For years, I’ve never been able to get past the first chapter of this spy novel, because the book opens with a long chapter in which a mysterious teacher arrives at a boarding school and wins the adoration of a much put-upon boy. The chapter seems so out of line with what the book is about that I actually wondered if there was something wrong with my copy of the book. But yesterday, I just decided to skip it and start with the second chapter, which is actually about, you know, spy shit.
And it was pretty interesting. I’ve read several of Le Carré’s spy novels before, so I know a bit about the milieu that they describe: Le Carré’s spies aren’t particularly sexy or brave or competent; they’re nebbishy civil servants who spend lots of their time engaging in back-office politicking. But he’s not writing farce. His characters do genuinely run covert operations and traffick in real peoples’ lives.
I’ve never read a Le Carré novel that was quite as quiet and colorless as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, though. The whole book is a series of quiet back-office conversations as George Smiley goes through records, trying to figure out which of his colleagues is a high-level Russian mole. At times, it felt a bit too slow, but eventually I settled into the pacing and found a certain charm in it. In this book, I think that Le Carré purposefully tried to take some of the thrill out of the spy novel, so we could focus on the intricacy of the plots that people tried to run. In his preface, he writes that what he wanted to write about were the insane dynamics of the double-agent game: if you have an agent who’s inside an enemy intelligence service, then you want to gain good information from him, but you also want him to advance within that service and become more important. Thus, you need to feed the agent enough intelligence that he comes off as a golden boy within his own organization. As such, everything becomes a very delicate matter of figuring out exactly how you can turn an agency against itself and destroy its effectiveness as an intelligence-gathering operation.
Le Carré makes the plotting here look very simple. I mean, well, not exactly simple, but…organic. When everything is revealed, it all makes sense. However, I know (from becoming mired in plotting recently) that it must’ve been fiendishly difficult to line up all these pieces in just the right way.
I’m glad that I’ve finally gotten over this hump, especially because it means that I’m now free to tackle a few of his other novels.
Okay, so sometimes I feel like I am neglecting this blog. That is not really true, I guess, but I built up quite a lot of posting in March and February, and I am getting slightly more traffic than I used to get, so I kind of feel like I owe it to you folks to post something once in awhile. Still, the heart wants what it wants, and right now what it wants is to unsystematically ramble about the books I’ve read so far in April.
The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society Of Pickup Artists by Neil Strauss – I am so embarrassed to have read this book. I mean it. I was seriously considering never telling anyone that I had ever read it. It is basically about nerds who form little clubs where they try to scientifically figure out how to pick up women. And I felt compelled to mention it because this book is the most entertaining book ever. It supplants my old most entertaining book ever, which was Carolyn Jessop’s Escape (a memoir growing up in a polygamous Mormon splinter sect). Yes, I guess there is something about creepy sexual subcultures that just really appeals to me, nonfiction-wise. I am going to do my best not to explore what that means.
The Game is so amazingly ridiculous that it is hard to believe it could be real. I am convinced that everyone in this book is gay. They are so homosocial. They’re all about just bro’ing out together and forming little cliques and having all this drama with each other. All the heat and sizzle in the book comes from relationships between men. Women are barely a presence at all.
Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga – When I originally read this book, around a week ago, I had so much more to say about it. In fact, I realize now that I never wrote about The White Tiger, which I read two months ago and really loved too. Basically, both these books are supreme poverty porn. There is something deliriously intoxicating about how miserable it is possible to be in India. The beauty of Aravind Adiga is that he writes poor characters as if they were rich people transplanted into the lives of poor people. He makes the lot of a Delhi-based driver, who is richer than 75% of Indians, seem like the most miserable thing imaginable. It’s not psychologically accurate, but it is emotionally compelling.
Parallel Lives, Volume III by Plutarch – Classically educated people are huge fakers. You know how, when you read old writers, like Emerson (especially Emerson), they’re always mentioning little anecdotes from the lives of Romans and Greeks that you’ve never heard of. And these anecdotes usually illustrate some sort of moral point? Well those guys had just read Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, which is a collection of little anecdotes about famous Romans and Greeks that he uses to illustrate moral points.
You know, the novella length is really ideal for biography. I don’t really want to spend 100,000 words learning about some guy, even if he is an awesome guy. But sometimes I do want to know more about a person than I can find in their Wikipedia entry. The length of each of Plutarch’s lives is about perfect (15-20k words). Also, at least in the Project Gutenberg version, each volume focuses on a different part of Greek/Roman history. Volume III was about Alexander’s conquests and about Rome’s Civil Wars. It had a lot of big guys in it: Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Crassus, Pompey, Cato. I liked it. I know that the right way to learn history is systematically, and not by studying the biographies of great men, but sometimes it’s fun to say ‘Screw that’ and skip straight to the exciting stories and colorful personalities.
Waiting For The Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee – There are some authors whose work I really like, but who I never look forward to reading. I really enjoyed Coetzee’s Disgrace when I read it last year. I stayed up and finished it at like 3 AM. But I never even felt tempted to pick up anything else by him. Waiting for the Barbarians is a fantasy novel though! Well, kind of. It’s fantasy without any magic. Or worldbuilding. It’s basically like Kalpa Imperial. It’s about an unnamed magistrate at the edge of an unnamed empire that is at war with some pretty generic barbarians. It’s really hard to pin down the appeal of this book. But it is totally captivating.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde – I’ve been reading through a number of Wilde’s essays lately, and I was like, “Hmm, I am totally unfamiliar with his artistic work. If it kind of sucks, then it would be somewhat foolish to take seriously these essays about producing art and the nature of art and the awesomeness of being an artist.” So I read some of his plays. This one is amazing. You know how when you read the comedic portions of Shakespeare, you end up being kind of amazed at how quick and clever everything is, but you’re not actually amused because it’s too much work to figure out what is going on and anyway the jokes are in old-timey language so your brain cannot really interpret them as jokes and anyway a lot of the jokes are puns, which don’t really do it for modern audiences anyway? Well, reading this play is what it must have been like for one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries to read one of his comedies. It is that good.
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – Ever since reading Emma, two years ago, I have steadily read through every single one of Austen’s books (except Pride and Prejudice) without ever being really satisfied with any of them. All of them have bits and pieces of what I liked about Emma (in this case, I found the slow, fitful plotting and some of the dialogue to be to my taste), but none of them have quite done it. I really wanted to like this one just because most people do not like it. But in the end I could not, for exactly the same reason most people can’t. Fanny Price is totally insufferable. What is her deal, seriously? What makes her so much better than everyone else? Also, the novel is severely confused about some things. If Fanny is good because she wasn’t spoiled, then why are her brothers and sisters (who grew up with much less nice stuff than she did) not good as well? Does being rich make you good? Or does being poor make you good? This book is confused. All it can say for certain is that if you put on an amateur theatrical in your house then you are totally beyond-the-pale in terms of your evilness. Oh well, I guess I will finally go read Pride and Prejudice.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John Le Carre – I’ve been reading JLC, but somehow don’t really have anything to say. What book of his should I read next? I’ve only read this one and Call For The Dead (which I almost kind of liked better?)
Methland by Nick Reading – This is a very entertaining book. It’s about meth in small town America. I am fascinated by small towns and the way that they’ve gone, in the national consciousness, from idyllic places to hellish dystopias. But I just need to say one thing. The drug problem is over. Drug use peaked in 1980. Since then we’ve had 30 years of drug use at roughly current levels (went up a little in the 2000’s, but not nearly to 80s levels). What we have now is systemic. And we have learned to live with it. It’s not going to get worse. It’s probably not going to get better. Why do we keep pretending like drugs are something new? They are not. They are not new. They are nothing to get worried about. Oh, another problem that is totally over (briefly touched on in this book) is illegal immigration. Seriously, look at the number of illegal immigrants entering this country. That number has dropped precipitously. And you know why? There are no jobs for them here anymore. There aren’t even any jobs for us. We solved illegal immigration by becoming poor. Also, amphetamines were basically legal in the 40’s and 50’s (in the form of things like Benzedrine inhalers). Cocaine and heroin were legal in the 20s. If the drug problem is merely one of supply and demand, then why were these eras not a hellish, swirling vortex of drug abuse? I think there is a good chance that drug use actually was really high back then*, but since it doesn’t fit into our cultural narratives, we have forgotten about it.
*I mean, Thomas De Quincy’s Confessions of An English Opium Eater was about getting narcotized to all hell way back in 1804. And yet, somehow, we never think of Regency England as high-tide for druggies (The reason Mr. Darcy was a jerk was probably because he was in withdrawal)