Irrational exuberance springs eternal

The high-tech gold rush in Seattle made anything possible

It's easy to be smug in hindsight. The bubble already seems as silly as tulip mania 400 years ago. Who were those foolish Amsterdamers trading entire estates for a single bulb? Imagine investing millions to sell groceries over the Web and send them through the mail! Does anyone know how much a 10-pound bag of potatoes weighs?

As Yale University economist Robert Shiller writes, in "Irrational Exuberance," "Human nature continues to be the way it has always been and probably always will be: People always feel that innovation has somehow changed the equation."

A new novel by Jonathan Raban calculates the radius of the Internet bubble with the cool eye of an investor who can spot real value. Raban wrote a perceptive travel book in 1999 called "Passage to Juneau," and he demonstrates that same sharp eye for the spirit of place again in this novel, his first in 18 years.

"Waxwings," the first of three novels to be set in the Pacific Northwest, opens as the millennium closes. Wall Street is throwing ticker tape, but the real pixie dust is coming from the other coast. In cloudy Seattle, under the glorious sunlight of Microsoft, a thousand e-tulips bloom. Internet millionaires bid the city's real estate into the stratosphere. Mercedes crowd parking lots. Bathrooms are tiled with stone cut in Zambia.

Seattle in 1999 is a presatirized, virtual setting, and it's a testament to Raban's control that he can integrate personal and public catastrophes so deftly in this witty novel.

Tom Janeway is a creative-writing professor living in the fog of his own self-absorbed domestic bliss. He spends his days reading novels and thinking up clever things to say in a weekly column. He adores his 5-year-old son and his wife, Beth, who works at a barely plausible Internet start-up called A Hungarian-born Englishman, Tom can hardly fathom his good fortune in this lush land of opportunity.

He's living the ideal that draws a desperate man named Chick all the way from China hidden in a container ship, a voyage described in all its horror. While Tom sails along lost in reverie, spinning phrases into money, Chick arrives near death, without a word of English, but with a keen eye for observation.

Over the course of the novel, these two immigrants ride the waves of a city in flux. Riots break out at the World Trade Organization meeting, children disappear, airplanes fall from the sky, terrorists sneak into the port, and Y2K is about to destroy every electronic device in the world.

Boring his students with passages from Victorian novels or jotting droll commentaries for "All Things Considered," Tom fails to notice that his son is spinning out of control or that his wife is drifting out of love. "He was incorrigibly innocent," Beth thinks, "utterly thoughtless in his bookish self-absorption, believing himself observant because he could observe things in novels." Even though she's busy accumulating stock options and losing herself on a scheme to design virtual neighborhoods, she finds Tom's abstraction from the world unbearable. What's worse, he only comes out of the clouds to make ironic quips about her work and colleagues.

Obviously Raban identifies with this fellow Englishman, but when Beth announces that she can't endure their marriage any longer, Raban has Tom on the end of a pin. Exhibit A: The pompous nice guy caught completely unawares by his wife's smoldering dissatisfaction. During Tom's dissection, you can hear divorced women everywhere muttering and newly single men whimpering.

Once Tom's life starts downhill, it picks up speed along a path of disastrous coincidences, wheels greased by Tom's obliviousness. Chick, meanwhile, keeps crawling up the labor ladder, scurrying away from the INS and the extortionists who provided him with illegal transportation. Soon, he moves from toiling alongside Mexican workers to managing them.

These two very different stories finally intersect when Chick offers to fix Tom's roof. For a moment, the two immigrants - one concocting a useable identify, the other losing his - are weirdly equalized, huddling over TV dinners for a bleak Christmas meal. There's an unnerving symmetry here in the way Chick awakens to the American dream, while Tom descends into a nightmare of domestic and legal terrors.

If tackling the giant social novels of Jonathan Franzen or Tom Wolfe makes you wish for a book that isn't quite so full, "Waxwings" may be just the corrective you're after. Raban captures this exuberant era with striking efficiency. He prods us to consider that we're living in a period that makes us all somehow foreigners, desperate for residency.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to Ron Charles.

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