The Book Club

An Old Dog Trying to Learn New Tricks.

Dear Chris,

Actually, I’m just as happy not to discuss the political future of the former Soviet Union, a subject on which I’m hardly qualified to say anything. Punditry is a vice. But I do think that Robert Harris wrecked what could have been an interesting historical thriller when he opted for breakneck suspense and contemporary relevance. The flashbacks to Stalin’s last days, featuring the diabolical Lavrenti Beria, the loyal bodyguard Papu Rapava, and Uncle Joe himself, are by far the best parts of the book. Stalin, for all his monstrous cruelty, was beloved by millions, and Harris parses this paradox nicely. It hardly follows, of course, that some maniac emerging from the steppes dressed in one of the Marshall’s old uniforms and reciting speeches he learned from old gramophone records would inspire the same love.

Or the same fear–which brings me to your point about the “daily terror quotient.” I agree that someone for whom possession by the devil was a source of real terror would be unlikely to read The Exorcist for fun. (Though there is a burgeoning market in theological thrillers aimed at evangelical Christians. How these readers distinguish doctrinal value from entertainment value is an interesting question for another book club.) But I’m not sure that the purpose of spy fiction, or other modes of popular (or “genre”) fiction, is to terrify readers so much as it is to reassure them. A spy thriller, after all, generally turns on the revelation, and the at least temporary defeat, of a vast and complex conspiracy. The revelation is, if anything, more comforting than the defeat: What we thought was a series of unconnected, contingent events turns out to be the result of somebody’s intention. Better to discover (or imagine) that we are the puppets of secret networks or the victims of sinister plots than to confront the fact that we are the toys of chance or the detritus of historical necessity. Popular fiction, so tightly bound by convention, is an expression of what Wallace Stevens (him again, I don’t know what’s wrong with me) called “the blessed rage for order.”

The spy novel, like its cousin the detective story and the Gothic from which both are descended, holds out the promise that the world is ultimately explicable, that its codes can be cracked and its secrets unveiled. Each of these genres applies its epistemological balm to a historically distinct set of anxieties. The early Gothic invoked the demons most feared by the English reading public of the early nineteenth century–Jacobinism and Catholicism–and then dispelled them with a blast of British Protestant common sense. The detective novel is a product of urbanization: It compensates for the drift and atomization of life in cities (London for Dickens and Conan Doyle, Paris for Eugène Sue, Los Angeles for Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosely, and others) with the discovery of hidden, if nefarious, connections between people who on the surface seem utterly unrelated to each other. The spy novel, foreshadowed by Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes), comes into its own in the late 1930s and early forties, and assumes its determinate form after the World War II. It exploits–and assuages–the dread and apprehension citizens of the western democracies felt about fascism and communism, and also about their own governents’ increasing predilection for secrecy. Espionage writers offer up a comforting fantasy: That the dizzying complexity and apparent illogic of events in faraway places can be untangled and mastered, with plenty of time for sex with dark-eyed women in exotic locales.

It’s not that the Cold War is the necessary or exclusive subject of the international thriller: Novels like Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal and le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl deal with conflicts essentially unrelated to the US-Soviet chess game; the Nazis are always available to stand in for the Reds (e.g. William Goldman’s Marathon Man); and, to descend a notch into Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum territory, there are always stateless cabals like SPECTRE or the Matarese Circle, or lone madmen bent on world domination. In any case, international politics (which from 1948 to 1990 usually means the Cold War in its various theaters) has been the canvas on which thrillerists have painted, often by numbers.

I think le Carré’s intuition that international business has replaced international politics–that the thriller has, in effect, been privatized–is sound. I also think your splendidly epigrammatic formulation–“crime … has allowed the spy-novel genre to survive the conflict that gave rise to it”–is definitive. But while I respect le Carré’s intentions in Single & Single, I don’t share your admiration for the results. I think the book is a mess. The “bang-up” ending looks more like a train wreck to me. Oliver Single hurtles from Switzerland to Turkey to Georgia, rescues his father, and discovers that the bad guy we’ve known from the very first chapter was the main bad guy is in fact the main bad guy.

The book as a whole seems to me hopelessly incoherent. Le Carré is famous for the complexity of his plots, for his dextrous interweavings of past and present, for the density of his characterizations. It took me three tries at the age of 15 to get through Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy–as strenuous a reading experience as The Golden Bowl 10 years later. But in Single & Single le Carré compensates for the fact that his plot is incomprehensible even to him by desperately scrambling the novel’s chronology and producing a veritable din of interior monologue and psychological backshadowing. Poor Oliver Single can’t enter a room without reliving every other time he’s entered it or similar rooms. His mental agony, which dominates the book, lacks a convincing objective correlative. I just don’t buy that his discovery of his father’s crooked business dealings–drugs! human blood!--provokes him to betrayal. The prior state of innocent trust which would make his disillusionment dramatcially credible is never established. Tiger Single, after all, is a shadowy international financier who has groomed his son for succession and sent him off to cut deals with Mingrelian apparatchiks–it’s hard to believe Oliver is as morally delicate and as naive as he would have to be for his internal conflict to be interesting.

And these problems, I think, have directly to do with the question of transition you raise. I don’t think international crime–or international finance, which may be the same thing–is particulary interesting to le Carré. And I don’t think, as I said before, that he understands or cares about its workings. His consuming interests have always been reasons of state, diplomatic protocol, grand strategy, covert operations. He’s an old dog trying to master new tricks.