Brent Cossack is a former CIA member who has gone rogue. He takes his orders from a shadowy figure codenamed Sacco, and assassinates corrupt corporate figureheads. Then there’s Rick Clark, who’s working to bring the Cossack’s militant group EMMA to justice after a string of murders. As the novel jumps around in time, it pieces together Brent and Rick’s lives before putting them on a collision course with each other.
We like to think that a strong point of view is one of the traits of a good work of art. Be it prose, poetry, or even film, a distinct point of view on life or on specific areas of life can help a piece distinguish itself from the crowd. Michael Segedy’s EMMA certainly has some very strong opinions. However, that seems to be all that the novel has to offer. Rather than a proper stab at storytelling, EMMA comes across as a series of ideological rants with a story shoe-horned in.
Segedy’s novel attempts to cover an impressive amount of ground. Issues of loyalty, patriotism, and justice are constant factors. Also admirable is Segedy’s attempt to cover these themes through a completely modern lens. The internet hacktivist group Anonymous (as well as a fictional militant extension) features prominently in the narrative. Yet even as EMMA tries to cover issues of the present, it can’t help but read like a cartoon character on the defensive. When the prose isn’t wagging its finger at certain ideologies or industries, it’s covering the likes of the Iraq War and US healthcare legislation.
Both of the novel’s protagonists have interesting back stories in theory. The issue is that the construction of these characters, especially Brent, is often blunt and heavy. Segedy also has a strange tendency to name-drop as many people and items. Halliburton, Bitcoin, President Obama, Anne Hathaway, and pop singer P!nk are among those ham-handedly inserted into the novel. Rather than lend a sense of realism to the novel, it ends up throwing the reader out of sync. Character interactions don’t fare much better. Both dialogue and inner monologues are stiff to the point that they often border on self-parody. There may not be a 70-page monologue in EMMA, but the ideological characterization makes Atlas Shrugged look subtle in comparison.
However, EMMA touches on some legitimate issues but can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be an essay, a sermon, or a story. As such, the plot’s thinness becomes only more evident. Once EMMA gets around to storytelling, there’s hardly a moment that isn’t predictable. When EMMA isn’t being merely adequate, it feels like an experiment gone awry; neither the plot nor the treatment have made it through. The issues and topics covered in EMMA are important, but they deserve better fictional treatment than Segedy provides. A compelling idea for a novel which maybe overreaches in order to achieve its goals.