I thought this was originally released in 2001, but Powers' own site says there was a small press edition in 2000. Good to see the Clarke Award carrying the flag for the cutting edge of new writing by nominating it for the 2011 prize. ('Technically eligible', of course; that's undeniable. Not sure focussing on technical eligibility entirely groks the spirit of the award, myself; but other may disagree).
So what do we have here? An overlong, over-researched 10,000m-steeplechase of a novel: lots of twentieth-century espionage and deadly toing-and-froing in a dozen countries, all of which is slowly revealed to be actually to do with various djinns and angels, supernatural beings of awesome power and ever more awesome over-familiarity-from-a-thousand-other-books. Our hero is Andrew Hale, English spy, counter spy and counter-counter spy. He's a plastic mannequin rather than a character, but I daresay that doesn't especially matter. There's lots of pseudo-political and comic-book spy adventure stuff that bears no relation to reality, except in the paranoid schizophrenic sense of 'relation to reality' (not so much realpolitik as surrealpolitik, aha, hur-hur. Hah). Then there's some rather mannered spiritual-mystical stuff. Ho hum.
Much of this is pretty entertaining, though the novel is too diffusely written for much of its length. The first half is the best, when the supernatural goings-on behind the sub Le Carré shenanigans are hinted at suggestively rather than crudely thrown in our faces; Powers manages to pull together a quite well orchestrated combination of tension and dread. It goes downhill sharply in the second half, since the central premise is (whisper it) enormously silly, and the more we see of the actual djinns and angels the harder it gets for Powers to disguise this ludicrousness. But the whole thing is written in an efficient if workmanlike prose, and there's oodles and oodles of research on display. The research rather overrides the novel in many places, actually. But you learn a lot about WWII and the Cold War and Europe and the Near East and the Bible and Kim Philby and many other things.
At core Declare is a conspiracy-theory novel, and as such it left me feeling much more negative than positive. Actually, I've come to a belated realisation about conspiracy theories. The belatedness of this is nobody's fault but mine; and is, moreover, an artefact of my age. When I was growing up, conspiracy theorising was mostly associted with the counter-culture: hippies and wierdoes, Forteans of various stripes, anti-establishment personalities for whom 'establishment' and 'conspiratorially tyrannical behaviour' were pretty much synonyms. Such conspiracy theorists might be loonies, but at least they sought (to quote a noted twentieth-century poet) to fight the power, fight the powers that be. Accordingly even in their batshittier incarnations they managed, just about, to be on the side of the angels.
But conspiracy theories have not been like this for a generation. At some point in the late 80s or early 90s conspiracy theory switched ideological allegience (the case is more complicated and involved than this suggests, of course; but to thumbnail sketch it). It has something to do with the way right-wing US and UK political parties shed their associations with the traditions and heirarchies of power, and convinced large numbers of the working class to support them: the liberal left were now, implicitly or explicitly, aligned with the Powers-That-Be. I still don't quite know how this trick was pulled off, but it was. Clever, in a diabolical sort of way.
So nowadays the poster boy for conspiracy theories and secret histories of the world and gubbins of that sort is Glenn Beck -- in his TV studio drawing arrows on diagrams linking various things in a grotesque, simplifying and ideologically loaded way that would be risible if it weren't watched, and believed-in, by millions. Run down Wikipedia's handy 'list of conspiracy theories' (I particularly like their disclaimer at the top: 'actual conspiracies, such as the conspiracy to assassinate U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, do not fall under this heading'). Here the dominant flavour is distinctly right-wing: New World Order; Federal Reserve System; the many 9/11 conspiracy theories; the 'Clinton Body Count'; Barack Obama birth conspiracy theories; the 'Eurabia' conspiracy theory ('journalist Oriana Fallaci proposed a conspiracy hatched between a cadre of French elites within the EEC and the Arab League in the mid-1970s to form a strategic alliance against the United States and Israel'); 'La Reconquista' ('...a popular conspiracy myth that Hispanics, especially Mexicans, are massively immigrating, often through illegal immigration, in order to repopulate and take over the Southwestern United States') and more nutty Biblical Fundamentalist conspiracy theories than you could shake a stick at. I'm not, of course, suggesting that there were no right-wing loony conspiracy theories before the 1980s, or that left wing loony conspiracy theories have entirely dried up today. But I am, I suppose, suggesting that the cultural valence of 'The Conspiracy Theory' has changed. It's the shift from Robert Anton Wilson in the early 1970s writing creatively crazy SF novels and agitating for Basic Income Guarantees -- to Milton Willian Cooper in the 1990s, banging on about 'the one-world, Luciferian Totalitarian socialist government' and insisting 'we always know, we always know, which is the right way to go.' That Wilson died in his bed surrounded by friends whilst poking gentle fun at George W Bush, whereas Cooper died after paranoically fleeing an arrest warrant for tax evasion, shot by the police after he had shot one of the arresting officers in the head -- well, I suppose that strikes me as characteristic, in a mournful sort of way. Declare is a very violent book too; violent in a kind of morally-careless way. That's the genre, you'll say: yes, I know, it is. I'm less convinced than I used to be, though, that saying so is an ethical get-out-of-jail-free-card.
The thing about conspiracy theories is that they render the world into a more interesting and more significant place than, actually, it is. Significance is the gold standard of these things, of course; and the idea that the world is mostly ordinary people muddling along in entirely mundane ways is anathema to them. Now, significance is perhaps an end in itself; or perhaps it is handled instrumentally as a justification of acting badly. There was a nice line on Crooked Timber a few days ago (via Kieran Healy): 'J.K. Galbraith remarked that conservatism was engaged in a long search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.' Or maybe it is an ideological circle-squaring exercise: 'when socialists and liberals are in power, and the world is shitty, we blame the socialists and liberals; but when conservatives sweep to power, as they did across the west in the eighties and noughties, and the world is still shitty, we blame ... a secret cabal, the power behind the power, demons, conspiracies, anyone but us!' I'm not sure. Declare is an ingenious book, but ingenious in a fundamentally credulous, even a gullible way. It's not just that the fact Ankh, Ankara, Anchor and Angora sweaters are etymological related is interesting; it is that this fact means something profound and supernatural. Amongst the several things this book is saying are (for instance) that Communism is a fanatical quasi-religious cult for which its followers are actively eager to die; and that events recounted in the Bible (specifically Genesis) are literally true. To which I say: hmmm.