Life

John le Carré Saved Me From the CIA

When the spy agency took notice of me as a 21-year-old undergrad, I had a secret failsafe.

An illustration of a man interviewing another man.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by monkeybusinessimages/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The first man I met from the CIA was small, wore an oblong blue suit, had a fine push-broom mustache, and leaned forward a little when he nodded. He looked as modest and worn as a character from a John le Carré novel, and I eventually imagined him as one.

It was 2006, and I was in the ballroom of the Michigan Union in Ann Arbor, the kind of room in the kind of building with the wood dressed up to look baronial and Gothic to contrast with the boisterous main drag of a large public university outside.

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I had submitted my résumé to a general drop box weeks before for the job fair, a sprawling undergraduate cattle call with representatives from regional banks, hospitality companies, and a suite of federal government agencies.

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When I saw the email from the CIA in my inbox a few days before the fair, it looked like a form note. I was an English major who worked at the college newspaper. I was applying anywhere that would entertain me. I thought everyone who left a résumé got the note from the CIA.

Maybe they did. But when I went to the CIA table and introduced myself, the man with the Ned Flanders mustache recognized my name and said he had seen my résumé.

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He then said to me: “I think you should meet with my colleague from clandestine. Are you free this afternoon?”

Like others before me, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold was my gateway drug to John le Carré’s many spy novels. I read it in high school, just as I was becoming a close study of unforgiving modern poetry. Le Carré’s breakthrough novel remains as pitiless as a Philip Larkin poem, studded with palpably frigid scenes on either side of the Berlin Wall (the novel will remind you to be eternally grateful for central heating) and roiling with work-a-day people keeping their deepest political commitments cloistered, whether young idealistic communist, weathered spook, or avaricious old Nazi. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold set me up to love le Carré and what I’d come to discover was his careerwide thesis—not so much that “bad things happen to good people” but rather that “bad things happen to many, because many powerful jobs and institutions are inescapably bad.”

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From there, I was off. Early in college I raced through the cavalcade of espionage slang and indexing of wan, traitorous men of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I understood the book on first pass about as well as I would a long, arcane modernist poem. I charged into The Honourable Schoolboy until I was neck deep in confusion again, and promised myself I’d return to them both.

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I did return to the Cold War novels and adore them. But my bond with le Carré came when I left the George Smiley books and instead flew through his novels about the post–Cold War world, stories more animated by spleen and anger that seemed to reach out from the page and into what might be my life: The Little Drummer Girl, The Tailor of Panama, The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends.

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In my late teens and early 20s, in these I saw an especially ferocious read of the world around me: specious, racist attempts at counterterrorism; feckless pharmaceutical companies dragooning people in the global south to become laboratory subjects; the way that everyday souls like a giddy, desperate tailor in a political backwater could be weaponized. I devoured them all.

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I think the CIA found me early in my college career. Like other American undergraduates studying certain languages under the George W. Bush administration, I had gotten government recruitment letters in my campus mailbox—a cheap-looking flyer with the emblem of the State Department advertising that learning a “Critical Language” was a fast track to a career in the federal government. It wasn’t a secret. If you studied languages like Korean, Urdu, Persian, Arabic, or Indonesian for more than one year and did OK, your name went on a list somewhere.

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To be honest, I had taken two years of Persian and I was still quite bad. I made catastrophic spoken errors (asked about my favorite foods in class, I once said “wolves” when I meant to say “grapes”). But I looked young for my age and was unashamed of my failures, so I got a pass from my mostly Iranian classmates whose families had fled after the revolution. I had good grades because the teacher, an older man from Tehran who wore brown moleskin blazers and who had to suppress his laughter at my pronunciation, seemed to like me and gave me wholly undeserved A’s.

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The one-on-one meeting with “clandestine” later that day in Ann Arbor took place in a small room in a part of the union building I had never seen. This CIA agent was older than the first, with a silver bowl cut and full beard. He had a better suit but with a cheap tie with the Detroit Tigers logo patterned across it. I wondered if he had one for every team.

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After a few minutes of perfunctory small talk, he said, “You and I went to the same high school, and I wonder what you think of going from there to here.” I went to a boarding school that graduated at least one former CIA director. I forget how I answered, but he smiled broadly and nodded.

He then went into a spiel about building relationships and eventually got to talking about how knowledge helps keep our military safe, how more would eventually mean less, how seeing “around the corner” matters so much to America. He talked to me about my interests, how I might identify common interests with someone else, and how soccer was a useful thing for getting to know people across the world, young men especially.

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He doled out the chummy avuncular phrases like a pastor or rabbi: “if there’s someone special” (on revealing one’s CIA status to a partner), “as long it was a part of your past” (a Bush-era relaxation of rules on previous pot use, a historical disqualifier in intelligence recruitment). Reportedly, after working in Langley for one to three years, I would earn the right to say “put me in, coach” and be promoted to the field.

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There was mutual recognition in the room. He saw me as I was then: an intense, biddable, lonely 21-year-old whose intellectual parlor tricks were that he was a white guy who knew who Sa’di was and could chat about ’90s soccer with a high degree of fluency for an American. I saw him as a guy in late middle age who probably knew a lot about a few things (energy infrastructure in Angola? best pastries in Turin?) and maybe spoke a language from that preordinated list of “critical” languages well. He was polite and pronounced the names of European soccer clubs immaculately. And he had almost certainly at some point forced people to do awful things for information that might not even be true.

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When the meeting ended, he put my résumé back in its folder and gave me his card. He told him to reach out to him if I was interested in coming down to Langley for an interview. He’d be excited to introduce me to his colleagues, he said.

It was a strange feeling, to be recruited to do something dangerous and selective. I was lured in those hours by the idea of putting my skills of sublimation and my good memory to work; I wanted to believe I could be savvy and useful, to do something important. I told myself I was a hawkish liberal, very much in favor of destroying the Taliban but absolutely against invading Iraq. I’d like to believe I wasn’t susceptible to the Manichaeism of good guys and bad guys, but I took the meeting. I let the idea of being a spy run across my heart. They wanted me to. What was so crooked inside of me that they thought I’d make a good spy?

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When le Carré died this weekend, I reminded myself that he probably saved my life back then. I never went to Langley for the interview there, because I thought if I did, I might join the CIA, and the work and the life would lead me to a world that le Carré had warned me about. I would be alone in a skeletal apartment in Tirana convincing someone I was worth trusting when I was comprehensively not. I would be alone in Oslo trying to flip a lonesome student in a creative writing class I taught.

If I became a spy, even someone who barely made it into the field, le Carré had made it clear in the most painful terms, I would hurt people directly. I would vanish. I would use people against themselves and their people. The quiet, personal damage would be absurd.  I remembered a small scene from The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, where librarian Liz Gold has been wooed and abandoned by protagonist Alec Leamas:

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The was probably why she went on working at the library—because there, at least, he still existed; the ladders, shelves, the books, the card index, were things he had known and touched, and one day he might come back to them. He said he would never come back, but she didn’t believe it. It was saying you would never get better, to believe a thing like that.

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The librarians and lovers and shopkeepers and folks who were collateral damage or standees in the masturbatory gadget cartoons of Ian Fleming were, well, people in le Carré’s work.

In those weird few hours after my brush with CIA recruitment, I wasn’t conjuring le Carré scenes from memory so much as my years of reading him had left the cold arcs of his stories and glum fates of his characters on my heart. Absolute Friends. The Little Drummer Girl. Tinker Tailor. They were in me, in letter and in spirit. I knew intellectually that the whole racket of the CIA and MI6 was bad and imperial and anti-Black and paranoid because I had studied the coups and read the academics. I felt the emotional void at the center of espionage and pulled myself back from trying my hand at it because I trusted le Carré.

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The didactic strain in le Carré insists on shaking the audience like a Brecht play: See how consequence works? Don’t let yourself become shit! Look what happened to these people! To me, it’s the core of his genius. It is the pill hidden in among the inimitable descriptions and surgical plotting. His work disabused me of my own affluent achievement complex and showed me that considering espionage as a place in which to work out my own political idealism would be like working for a tar sands company in the hopes of fighting climate change.

Almost a decade and a half has passed since that fall afternoon where I abandoned my chance to become a ghost for the CIA. I don’t know what would have happened if I had really tried, but I’m grateful I never did. Instead, I had le Carré’s novels as equipment for living instead, his late-career tack toward centering journalists and civil servants and immigration lawyers as a beacon: Here were paths to meaning; here are the real fights against the chaos and stupidity of the world.

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