Lookout Cartridge by Joseph McElroy
Review by S. D. Stewart
Cartwright, middle-aged businessman of questionable repute, and his friend Dagger, both Americans living in London, decided to make a film together. They shot about 10 scenes of the film and Cartwright kept a written diary of the shooting. But before the film could be processed, someone broke into Dagger’s flat and destroyed most of it. This is the basic premise, or what we know up front. What follows is an ever-widening gyre of Cartwright’s investigation into the circumstances surrounding the film’s destruction, cut in with first-person reports of the shooting of key scenes in the film. These reports are Cartwright’s dictations of his diary entries to his teenage daughter Jenny, though Cartwright the narrator also supplements the text with his recollections, interjecting to note when something was or was not included in the diary. Cartwright’s narration of his own investigation (told in past tense) is also fluid, with frequent shifts in time and place, fueled by the fact that he travels between New York City and various places in the UK, sometimes in the same day.
Cartwright employs a rolling metaphor of film cartridges to place the action in perspective for himself and for the reader (‘you who have me’), to whom he makes occasional brief asides. He repeats things, intriguing things, that may or may not be red herrings, and may or may not be worth keeping track of in order to chip away at the mystery. Fragments of past events slow-reveal, sometimes adding up to a whole. Mysterious and menacing characters lurk on both sides of the Atlantic. The film becomes something more than a film. Conspiratorial threads appear. Everyone knows a little or a lot, but no one seems to know it all. At times the plot operates like an elaborate and maddening game of Telephone. Cartwright and Dagger are at odds, each thinking the other is trying to co-opt the film, each unaware of what the other knows. As characters, they are both difficult to pin down. Since Cartwright is narrating, we only see Dagger through his eyes, so this portrait is uncertain. Cartwright had an idealistic vision for the film (‘taking other energy in process and using it for our own peaceful ends’), whereas Dagger’s possible ulterior motives materialize over time as the hinge on which the suspense swings.
The story pivots on information and power, namely how information empowers those who will wield it. It delves into methods for information acquisition and transfer, and how to use information once acquired, particularly to obtain yet more information. It also underscores the dangers (including for the reader) of information that is incomplete or out of context, and the frustration in not knowing the value of certain information one has that others seem to want. At one point late in the book, Cartwright laments (brags?), ‘Information theory? I had none.’ It’s clear he’s only been winging it thus far, but it’s hard not to cheer for a guy getting by on instinct and a little luck.