The Book Club

Spooky Tales in a Post-Spook World

Dear Tony,

It’s a new medium for me, too. (What do you think I am, “Dean of On-Line Suspense Novel Book Chat” or something?) So we’ll make up our own rules.

Giving away plots is always an offense. Readers take pleasure in plot. Depriving them of it is like presenting your hosts with a bottle of wine you’ve “sampled” on the way to dinner, so you can be “sincere” when you tell them how good it is. But my stricture against plot-revealing applies to reviews only, not to essays. I understand this is a tricky genre distinction. But, to take easy cases: No matter how much the puffed-up hack who writes it may flatter himself, a 600-word newspaper write-up of a murder mystery isn’t an essay. The most important message it conveys will be either: (1) buy this book, or (2) save your money. A 6,000-word summing-up of an author’s career in an opinion magazine is an essay. It’s going to be read by those who take much of their literary pleasure in discussing books. It would still be nice if you could serve them without revealing the plot, but you probably can’t.

Still, this is supposed to be a Book Club–different venue altogether. Everyone’s supposed to have read the book when they arrive at the Book Club. So let’s stipulate that giving away plots is okay under house rules.

Luckily for me, in the bang-up ending of Single & Single –as in most Le Carré novels–I had such a hard time figuring out what the hell happened that I doubt I could give the ending away if I had all afternoon to explain.

The “Is-Communism-resurgent-in-Russia?” argument is one you’ll have to take up with someone else. I agree with you that the Return of Stalin trope used to hype the Harris book is largely malarkey-unless we take “Stalin” as a mere metonym for dictatorship in the broadest possible terms. (And who can take Stalin to mean that?) Another murderous dictatorship could emerge from Russia’s current kleptocracy. That dictatorship could call itself Communist, but this “Communism” would be a slogan, not an eschatology. No creed, no Evil Empire.

Here I’m reminded of what the German poet Hans-Magnus Enzensberger said about neo-Nazism in his Civil Wars. These kids running around with shaved heads and swastikas couldn’t pick Hitler out of a lineup. They’re a phenomenon not of politics but of crime.

It’s crime that has allowed the spy-novel genre to survive the conflict that gave rise to it. This raises the question of how important the Cold War ideological struggle was to the spy novel in the first place. I’m inclined to disagree with you (and Wallace Stevens) and say: Not very. At root, spy stories are all horror stories. As in nightmares, the biggest horrors in novels come when incapacity meets unfamiliarity: You’re locked in a room with five armed people discussing you in a language you don’t understand. The secret that will halt your best friend’s execution twenty minutes from now is tucked inside a matryoshka doll in a Moscow warehouse-but which one?

For some reason, people feel a need to scare themselves out of their wits from time to time. Maybe there’s a minimum daily terror quotient. Mamantov, the radical in Archangel , makes a similar point when he says that Stalin scholars are as “obsessed” with power as Stalin disciples. Certainly, terror fantasies–like Levin’s Boys from Brazil and Harris’s Fatherland or Archangel–are for coddled bourgeois in the peaceful countries, much as The Exorcist is for those who are free of religious fears, and roller coasters are for those comfortable with speed and technology.

I agree that there’s a mismatch between history and this genre. But its cause is not so much the end of the Cold War as the mechanization of spying. (Granted, the former contributed to the latter.) The CIA is a big agency, but its actual “ops” budget, last I looked, was around $100 million per annum. That doesn’t buy many false-bottomed suitcases, x-ray glasses, shoe-phones, and Mickey Finns. “Spying” today has probably more to do with intercepting fax transmissions than it does with handing over briefcases full of cash under a bridge over the Neva. Which is to say spying can just as easily be done by fat slobs sitting in a cubicle in the suburbs of Omaha as can by swashbuckling athletes who speak eighteen languages and have a taste for the ladies and Château d’Yquem.

So the transition to the “new” thriller, while it’s been made, has been a hard one. These two writers seem to go about making that transition in different ways–Le Carré does better at it than Harris–which I hope we can get to tomorrow.