26 February 2013

A Great and Terrible Beauty (Libba Bray)

Libba Bray's first novel, the excellently titled A Great and Terrible Beauty, is basically a Victorian girls' school version of The Craft. Which is one of those things I didn't know I wanted, until I Really Really Did.

It's the opening installment of a trilogy narrated by Gemma Doyle, whose mother's murder uproots her from her lifelong home in Bombay and lands her, unhappily, at Spence Academy outside London. Gemma makes friends with first her roommate Ann, a meek scholarship student for whom governess will be a step up from her parents' lot, and then, grudgingly, two popular girls--the beautiful Pippa, a merchant's daughter about to be married off to a Mr. Bumble forty years her senior, and Felicity Worthington, whose cruel exterior hides deep loneliness and frustration. All four girls yearn for something they can't have: Felicity for power, Pippa for true love, Ann for beauty, and Gemma, who discovered the day of her mother's death that she possesses frightening and seemingly uncontrollable occult powers, for normalcy. Led by a diary from two decades before, whose authoress bears a mysterious connection to a tragic fire that destroyed Spence's east wing, the girls begin to dabble in magic, finding their way to a fantasy world called the Realms. The freedom they find there is intoxicating; as Gemma says, "It isn't that we do what we want. It's that we're allowed to want at all." Of course, not all is at it seems, in the Realms or the real world, and dark forces slowly begin to reveal themselves. (Will have to read the next two books, Rebel Angels and The Sweet Far Thing, for the full arc.)

I quite enjoyed this novel, but I do have one big quibble--Bray repeats a couple of Oh Those Repressive Victorian tropes that are dubious, if not entirely spurious. For instance, while displaying one's ankles was inappropriate, certainly, it wouldn't have caused a scandal on the life-ruining level--though running naked through the woods, as the girls do in a scene eerily reminiscent of The Secret History, would probably come close. More worrisome to me is that she repeats the almost certainly false advice to marriageable daughters that they should "lie back and think of England" during sex; I'm not an historian, but a moment's research shows that the first written instance of this phrase is in a private journal from 1912, which is Edwardian. Had it been commonly used, wouldn't someone have used it, seriously or in mockery, before then, for instance in some of the Victorian's eras OCEANS of porn? Obviously, I'm not claiming that the Victorian era was not a period of extremely limited options for women, particularly as teenagers. Rather, it's precisely because of this, and the underlying parallels between the plights of these young women and the modern ones who read the book, for whom there are often still "no safe choices....Only other choices," that makes me wish she'd been more rigorous. (Also, must there be corsets on the covers of all three books? I prefer this Czech edition (which remembers Gemma's in mourning), or this awesome Dutch one.)

20 February 2013

Navigating Early (Clare Vanderpool)

Navigating Early, Clare Vanderpool’s follow-up to her Newbery-winning debut, Moon Over Manifest, didn’t wow me as much as her first novel—but it’s still sweet and compelling, a worthy addition to historical children’s fiction.

Narrator Jack Baker is thirteen in 1945, freshly mourning his mother, when the naval-captain father he hardly knows uproots him from his Kansas home and enrolls him in boarding school on the coast of Maine. Poor Jack’s so overwhelmed by his first glimpse of the ocean that he throws up on the sandy shore. (As a fellow transplanted plains-dweller, I can relate—though I’ve never had so strong a reaction, I think I’ll always be unsettled by the enormity of the sea.) But even the Atlantic seems shallow compared to Jack’s loneliness (is that a terrible simile? I worry that’s a terrible simile. Ah, well, if so, forgive me). And so he drifts into an unlikely friendship with Early Auden, “the strangest of boys,” who sorts jellybeans to calm himself down, who reads an epic voyage in the digits of pi. The two set off on a voyage of their own along the Appalachian Trail, ostensibly in search of a notorious bear . . . the discoveries they make, of course, are more personal, though perhaps as difficult and dangerous as bringing down such a beast.

Like I said above, I was less amazed by this one as her previous book, but it’s more the greatness of the latter than any fault of the former. And part of it’s definitely my own fault—I found Jack’s and Early’s episodic travels, full of larger-than-life characters, somewhat improbable. That’s thoroughly intentional on Vanderpool’s part, however, an obvious-in-retrospect homage to the Odyssey. (The classical scholar in me hangs her head in shame.) There’s a certain New England Huck Finn-iness to it, too, fun without being frivolous. While Early himself could easily have become a Manic Pixie Dream Autistic Kid, serving only as a means for Jack to work through his own pain, he’s a deeper character than that. Early has losses of his own, and is even less equipped to navigate out from among them than Jack, being daunted and confused by emotions in general. Both boys are broken at the start of the book; by the end, they’ve moved in the right direction.

14 February 2013

Ghost Lights (Lydia Millet)

I first read Lydia Millet last fall at the urging of a co-worker. And by urging, I mean he brought me his copy of How the Dead Dream, put it in my hands, and said "YOU ARE READING THIS NEXT." I skimmed the opening passage, wherein protagonist T. as a boy falls in love with money--not the abstract concept of wealth, but physical coins and bills themselves, describing his infatuation with "Hamilton, whose face was fraught with nobility and feminine grace despite a nose that was far from small. . . . At times he found himself ranking the girls in his class on a scale from one to ten in terms of their resemblance to the former soldier of the Republic." Well. As a gal with a long-standing and well-documented crush on ol' Alex, I was hooked.

(And because I'm a lucky duck who works for a bookstore and hence has relationships with publishers' sales reps, who are, no joke, the Best People, I asked my Norton rep for the rest of Millet's recently completed sort-of trilogy, Ghost Lights and Magnificence, and she graciously obliged. Thank you, Karen!)

The genesis of said urging had come a few days prior. We were idly flipping through a just-arrived ARC--a debut thriller, as, like, half the ARCs we receive seem to be--and he (let's call him W., in honor of T.) read aloud a couple of flat, leaden declarative sentences, Subject Verb Object marching towards oblivion. This led W. to broach the concept of "books that feel written," and I knew exactly what he meant. There are books that are such immediate artifacts of mind, such meticulous concatenations of words, that reading them is like drowning. Connecting with a book--and by extension an author--like this is the closest one can get to telepathy.

Millet's books feel written.

So while, yes, Ghost Lights has a plot, and a main character, and themes, I'm not going to talk about any of that. (Here's a synopsis). Instead, I'm just going to quote; this novel has once and for all turned me into the kind of person who dog-ears pages, so I can actually find the quotes I loved again. Hurray for me! I've become a real book reviewer.
  • "Eggs arrived, with a slice of papaya to remind him of his location. Lest he mistake them for Hackensack eggs or eggs in Topeka, the papaya came along to announce they were tropical eggs, to remind him that congratulations!—he was on a tropical vacation." (78)
  • "Socially speaking a German turned outward, like a sunflower toward the sun; a bohemian turned inward like a rotting pumpkin." (107)
  • "[F]ish still moved among [the corals], their bright bodies flashing among the worn gray humps like the Mohawks of teenage punks drinking in a graveyard." (183)
  • "The dogs were a kind of love, given freely to men. Their existence meant you did not have to be alone. For if, in the end, you found yourself alone, completely alone, and it was chilling, you could look for a dog. And there, in the dog, would be love. You did not have to deserve a dog. Rather a dog was a gift, a gift and a representative. What a dog was was simple: the ambient love of the world." (250)
Did you gasp at that last one? I sure did.

13 February 2013

The Vanishers (Heidi Julavits)

A cursory Google search indicates that most reviews of Heidi Julavits's delightful psychic-detective story The Vanishers focus on its themes of female competition--the protagonist, Julia Severn, finds herself under astral attack by her former mentor, Madame Ackerman, even as she investigates the disappearance of a provocative French filmmaker, Dominique Varga, who may have know Julia's mother--a victim of suicide when Julia was an infant. These motifs having been well covered elsewhere, then, I'd like to add my own two-cent accolade for Julavits's wry yet sympathetic portrayal of chronic illness, an experience woefully resonant for me. (Honestly, it would explain so much if I'd been psychically assaulted for the last year or so. But I think that's called "living in New York.")

From the prologue:
And so it goes, your body's hurtle along a failure trajectory that no doctor can explain. There is only the numb leg, the searing esophagus, the face--its frostbit complexion, its vinegar stare--you no longer recognize as your own.
I'm overworked and need to take more vitamins, you'll tell yourself. Maybe I'm allergic to wheat or my new car. Maybe I'm depressed, or not enough in love anymore with my life, my spouse, my self. You'll schedule beach vacations or more time at the gym, but no matter how many times you dunk yourself in oceans or flush the liquid content of your body through your pores, you can't escape the suspicion that a cancer drifts through your anatomy, that it will soon metastasize to your personality, that it is only a matter of time before it breaches the cellular firewall encircling your soul.
Julia's struggle towards health, physical and psychic, shuttles between hope and despair (like the traveler's "rapidly alternating . . . states of ravenous hunger and . . . queasy disgust") and the incomprehensible yet absolutely true simultaneous experience of both. Ultimately, she seems to conclude that "this is what being a person means, to be sickened by an illness known as you."

It is such a joy to read an entire novel of writing like this, so lithe and elastic. I've never understood why the popular page-turner has such short sentences--to keep me reading, I need these long waves of phrasing, undulating under the precise control of punctuation. Julavits can also toss off a one-liner--my favorite here is "'You look very convalescent apres-ski'". She's an author I'll be reading more of, that's for sure. And how fortuitous to have ended up reading three gorgeously written books by women in a row! (Beginning with Holly Goddard Jones's The Next Time You See Me, followed up by Lydia Millet's Ghost Lights, which I'll write up soon.) Great job, ladies!

12 February 2013

The Next Time You See Me (Holly Goddard Jones)

Holly Goddard Jones's debut novel The Next Time You See Me is the book Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl wishes it was: more compassionate, more believable, just as beautifully written.

(Yeah, I know, I'm the only one who found Gone Girl ultimately kinda . . . silly? That plot twist halfway through is just not good; were it framed in less assured prose, no one would've given the novel a second thought.)

It's a shame, really, that my first impulse is comparative, because while Jones is working in the same character-driven crime-fiction milieu as Flynn and Tana French, the sheer range of The Next Time You See Me sets it apart. Though it's written in third person, Jones's narrative inhabits several different psyches, centering around the erratic, doomed figure of Ronnie Eastman: Emily, a pudgy and persecuted middle schooler who finds her body in the first chapter; Susanna, Ronnie's younger sister, desperately trying to convince those around her that Ronnie has really disappeared; Wyatt, a factory worker and bachelor whose quiet, unchanging life is upended by a heart attack; Tony, an African-American baseball star now a detective in his small Kentucky hometown. Even minor characters--Christopher, Emily's unattainable crush; Sarah, a nurse who, with Wyatt, is shocked into love--are full and real, keeping their own sadnesses, shames, and small joys. While Flynn's protagonists are (deliciously) horrible people, Jones's diverse cast are all sympathetic, and she pulls off the astounding feat of making your heart break as much for the murderer as the victim.

And she does this all with such lovely words, too, from brief images--"his jaws, while not chattering, exactly, were shivering against one another like plates in a dishwasher"--to long, well-wrought passages of insight:
[Susanna had] taken to [motherhood] like she'd taken to cooking: with intelligence and determination but no confidence, consulting books and her own mother's counsel the way she checked, every time she made a white sauce for macaroni and cheese, to make sure that the recipe called for two tablespoons of flour and not three. She wasn't the kind of woman who could throw three or four ingredients into a pot, willy-nilly, and create a meal. She wasn't the kind of woman who could give discipline or life instruction or even an allowance, willy-nilly, and create a daughter.
I strongly suspect I'll be the same way upon acquiring offspring. I am certainly that kind of cook.

Really can't recommend this one highly enough.

09 February 2013

Bartleby the Scrivener (Herman Melville)

Once again, I'm missing book club--just not up to snow-trudging, y'know? Sorry to miss a discussion of "Bartleby the Scrivener," the weirdest, trolling-est bit of classic lit ever. (This time around, I think maybe Bartleby's a ghost? Why not?) In lieu of new thoughts, I herewith present my favorite essay from my grad school days, entitled "Scrivening."

English 800
Dr. Brooks
(aw, Dr. Brooks, wearer of beer-and-pretzel socks)
6 December 2004

Plato, in his Phaedrus, asserts his mistrust of the written word and his preference for spoken dialectic. A book’s inert ideas, he argues, can only be rhetorically questioned, while a Socratic figure in the flesh can be poked, prodded, and cajoled and can poke, prod, and cajole in turn. Since the dialogue itself, however, comes down in manuscript form, Plato’s dislike for the method ultimately rings hollow, and modern scholars reverse his hierarchy. No texts, no literature, claim critics; they dismiss verbal rhetoric as merely a short-lived version of the enduring power of the pen. That even the great Shakespeare intended most of his words to be declaimed rather than printed fails to make a dent in the press’s primacy. Despite this nearly universal prejudice, Herman Melville’s darkly comic masterpiece “Bartleby the Scrivener” fiercely indicts its own endeavor by means of a dangerous theme: there is no such thing, the story concludes, as an original text. All stories become, as Nietzsche said of the readings of them, only interpretation.

“Bartleby” itself, however, defies interpretation. Stylistically, Melville "had great difficulties with control. His modes had been erratic mixtures of narrative, drama, sermon, oration, and lyric poetry. He had had trouble maintaining a consistent omniscient or first person narrator point of view; he had allowed himself digressions in his own voice. His tone had been erratic also, and not always in a functional way; contemplative, detached, satirical . . . lyric, bombastic, and personal" (Plumstead 85). “Bartleby”’s shuttling between mundane (the mind-numbing routine of a law office) and absurd (an attorney’s illogical unwillingness to remove an wayward employee), hilarious (Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut) and heartrending (Bartleby), certainly exemplifies its author’s lack of control—or, it could be easily argued, his immense control of a wide variety of styles. They amount to the same thing. In addition, “Bartleby” marked Melville’s first published foray into the short story—a genre favored by his idol Nathaniel Hawthorne and his contemporary Edgar Allan Poe—which meant “[h]e must now exercise tight control on wordiness and lyricism not pertinent to a single effect. He must not intrude with digressions” (Plumstead 86). Without further analyzing “Bartleby”’s structure and diction, the reader should remember Melville’s failure to achieve formal coherence and the many influences of his writings.

The work also lacks thematic coherence, to the point where few agree on what “Bartleby” is “about.” Here I must thank Henry A. Murray for, in the opening address of the Melville Society of America’s 1965 symposium on “Bartleby,” skillfully, thoroughly, and wittily collecting the wide-ranging opinions of the narrator, the psychologist, the author, the scrivener, the biographer, two dissenting critics, and the historian upon the narrative at hand, after asserting to begin with that “Bartleby per se is meaningless so long as no reader can either discover or drive a bit of sense in him” (3). In the same essay, he evinces a very Derrida-like sense of play as he riffs off of the word “I” in his title, “weav[ing] around this first person pronoun an entangling spider’s web of recondite allusions and insinuations” (Murray 3), suggesting that it may mean the narrator; Murray himself; Melville; punning on “I” as the organ of sight, "the Evil Eye? or, let us say, the Eye of History? or the Eye of Criticism? or maybe the Eye of some special cult or doctrine—theosophy, Marxism, Freudian infantology, Jungian archetypology, existentialism, Zen Buddhism—. . . . [or] the Documentary Eye, say, of the biographer, of the critic or historian" (Murray 4). A novella which allows for this kind of critical flexibility—dare I say, undecideability—contains very little that is fixed. As Lewis Leary puts it, “[this] small tale which might be thought to be about almost nothing at all has become a universal reflector” (14). While Bartleby’s silence and the wall at which he stares seem to represent stony permanence, the story containing them moves quickly and fluidly.

Similarly, Bartleby’s character resists classification. Murray’s cast of characters refer to him variously as “utterly misanthropic,” “Christ-like,” exhibiting symptoms of “catatonic schizophrenia,” and mirroring the author himself, counting “an enormous major difference and thirteen minor similarities between Melville and his scrivener” (10, 13, 24, 23). Other critics compare him to the heroes of Camus, Kafka, and Beckett, the latter having given up on Godot. To Maurice Friedman, Bartleby represents the Modern Exile, who “sees death as the final term of absurdity set to his own attempts at a meaningful existence” (78); whereas in William Bysshe Stein’s opinion, Melville “unobtrusively convert[s] Bartleby into the lawyer’s [Christian] conscience” (106). Rarely have so many contradictions arisen in the discussion of a single persona.

Yet all of these far-flung critical approaches fail to grasp the scope of Melville’s editorial project in “Bartleby.” The act around which the story centers—Bartleby’s repeated, ever-so-polite refusal to do his job—should be analyzed not in terms of symbol of style, but by what he actually refuses to do. The narrator describes it thus: "It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. When there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original" (Melville Billy 114). Bartleby politely refuses to assist his boss in verifying his copy; that is, he refuses to establish that he has created an exact copy of the original document. Bartleby, and Melville (who, Murray’s biographer claims, preferred not to correct proofs) along with him, does not believe that such a copy can be made. It follows from this premise that, since even the first draft of a literary work is attempting to copy ideas in an author’s imagination, there are no original texts. All works of the mind cannot leave the mind without error creeping into the system.

Obviously, Melville’s assertion is shattering to his (and our) readership’s notions of reliable text. The lowest expectation a reader brings to a work is that of honesty; she trusts the author not to play her false. Inconsistencies, conventional slip-ups, and implausibilities break the contract between author and reader and cause the works containing these errors to be consigned to the dustbin. But what if, as Bartleby/Melville suggests, the author cannot tell the whole truth, no matter how much he wants to, simply because he cannot copy what is in his head? The contract becomes arbitrary; if all works are fallacious, shifts in verb tense or mixed metaphors seem less egregious. The gulf between “good” and “bad” writing narrows.

Besides its Nietzsche-like blurring of values, Melville’s allegation has other metaphysical implications. Stream-of-consciousness inventions such as “automatic writing” and the Beat drug culture’s poetry (both often consigned to the dustbin by unscholarly readers) perhaps come closest to reproducing the author’s original intent. But since thought consists of more than language, non-verbal images translate arbitrarily into proscribed arrangements of letters; if no word exists for a concept, it cannot be expressed. Thus many human experiences which cannot accurately be written down despair of reaching the literary canon. Communicable only in approximation, the immensely complicated emotions we call “fear” and “love,” the concepts designated by the signifiers “truth” and “good,” both resonate with all humanity and fall on deaf ears—both have universal weight and stubborn specificity.

That Melville should, however subtly, make so sweeping a statement about the nature of his art becomes less surprising given the place of the “original text” in his other works. “Benito Cereno,” for example, takes as its basis Amasa Delano’s 1790s Narrative; yet, after bothering to establish a provenance unfamiliar to most of his readers, Melville freely adjusts character and plot to his own designs. He “pruned” the title character, for instance, “to vein and flesh him with altruism and goodness. In life, he was a swindler, a liar, the scorn of his friends, the stabber of a helpless Negro slave” (Kaplan 61). He also tars Cereno’s opponent Babo with a far darker brush than recorded. Finally, the last section of “Cereno” consists of a series of legal documents, texts trusted above all others for truth. But, as many critics have pointed out, these texts merely obscure unpleasant truths revealed or implied in the preceding narrative; for example, Babo never gives testimony, omitting a vital perspective of the San Dominick’s tale. Melville “reads” Delano’s document in accordance with his own symbology, leaving the inviolable “original text” by the wayside.

Moby-Dick opens with Melville’s rattling off a Who’s Who of quotes about whales, from sources as diverse as Job (“Leviathan maketh a path to shine after him;/ One would think the deep to be hoary.”), Hamlet (“Very like a whale.”), and Darwin (“On one occasion I saw two of these monsters [whales] probably male and female”) (2, 3, 11). The book, although it seems to center on Ahab’s pursuit of the White Whale, digresses early and often into non-literary chatter; the Table of Contents lists chapters called “The Whiteness of the Whale,” “Jonah Historically Regarded,” and “Measurement of the Whale’s Skeleton,” none of which advance the epic, much-praised plot at all, though the section on dissecting the whale’s carcass has been called the best technical writing ever put on paper. Why, then, did Melville include these quotes and chapters in the book? What seems his attempt to “inform” the reader is rather gentle non-mocking play. “See,” he says, “I have dressed up my fanciful story in good scientific clothes. You can trust me to tell the truth about Ahab because I’ve backed it up with the Hebrew for ‘whale,’ because I’ve told the truth about its skeleton.” But he knows all the time that none of these texts can be trusted, that all stories are equally fallacious—ah, yes, but conversely, equally true. Ahab’s mad chase takes place on the same level of reality—and, at the same time, unreality—as the “fact” of “the Hanoverian flag[’s] bearing the one figure of a snow-white charger” (Melville Moby-Dick 163).

Bartleby’s bold assertion, so quietly and neatly put, colors Melville’s entire opus. Does Melville, then, jettison all literary significance? Do all texts, in his opinion, best resemble the “dead letters” Bartleby once worked with, Friedman’s symbol of “the entire hopeless attempt at human dialogue and communication” (79)? From these tragic missives "the pale clerk takes a ring—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, molders in the grave; a bank note sent in swiftest charity—he whom it would relieve nor eats nor hungers no more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death" (Melville Billy 143). In this stark reading the author’s task proves futile, and Bartleby himself imitates a reproduced text, Xeroxed into pallid insignificance; he is the hero run off a thousand times, so that only a smudge remains.

But since Melville, like Plato, made extensive use of the written word, he could hardly haven taken such a masochistic position. Instead, with his lack of formal and thematic coherence and his playful use of other’s words, Melville creates texts whose meanings—prefiguring the modern era—may exist in a wide variety of places, but not in the author’s original intent, since this intent cannot possibly reach the reader. Unlike the meaningless and miserable dead letters—texts with no context—Melville’s works fit a multiplicity of contexts; their symbolism (unlike that of Hawthorne) challenges all permanent codification. Each rereading of “Bartleby” thus rewrites him anew—according to the audience’s preference.

Works Cited
  • Friedman, Maurice. “Bartleby and the Modern Exile.” Vincent 64-81.
  • Kaplan, Sidney. “Herman Melville and the American National Sin: The Meaning of ‘Benito Cereno.’” Contexts for Criticism. Ed. Donald Keesey. Fourth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.
  • Leary, Lewis. “B is for Bartleby.” Introduction. Bartleby the Inscrutable. Ed. M. Thomas Inge. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1979.
  • Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and Other Tales. New York: Signet, 1998.
  • ---. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 1967.
  • Murray, Henry A. “Bartleby and I.” Vincent 3-24.
  • Plumstead, A.W. “Melville’s Venture Into a New Genre.” Vincent 82-93.
  • Stein, William Bysshe. “Bartleby: The Christian Conscience.” Vincent 104-112.
  • Vincent, Howard P., ed. Melville Annual 1965, A Symposium: Bartleby the Scrivener. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1966.

05 February 2013

Etiquette & Espionage (Gail Carriger)

Gail Carriger's YA debut, Etiquette & Espionage, is set in the same steampunk, vampires-n-werewolves-n-ghosts-oh-my Victorian England as her endlessly charming Parasol Protectorate series, cause enough for celebration--this was one of those ARCs I clasped to my bosom in delight before even cracking the cover. Even better, it's set at a girl's school for spies and assassins, and since it takes place 30 years previous to the Parasol novels, a couple of characters appear as little girls! And there is a clockwork sausage dog named Bumbersnoot!!

For anyone who'd like a plot summary in lieu of my jumping up and down waving my hands about in glee (I can't say I'm doing it literally right at this moment, but believe you me it has occurred): 14-year-old Sophronia Angelina Temminnick is a rough-and-tumble, mechanically minded miss, a terrible disappointment to her mother, who packs her off to Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality, much to Sophronia's chagrin. However, she soon learns that elocution and country dances are far from the principal subjects of said school--weapons training, poison, and the judicious use of fainting spells are all required courses, and said "finishing" is less of the young ladies themselves than of "anything and anyone" who needs it.

This winning premise is of course right in Carriger's wheelhouse, juxtaposing mannered, deadpan prose, ingenious tech, and perilous sleuthing. And she slides effortlessly into writing for a younger demographic--heck, I'd give this to a ten-year-old with enough Nancy Drew and middle-grade Gaiman under her (or his) belt. I mean, I'd sell them a copy, cause they ain't getting their grubby little paws on mine.


04 February 2013

The Looking Glass War (John LeCarre)

This is, I believe, the third John LeCarré I've read, after The Spy Who Came In From the Cold in high school and The Little Drummer Girl in college. The Looking Glass War can be considered "minor" next to those giants of the genre--but like his literary forebear, Graham Greene, even LeCarré's lesser novels are worth reading.

What I liked best about Looking Glass War was its perspective--it's set among the agents of Britain's military intelligence, the Department, rather than the cover-but-civilian peacetime operators of "the Circus." Twenty years after WWII, the Department finds itself lowest on the totem pole--marginalized and unsupported. They don't even have a motor pool. So when an East German comes to them in Hamburg claiming a Soviet missile installation nearby, Department head LeClerc jumped at the chance to recapture old glories, despite the information being's less than convincing. They recruit a naturalized Pole, Fred Leiser, to cross the border and confirm the story.

Like the other books of his I've read, Looking Glass War is less a collection of action setpieces--you know, like every spy movie ever--than it is an examination of the relationships between spies, the pressures of bureaucracy, and the toll on the human psyche of constant deception. And while this is why he (and Greene) tend to get shelved in Serious Literature, these are traits that should be found in all thrillers. Emotional investment, no matter what the genre, elevates an OK book to a great one.
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