2018.
The Personal and the Political
It is always good to have a cause but we sometimes have a problem of knowing just how far to go with it. We sometimes forget that not every cause is a winner and when we become so involved that we cannot imagine losing, a cause becomes overly possessive. That question of how far to go is at the core by this new novel by Julia Stoops.
“Parts Per Million” is a suspenseful exploration of activism, friendship, and love. There are three main characters from whom we hear points of view and one of them, John Nelson (or just Nelson) is the focal point of much of the story. We learn that years before the novel begins, Nelson left his marriage and a good desk job to protest, and occasionally disrupt, threats to the environment.
Eventually, Nelson and his two fellow activists, Jen Owens and Irving Fetzer decide to leave direct-action environmentalism and just report on it. The three men share a home in Portland, Oregon, from where they run Omnia Mundi Media Group, which disseminates news on the environmental movement and airs a monthly radio broadcast about it.
Soon current events cause another shift in Omnia Mundi’s mission. On the eve of the Iraq War, a time of increased government surveillance under the Patriot Act, there were threats to civil liberties causing Nelson, Jen, and Fetzer to decide to broaden their media operation’s reach beyond just environmental concerns. They learn that local universities receive federal money for military projects that include developing surveillance technology, they are determined to uncover more information about this and then publicize what they find.
At just the same time, Deirdre O’Carroll appears on the doorstep of Nelson, Jen, and Fetzer. She is visiting the United States from Ireland and is quite ill and says that someone stole her money and plane ticket home. The trio offer to let her stay the night but she becomes romantically involved with Nelson and becomes part of the household.
Jen learns that Deirdre is a recovering drug addict and finds her to be a source of unneeded tension in the house. Deidre shares so little about her background, that there is suspicion and even as she emerges from her shell and shows warmth and kindness, we see that she has troubles and depends upon alcohol although we do not learn why until the end of the story. One of the conflicts of the story is Nelson’s trying to keep Deirdre from sinking into a downward spiral as he tries to stay sane.
Another conflict comes with news that Harry Lane University, Nelson’s alma mater, has received a large contract from the Pentagon—surprising, because the university is known as a “bastion of liberalism.” Under the contract, the university will help develop software allowing military and intelligence agencies to monitor surveillance video to separate suspicious activities from ordinary body movements.” Nelson, Jen, and Fetzer worry that this technology could be used in other places and at home.
They manage to put the news of the contract out to the general public. However as they dig deeper, they discover a bigger story and it is here that I stop summarizing the plot with the hope that I have made you interested enough to read the book.
Julia Stoops’s socially conscious novels blends the personal and the political into a very fast paced “Parts Per Million” is a psychological thriller that is also hard-boiled noir with characters that are “fresh, real and alive.” This is certainly not the kind of book that I usually read but I was held spellbound by the moral and emotional conflicts, the betrayals and the small acts of heroism the story of four activists in a time of war. The novel pushes us to face important questions— “how do we live ethical lives in the face of institutionalized greed? If the personal is political, how can we turn away from anyone in crisis?”
We are privy to the characters’ public and private lives and this makes them all the more real. We enter that grey area between ideals and reality as we see America through a different and disturbing lens. We confront the themes of being aware politically and involved, friendship and family, art, loneliness, risks, beliefs and modern life.