The Quiet American (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

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For the Love of the Books

1.
There was extra time left at the end of the class and our Koran/Religious Studies teacher was allowing us to quietly do whatever we liked until break time. This was seventh grade and I’d never had a teacher remotely like her. She was young and pretty, unlike our other Divinity teachers who made it a point to dress badly and look bland. She had serene, generous eyes and her bright colored manteaus and overcoats were always tasteful and carefully ironed out. It took me a while to gather enough courage to go up to her desk, a crumpled piece of paper clammy from my sweaty palm in hand. Unfolding the balled-up note I asked nervously, “What does this mean?” It was a word I didn’t know how to pronounce, so I’d written it out – اگزیستانسیالیسم, existentialism. I caught the look of shock in our teacher’s face as her eyes darted back and forth between me and the piece of paper. Then in a cold tone she asked, “Where did you find this word?” I still hadn’t realized there might be something so terribly wrong and even believed that I’d managed to inspire her admiration over a difficult word. I told her that I’d found it in an article that the writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad had written about the novel The Blind Owl. The teacher’s face turned red. She was trying to keep her voice down but there was definite disapproval in her tone. “Who told you to read such a book? Where did you even get it? Do you know that its writer, Sadegh Hedayat, killed himself? Do you realize suicide is a great sacrilege? What else do you read? You shouldn’t be reading this sort of thing.”

As she spoke her voice became gradually less reproachful but also more desperate, as if she suspected it was already too late and there was no turning back for me from a fate similar to that of the writer of The Blind Owl. I stared at my shoes and said nothing about what other sorts of books one could find in our house, and that no matter where my older brother might hide his precious volumes I’d still find them. For a moment I even wondered if our teacher simply didn’t know what that word meant. I wasn’t feeling bad or guilty, just a sense that it was best I turn around now, go silently back to my seat, and keep my mouth shut. I was 12 years old at the time and already sure that books were my first and last love. This certainty, though, came with a price, a constant reminder that my love of books was not something I should cultivate or be glad about. In fact, in the world that I grew up, books — at least certain books — were seen as something dangerous, something to be wary of and keep at a distance if possible. Later in life I’d briefly wonder if there might not be some elemental truth to such fears. But at age 12, walking quietly back to that school desk, firm in my intention to never ask a teacher questions about literature again, I already knew that I’d go home and somehow unearth every book that was left to read in my brother’s bookshelf. No one could stop me.

There is the world before a person discovers books and there is the world after. It is a kind of matrimony. Dangerous, but necessary — especially for those of us for whom a life of not reading might seem simpler, but is also drab and ultimately colorless. I was determined; one day I’d marry a book.

2.
The “book” that I wished to marry, the man of my dreams, had to be someone like my brother, Hossein, the person that most resembled a combination of fictional characters like Thomas Fowler of The Quiet American, Prince Bolkonsky of War and Peace, and Rochester of Jane Eyre. Men who were stubborn and hard to pin down, who were jaded and proud, and who even possessed more than a touch of arrogance.

Hossein was working on his Master’s thesis in Economics when he decided to drop it all. He was a poet at heart. But he was also a working journalist and a veteran who’d been at the Karbala 5 operations at the bitterly contested Faw Peninsula during the Iran-Iraq war. Later on, during the Afghan civil war, he would fight alongside his close friend, the legendary commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Masood, and later still he’d fall in the hands of their merciless enemy, the Taliban, for a time. Yet this was the same man who also loved the poetry of Rumi and Vladimir Mayakovsky, and often you’d see him tramping among his papers scattered in the middle of our living room reciting out loud from Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s personal account of the Spanish Civil War.

Hossein was unlike anyone I knew. And I was sure he was that way because of all the books he’d read. Save for a few volumes of The Koran that belonged to our father, all the other books in our house were Hossein’s. He was the owner of a magic treasure chest. He could open that chest and lend me a share of the magic inside.

Which he did. Partly.

But I was hungrier than he’d imagined and would not be satisfied with just what he doled out. I wanted more. Much more. Therefore my first rebellion in life turned out to be directed at my brother, the man I worshipped. He had separated his books between those which my sister and I could read and those that he didn’t want us to touch. His words: “Forget about these other books.” I suppose he felt two adolescent girls growing up in a provincial city in the northeast of Iran weren’t ready yet to read modernist Persian texts and translations of the works of Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

A lot of Hossein’s books weren’t even shelved. In a working class home on the poor side of the city of Mashhad, right after the long eight years of war with Iraq, owning enough bookshelves was beyond our means. Most of the books sat stacked in boxes, silent but pregnant with mysteries that our brother didn’t feel we were ready for. Except that he wasn’t there to watch us. Hossein was usually away lugging a camera to some troubled spot. I can’t recall how long it took before I gave in to the temptation and also made my sister a partner in crime. One day, inevitably, we quit just hovering around those boxes and dug in. We heaved, pushed and pulled, until our tiny hands had managed to undo all those gigantic cartons. I have no idea what prompted my sister to choose Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler first, while I chose W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Nor could I tell you so many years later exactly how much I understood of what I read back then. But I do remember the hours upon hours spent in various corners of the house engulfed and dreaming. If there was a heaven at all, this had to be it. But when the inevitable happened and my brother returned from one of his trips to find out we had not listened to him and delved into the forbidden fruit, he locked the door to Eden. Stifling his natural compassion, Hossein banned us from reaching for any of the books in his library for the next few years.

3.
The female librarian at University of Tehran’s central library takes the two-volume copy of Anna Karenina from me and asks, “You read the whole thing?” I nod yes. By now I’m a junior in college and it’s been just a little over two years since I left Mashhad and came to the capital to study and, hopefully, have my own share of adventures. The librarian puts the books down with distaste and says, “Some women are monsters!” Not knowing how to react, I offer an inane smile. To my understanding, the tragic woman in the novel is nothing like how the librarian describes her. She’s sincere and intelligent. I care about her. And this mindless smile that I offer as an answer is one that, in retrospect, I will go on to offer the world every time I’m faced with declarations and judgments from people who know nothing of the world of shadows, people for whom there is only certainty and no relative answers to difficult questions, people who are forever sure of what’s black and what’s white and who’s guilty and who is not. Books, the very act of reading, have stripped me of absolutes. I do not dislike Anna Karenina, and this is dangerous to our librarian. As I reach to take back my college ID, I see that she has noticed what I’m majoring in and is giving me a hard stare. “You’re actually studying to be a librarian?” Her look turns to one of pity and she continues, “There was nothing else for you to choose besides this? Are you serious? Tomorrow when you graduate what do you think you’ll do? There’s no money in what we do and no job. Take a good look; at most you’ll become someone like me. Is that what you really want?”

I have no answers. There’s no way I can explain that I came to Tehran to major in Library Science because, as absurd and laughable as it seems, I have always wanted to marry a book. There’s no describing that I am here because I could not stand the thought of ever being separated from books and I figured Library Science would guarantee me this marriage. I might in fact try to tell her all of this. But she would not understand. In her curious yet apathetic stare there’s not the slightest hint of the abandon that comes from a true love of books. And all the volumes in this great library have not made a dent in her reasoning. She does not suffer from the bug as I do. We each speak a different language.

4.
The person who did speak my language, however, was an old man that I’d met almost 10 years earlier, just after my fall from grace with my brother. He was a retired school principal in our neighborhood who had turned one of the rooms in his house to a books-for-rent shop. He had a daughter about my own age who was in charge of running the store. For every 24 hours rental of a book they charged a negligible sum. What made the whole set-up even more odd was that it existed in a part of our town where just about every head of a family was a laborer, a place where there was so little interest in books that they were not even used as decoration, where speaking “high language” was considered effete and a sign of incompetence, and where there were at least five children to each household. To try to make a living here by peddling the gibberish of “unbelievers” from clear across the planet who, on top of everything else, had never done right by us and this country, was nothing short of lunacy. That old man, whom I saw only once in his “shop,” had to truly be mad to be doing this. Yet I understood his affliction. I understood that the bug had gotten to him just as it had gotten to me.

When I discovered the books-for-rent shop, nearly two years had passed since my brother’s punishment. Hossein’s library still remained forbidden. I would rent the books and take them home to breathlessly read right in front of our banned library so that Hossein would take notice. Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anton Chekhov’s The Lady with the Dog, The Thirsty Wall and the Stream by the Iranian writer Ebrahim Golestan, Heinrich Böll’s The Clown

It was as if I had found my way back to Eden. My brother saw what was happening, but he stayed silent; not once did he ask me where I was getting those books from or reproach me for going against his mandate. So I kept on reading, right through the scorching summer when I was 15. I read, and Hossein remained silent. Then one week into autumn, he finally pointed to his shelf and to his boxes of books and bellowed, “Those books over there are not just for show!” He had finally surrendered. He was a man who had seen enough of the world to know when it was too late. Whatever calamity he’d believed might befall a teenage Iranian girl whose passion was books was already here. There was no going back for either one of us.

Image Credit: Flickr/San Jose Library.

The More Difficult Path: The Millions Interviews Reif Larsen

In Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, the eponymous Spivet faults a chemistry teacher for falling short of his profession’s duty. Petty and competitive, he has failed, in Spivet’s words, to “distribute wonder.” Like so many in that novel, the formulation lodged itself in my memory, stowed away for future theft. It occurs to me now, however, that the phrase is best repeated to describe Larsen himself, whose extraordinary second novel, I Am Radar, an epic about genocide, performance art, and puppetry, has just been published.

Larsen, as game and thoughtful an interviewee as he is novelist, agreed to talk with me about Radar and my own forthcoming debut, The Poser, a novel about a man born with the compulsion and ability to imitate anyone he meets.

Jacob Rubin: I Am Radar spans radically divergent places, many of which, though not all, are undergoing or on the verge of genocide. There is Cambodia of the ’70s, Congo in 2010, the Bosnian War, Norway of the ’70s, and (perhaps most horrific) New Jersey in 2010. From the outset, did you know these places would make up the book? Were there other settings you considered? At what point in the process, did you know that the performance art group Kirkenesferda would be the novel’s linchpin?

Reif Larsen: During the first three years I was writing Radar I had no idea where this book was going. I originally started in what is now part three, then quickly realized I had to go both back in time but also laterally in space and story. The book really felt like it had this willful mind of its own, which I know is a schizophrenic thing to say because there was no one making this all up but me, but at times I really felt like I was riding this bucking bronco and just trying to hang for dear life. And the book was like: “We’re going to Cambodia, motherfucker.” And I was like…“Okay, fine whatever, you say. Just don’t kill me.” Obviously the cheerful through line of genocide limited some of the places I could potentially set the book in. Also, all of these places I’d had some kind of prior interest in or history with. (My roommate during grad school was writing a book about Cambodia. My friend had been going to the Congo for years making movies.) So the book just started gobbling these places up like a hungry monster. And in the end, I did get to visit all of them too, which was slightly uncanny, particularly when I’d written a scene in a place I’d never been to and then actually went to that place. I was constantly racked by a kind of fictional déjà vu.

Kirkenesferda came about organically. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to establish this group that was there but not there. A kind of ghost — formed by a literature around it, by images and references and anecdotes, and this weird, Borgesian book of all books that obsessively documented the history of the group but which itself cannot be found. There is a line from the novel: “After a while the reader cannot help but wonder how anyone could be so committed to something if it were not, at least in some sense, true. Devotion, at its core, must be a kind of truth.” So I wanted to press this notion of “devotion as confirmation” to its inevitable breaking point.

JR: Let me ask you about curiosity, which seems paramount in your work. In The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, we have Spivet’s joyful, compulsive mapmaking. In Radar, it’s reflected both in the performance group’s mission and in the novel’s radical inclusiveness. I’m thinking, in particular, of the brilliant elucidations of real world phenomena, such as talking drums, quantum mechanics, telegraphy, puppetry, radiography, Morse code, among much else. What is your research process like? I realize the answer here is probably “both,” but which comes first — do you have the inkling that you’ll want to write about a certain place (ie. Cambodia in the ’70s) and then study it, or do you come to experience a place (Norway, for instance) and then feel the itch to set something there?

RL: As you suspected, there’s often a crazy interrelationship between my research and writing. Something will get stuck in my craw years before I ever write a word of the book — in this case it was a micro puppet show I witnessed down a dark staircase in Prague — and it will remain stuck, and I’ll keep coming back to it and usually this is a good sign I’m going to have to digest it via fiction somehow. Usually it’s not a one-to-one correspondence and not at all clear how that little morsel of observation will manifest itself on the page. Often the original reference will become quite veiled. I’ve been accused of writing “anti-autobiographical” fiction.

But then, just as often, my interests come out of the story itself. I will be writing a sentence and the father brings out a Morse Key and I’ll be like, “Shit. Gotta go learn about telegraphy.” For me, it’s always very important to be open to these kinds of messages (Morse or otherwise). The book will tell you what it’s interested in and then you have to go meet its demands. I was also amazed about the inclusivity of this particular book. The challenge was to cover that much ground and still make it feel like a novel, which I wasn’t really sure I did until the thing was finished, five years later. Still not quite sure, actually.

Along these lines, what was your process for researching Giovanni’s imitations? Part of the brilliance of this conceit is that imitations are the stuff of good fiction — noticing these inexplicable details that are there but not there, “the thread” that is unique to only this character. You are forcing yourself to write to specifics, to write compelling descriptions, but also to mine that vital territory of what separates a description of a person from the person itself. So I could see you writing this book armed with only the research of living on this planet as an observant being, but did you do other work as well?

JR: I did do some research, mainly about clothes in the 1940s and some of the history of Hollywood and of the Red Scare in Hollywood, as echoes of that period make their way into the book. In terms of the impressions themselves, as you suspected, I relied mainly on observation, experience, and caffeine. It was fun, though, to dramatize natural qualities of the writer (gesture obsession, hyper-observation) without Giovanni literally having to be one.

To get back to process for a sec, once you’ve assembled some of the research and let the book lead you to where it wants to go, do you think at all about genre? In the same way the best sci-fi bridges those liminal gaps between existing science and the science of, like, 12 hours from now, I Am Radar pulls at the bounds of what seems currently feasible. Did you think of it as science fiction?

RL: As a storyteller, I get very confused by the notion of genre. Even now, if you put a gun to my head I would be hard-pressed to tell you what it is. If there is a talking robot is it science fiction? If there is a dwarf with an axe and a cappuccino is it fantasy? I mean what even is YA anymore? Smaller words? Less complex emotional situations? No sodomy? Mostly genre is a shortcut for publishers and readers looking to categorize stories. Good writers rarely take shortcuts so genre doesn’t seem to be a very helpful discourse for us. A story is a story is a story.

JR: I want to ask about the theme of the exceptional. Radar, like The Selected Works of TS Spivet, explores precocity and its consequences. Many of the oddballs, eccentrics, and foundlings (some literal) who comprise Kirkenesferda are prodigies of a kind. I guess my question is about precocity and family. The precocity seems to give these collaborators joy and a kind of destiny at the price, often, of emotional orphanhood. How often does genius for these characters represent an expression of who they are, and how often does it represent a flight from home, or, at times, a burden parentally imposed?

RL: I’m not sure how to answer this question entirely — I, like many, am obsessed with the unanswerable questions of nature v. nurture and what is inherited and what is created on our own. It’s probably the most fundamental question of our humanness. But I do think you’ve pinned me to a familiar theme that comes up in my writing, which are these people who are imbalanced in some way — they present a particularly extraordinary skillset in one dimension, but then offer suffer an emotional imbalance because of it. Imbalanced characters are much more interesting to write about and throw up onto the canvas. There’s some purchase there and the imbalance leads to movement across the page. But the precocity that you’re referencing does allow for a sort of celebration of the strange; these characters have access to unusual or profound habits or thought processes that give you an excuse to tunnel deep into a mind or a scene or situation.

The same could be said, I suppose, about Giovanni, yes? He’s a great example of an imbalance in a character — a great skill at mimicry but paired with this interpersonal stuntedness. And I think you trace his growth so well over the course of the book. We really feel like we grow with Giovanni as he accepts, masters, and succumbs to his gifts. We feel his pitfalls and his triumphs. As a writer, how do you pace such growth on the page? How do you make it believable?

JR: Oh, definitely, yes. There’s a Buddhist adage about this, the exact wording of which I’m forgetting now, but it’s something like, the worn pocket leads to enlightenment more readily than the gilded robe (I write horrible fortunes cookies on the side). The idea, I think, is, “your strength is your weakness” because you will almost certainly rely too much on your strength, which creates an imbalance, a problem. This is certainly the case with Giovanni who is, in the end, impaired by his gift.

In terms of tracing growth, I think that’s really a matter of rhythm, of merciless rereading, of seeing when certain moments feel like they should come, and then engineering things as best you can to have that moment come maybe slightly before it’s expected. Like a lot of white people, I love rap music, and I’ve noticed really skilled rappers often complete the run of breath just slightly before the downbeat. Jay Z does this a lot. If he hit the beat exactly, it would feel late somehow. I became a bit obsessive about trying to do that with paragraphs and scenes.

What about getting started, inspiration? You’ve said that Susan Sontag’s decision to stage Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1992 was a seed for Radar. How did that seed begin to flower? Were there others?

RL: This is an example of one of those things that got stuck in my craw before a word ever hit the page. I had read an article Sontag wrote about her time putting on Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the war and it struck me as so absurd, almost offensive, in its audacity: to believe that this city under literal siege, where crossing every intersection became a life or death situation because of the snipers, where there was no running water, where people were saving a single onion so that it would last for weeks — why would you go to this place and believe that putting on Godot could possibly be a good idea? But Sontag did and her actors risked their lives to be in the show and the theatre was in terrible shape and people came and after the war they named a street after her. But that knife edge between the sublime and the offensive was something I wanted to explore: the human necessity to put on this existential farce while real horrors were knocking on the door. It gets at the deepest questions of why we feel this strong, totally inexplicable will to create art. We will turn our lives upside down just so we can create art. And these are very personal questions for me because not a day goes by that I do not have some kind of deep doubt about why I’m spending my life writing silly books when there are people in real need out there. And yet I continue to write.

But while we are on this topic: let me ask you…what were the seeds for The Poser? What’s been your own experience acting or on the stage? Often first novels are famous for the writer throwing everything into it (is Radar actually a first novel?) but what I admired about your book was how controlled it felt. The boundaries of the world and the story were delineated in this very self-assured way. Did you spend a lot of time editing down the book?

JR: That Sontag story is fascinating, and Radar explores that dialectic of futility/essentiality so well. I do have some history with performance. I was a rapper in a college hip-hop group in the early-2000s and have done stand-up comedy, so I think a lot about the stage and performance. Years ago I used to entertain at kids’ parties as a juggler, which is my humblebrag way of saying I was a sex symbol. I think I like the disguise the stage demands and the way that disguise allows for the truth. The whole mask thing. It’s a very simple paradox, really, but is somehow, for me, inexhaustible.

I’m glad it felt controlled, thank you. Earlier iterations were less so. This is sort of The Poser 3.0. As I worked through each incarnation of the book, I felt myself becoming more ruthless. I was like Walter White by the end of it. I cut hundreds of pages from the book. A whole section about Giovanni’s childhood. Cut. The asperity of cutting becomes its own sort of decadence. My editor had to stay my hand from cutting more. I wanted to get rid of everything remotely extraneous. The faux America in which the book takes place seemed to require a radical sparseness or the kind of heightening that sparseness ensures. Roberto Calasso has a nice bit about Franz Kafka, how in Kafka a “cabinet” is, like, the only cabinet in the world. It is the platonic Cabinet. In cutting things down, I wanted the nouns in the book to feel like that: the sole furnishings of a concrete abstraction.

This makes me wonder about a certain tradition of literature and its influence on you. Radar is inflected throughout by a Nabokovian sense of play. Elsewhere you’ve written about Orhan Pamuk. How important is a sense of the meta-textual and gamesmanship for you in writing and reading? Would you describe Vladimir Nabokov and Pamuk as influences on Radar? Were there novels you frequently reread or revisited while working on Radar?

RL: I feel like our generation of writers has been washed by the rains of postmodernism and come out the other side cleaner and a little wiser, but largely our own selves still. We can admire and applaud Roland Barthes and Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, but I get this sense from our peers that we’re maybe ultimately not that interested in turning the camera on the whole game and have that be it. In of itself this maneuver is not that interesting and feels like it’s been done before: “Yes! It’s a farce! Fiction is a mirage!” etc. Now that we’ve gotten this out of our system, I think we have permission to almost go back to telling stories. Because it turns out telling good stories — even if you’re propping them up on all kinds of canned maneuvers of realism — is, and will always be, really very hard.

That said, I remain interested in the mechanics of how we do what we do, almost like a boy picking apart an insect to see how all the parts connect. And, in this particular book, I was interested in not just postmodernism for postmodernism sake, but I was shooting for a kind of “quantum fiction,” based on the science of quantum mechanics, whereby you purposefully leave things in a state of indeterminacy — you don’t fundamentally address whether a character is alive or dead. And the trick is to do this so that it has an emotional impact, and isn’t just a game. All maneuvers of these sort I believe have to be working on a pathological level — they can’t just hit the reader in the brain, they have to hit them in the heart. And this is where a lot of postmodernists for me fell short.

I read many books doing research for Radar and quite a few novels. I have to be careful reading fiction while writing fiction because I find there’s a lot of spillover. I’m too exposed. I start copying whomever I’m reading in the moment. But this book took so long to write that I couldn’t avoid fiction altogether and there were a number of books that lent me great wisdom in the process. Many of them are listed in the bibliography, but some important ones were: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Graham Green’s The Quiet American, Danilo Kis’s Garden, Ashes, Miroslav Krleža’s The Return of Philip Latinowicz, and Willem Frederik Hermans’s Beyond Sleep.

What about you? Were their books that you turned to while writing The Poser? And what’s your relationship to other people’s fiction when you’re deep into writing your own?

JR: I’ve been meaning to read Garden, Ashes for years. This reminds me to do it. I am sort of a picky reader when I’m writing. Often I read the same passages from favorite books over and over until I’ve sucked all the word fuel out of them. Some specific works, though, did help as I was writing. Remainder by Tom McCarthy, when I was doing a later pass, helped me with some alienated descriptions of human gesture and attitude. I read some Steven Millhauser, too, who is so good at creating mysterious, seductive landscapes immanent with danger. I think I was also influenced by Robertson Davies’s The Deptford Trilogy, which has sort of lightly magical properties and a crisp, evocative prose style I liked. Otherwise, I often return to Thomas Bernhard, Barry Hannah, and Denis Johnson, and sometimes the poetry of Dave Berman and Emily Dickinson.

RL: So now that you’ve written your first book, what advice would you give to writers who are attempting to do the same?

JR: More and more, I think, solutions to writing problems are found away from the desk. Attention to an obstacle, I think, is like sunshine to a succulent: the more you marshal your energies against it, the more the obstacle tends to grow. Whereas if you go take a nap or throw a javelin or something, the obstacle might very well shimmer and disappear. Mind you, this is advice I almost never take myself, but when I do, it always seems to help.

It is easy to get discouraged, and there is no wonder why. There is much about writing that is unhealthy in a very real and clinical sense. Sitting, as we all now know, kills billions of people. The time spent away from regular company, required for the practice, can’t be good for serotonin or dopamine levels, not to mention vitamin D. Staring at the screen, even from the perch of an ergonomic chair, is terrible for your eyes, wrists, back, and shoulders. Of course, any real labor is a million times worse. It’s just, anyone privileged enough to think of writing a novel could likely entertain any number of careers that would provide at least decent remuneration, status, and some recognition, even the rare, implausible shot at improving the world. So, if despite this very real discomfort and uncertainty, you feel better writing than not — well, then you damn better keep writing.

And you? Any tips on approaching a second novel? Asking for a friend…

RL: Hmmm. The second novel is where things get tricky. All I can say is that it was much more difficult than the first. You become more aware of all the things you aren’t capable of doing. Also, maybe this will change with future books, but I wasn’t really sure how to apply my experience of the first book to the second. I had to learn how to write the ecosystem and logic of the new book and almost had to start from square one again. But I would say: don’t shy away from it. Take the more difficult path because who knows when you will ever write another?

Kim Philby, Jack Reacher, and Spy-Novel Nationalism

1.
The British Empire stuck around long enough to try most things twice, once as tragedy and again as farce. The deans of English spy fiction wrote through the interregnum. Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Le Carré and Ambler: The Sun never set on their soil, granted, but it was a near thing. If you want to get very particular about things, that claim remains true; the Sun never sets on British soil. For this the Queen can thank the saving grace and fantastic perversity of the Pitcairn Islands.

So the English espionage canon is organized around a gang of writers working by the twilight of imperial dignity, watching national character shade into a really pathetic kind of self-parody. Which, creatively, turned out not to be so terrible. In that spirit, they haunt the outskirts of Ben Macintyre’s recent history, A Spy Among Friends, which narrates the British intelligence community’s ur-embarrassment: the Cold War defection of Harold “Kim” Philby, senior man at MI6 and dyed-in-the-wool Red stooge. On top of its biographical value, A Spy Among Friends happens to be a keen study in the high quality of British spy fiction, and its reliance on a strange brand of national feeling.

Macintyre gives the impression that the British secret services were absolutely infested with writers. Graham Greene pops up in Sierra Leone, frustrated by the challenge of getting a decent supply of condoms. Philby was a good friend of Greene’s, and his flight to the Soviet Union nearly ruined The Human Factor; Greene worried his sympathetic novel of defection would be read as a dewy-eyed take on Philby’s treason. John Le Carré has written Macintyre an afterword, which he ends by intimating that Philby had hoped Le Carré would help him write his memoirs (Le Carré is an alum of MI5 and MI6 himself). Round and round the novelists circle, tidal-locked, meditating on the sense of a very British traitor.

The figures in Macintyre’s drama are brought tragicomically low by a shared confidence: that they can accurately judge the goodness of a given chap. The mystery that animates A Spy Among Friends isn’t so much why Philby betrayed his country — folks do crazy things for Communism — but why his treachery went undetected. And the solution that Macintyre offers is an indictment of Englishness per se, of secret service men who dine at each other’s clubs, booze at each other’s birthdays, and above all “know each other’s people.” Philby preyed on the integrally English sense of class loyalty; when he’s eventually done in, it’s the blue collars at MI5 who crack the case, to the disbelief of MI6’s wingtip aristocrats. The imperial ruling class was, its members discovered unhappily, an ouroboros. It had gone and cannibalized itself.

In this narrative of decay is implicated one of the grand mysteries of genre fiction: Why are all the great English-language spy novels British? Or to put it competitively: Why has the United States had such difficulty developing a strong national spy literature, with little to show for it but Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy? Part of the answer lies in Macintyre’s diagnosis of the British Cold War condition, disintegrating from within and without all in one go. That’s where Greene et al. dig up the humanity in cloaks and daggers. Picture an upper lip, caught between stiff smirk and quiver. Weakness, failure, pain: a novel needs a healthy dose of these. Good British espionage writing drew on the decline and fall of empire, against which the only emotional defense was a sharp, flippant humanism. This is a rich vein of pessimism for which American spy fiction has no good parallel (a possible exception – the Kennedy Assassination and the death of Camelot). More often, on this side of the Atlantic, the form is strangled by a slick, cheery patriotism.

2.
On one level, you can hardly blame us Americans. We’re younger. The Central Intelligence Agency is all of 70 years old (and better not to start in on the creative sterility of the NSA). So one way of tackling the problem of quality is to say that American spy fiction is still fixed in the sickly innocence of its founding, when national fictions were obliged to be useful in a way that doesn’t lend itself to deeper fame. Or in more immediately emotional terms: We still ask that our spies be good men for bad times. A serious genealogical excavation would have interesting things to say about the trans-generic, trans-historical durability of American innocence, but you get the same impression if you just check in on the culture every now and then. James Fenimore Cooper’s 1821 novel The Spy, first in its family tree, is a fawningly patriotic fiction, guest starring George Washington. Its hero, Harvey Birch, is the most stiffly principled turncoat you could ask for. Which isn’t to say that The Spy doesn’t have its merits or pleasures, but there’s only so much sense to wring out of a hero who never wavers in his moral courage. The unerring belong in epics, not novels.

And yet this is the model we’ve settled on, at least in this branch of the American literary tradition. It’s the hero of Raymond Chandler — British-American, for what it’s worth — headed down mean streets, though in the spy’s case these are the streets of Hanoi. “He must be,” Chandler had it, “the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” This is an awful lot to ask of a human being, and very little to ask of a character. Even James Bond, the least humane of the British spy “heroes,” wasn’t so exaggerated; Ian Fleming insisted that his protagonist — in the novels at least — was “an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happened.” But American heroes are best men, wreathed in honor and innocence. This can get boring, though in the detective context it leaves room for some valuable disillusionment: Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown. But as the British knew, this sparkling honor is a dangerous thing to introduce to espionage.

Every national trait can be taken to a really tragic extreme. Usually it’s an adjacent culture that has to pursue the thought experiment to its conclusion, and so English propriety has never been more savagely skewered than in Pierre Boulle’s Bridge over the River Kwai, while American innocence has never been more painfully captured than in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. It’s a cruel joke, the title: The only quiet American is a dead American, and the CIA agent at the novel’s center is very dead, having fumbled his way — with great charm — into the decision to plot certain terrorist bombings in French Indochina. Greene gives his title character youth, a Harvard degree, a virginal halo, all the kit a man of the CIA requires. He is unspoiled, could never really be spoiled — but still he is capable of doing sick, rotten things, and therefore he has to be done away with.

You can accuse Greene’s brutal, beautiful novel of anti-Americanism, but his sketch of fatal innocence can’t have been far off the mark. The novel was published in 1955, when American involvement in Southeast Asia was still in its infancy. Were evil men to blame for what would come in Vietnam? Maybe, if you hew to Hunter S. Thompson’s sketch of Richard M. Nixon, but the iconic framing of the problem is exactly the opposite. It was our “best and brightest,” as David Halberstam had it, that really screwed over the Vietnamese and the Army — men of good intentions, and good hair too. Greene’s finger was clearly on some kind of pulse. The Americans are innocent to a fault, and they will have problems here in Indochina. So the political problem lines itself up with the literary one.

3.
Of course, that was 60 years ago. Haven’t things changed, aged, matured? If it seems over-harsh to say that there are no really good American spy novels — and there really aren’t that many canonically good American spy novels — then the instructive thing to do is pick up a copy of Personal, the latest in Lee Child’s long series of Jack Reacher novels. It does not get more American than Jack Reacher, an itinerant Army vet hitchhiking those middle expanses of the country, living from black coffee to black coffee and plate of diner eggs to plate of diner eggs. Tom Cruise played him in the movie version, which is a very American sentence.

Squatting comfortably at the border of crime and espionage fiction — Personal sends Reacher to London on the hunt for an assassin, so it leans on the latter — the Reacher books are better than they probably ought to be. Child has always enjoyed a strange esteem with The New York Times, and they’ve published his tips on writing; when he insists that he thinks of himself as an entertainer, the vibe evoked is Greene (who famously divided his work between “novels” and “entertainments”) more than it is James Patterson. Morally, his hero occupies Chandler’s archetype of bland excellence as well as anyone: Reacher is a man of honor “by instinct, by inevitably, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.” And yet if Reacher is dull in the American mode, he manages all the same to be a fascinating instrument. Child puts him to really intelligent, stylish use, and that’s no small thing.

Reacher has a knack for puncturing conventional plots; the queerly satisfying twist in Child’s novels is usually that the conspiracy is pettier by half than what the reader had in mind. In Personal, an attempt on the life of the French President begins with all the trappings of an international terror thriller (someone must warn the G8! The United Nations!) — but Child turns the form’s tropes on themselves. By novel’s end, the scheme reveals itself as a despairing act of American vanity, the cri de coeur of a Cold Warrior whose plots are too arcane for a world gone flat. Child consistently wrings insight out of Reacher’s firm conviction that he, like most things and people, does not matter. This is a daring, illuminating kind of idea that British spies have always been more comfortable with than American ones — they were declining, we’ve been on the up and up. So to see the idea of Not-Mattering being taken seriously in the American context would be very encouraging for the state of American spy fiction, if not for the fact that Lee Child is tragically, unavoidably, congenitally British.

4.
So it goes. Instead, the American tradition has David Ignatius’s The Director, as clear and concise a reflection of the state of the spy novel as you’ll find on bookshelves today. The book’s reviewers negotiate on explicitly British terms. For Michiko Kakutani at The New York Times, “The Director will never be mistaken for a le Carré novel.” For Philip Kerr, writing in The Washington Post, the book is “the best spy novel I’ve read since John le Carre’s Smiley’s People, way back in 1979,” and “the kind of Smiley novel le Carré would probably write if he were 20 years younger, if he knew the CIA as well as he knows the British security services…”

For what it’s worth: Ted Scheinman, writing for Slate, ranked Smiley’s People just the ninth best le Carré novel out of the man’s 23-work oeuvre. Which isn’t to say that The Director isn’t a perfectly good outing, but a double standard is at work.

You hardly need to read the novel, then, to get the sense that American spy fiction hasn’t slipped the surly bonds of an unmatched British example — though if you were to read it, you would find Ignatius’s characters suggesting that espionage itself is British, and the CIA an invention of MI6, sneakily appended to the American Republic. This doesn’t ring especially true as history, and one imagines Ignatius, who has written on and spoken at the CIA, doesn’t share the political judgment that spying is un-American. Still the impression that he believes it in the literary sense, in his writerly bones, is tough to shake. The United States has not developed a spy-novel nationalism able to stand on its own two feet.

The case may be terminal. The geostrategic implications may well be catastrophic — or so American espionage literature might frame it. But for the stakes to forever be Higher Than They Ever Imagined is exhausting, and dull to boot. A Brit would probably shake his head and offer instead, as one of Greene’s characters once did, that “It’s important not to take a game too seriously or we may lose it.” Innocence, self-seriousness, both unstudied: These are not the constituent parts of a rich literature.

American spy fiction needs saving from its permanent immaturity. And “God save us always,” as Greene had it, “from the innocent and the good.”

Image Credit: Flickr

Smirking Obsessives: a Primer on the Novels of Lynne Tillman

1. Into the Tillmanverse
You never quite realize what Lynne Tillman’s done until it’s too late. She takes formal adventures in flavors of novels that had never before welcomed them. She carefully embeds details deep in her texts that others would dutifully (and dully) trot out up front. She crafts what feels like one distinctive, coherent fictional reality without explicitly connecting any of her long-form stories to one another. Published over two decades, her five novels so far build and explore what I call the “Tillmanverse” through the eyes and ears of worldly, culturally keen women (and one man), shapen or misshapen by their undeniable compulsions, obscure fixations, and grimly complex senses of humor.

The Tillmanverse now has one more extension in the form of Someday This Will Be Funny, a collection of short stories newly published by Red Lemonade. Their women (and occasional men) write copious communiqués, trust and distrust their memories, trust and distrust their imaginations, don’t quite reconnect with the cast of their past, see themselves in their relationships, move ahead at the behest of odd desires, and stake out patches of the cityscape all their own. What’s more, they do it in text that knows just what to tell and what to leave completely untold. Tillman tends to lay out her novels and stories in pieces, but with piece-curation skills like hers, who needs wholes?

Indeed, the latest book’s 22 tales showcase Tillman’s abilities in microcosm; what you find in them, you find in even greater depth and quantity in her novels. What better time, then, to take a look back at all her full-length novels to date? The more detailed your map of the Tillmanverse, the richer you’ll find your own wanderings through it.

2. Would you really call it agency?
Haunted Houses, Tillman’s debut novel, braids the stories of three women growing up in and around New York. The epigraph “We are all haunted houses” seems to bode ill, as if predicting for the protagonists 208 pages of playing receptacle for assorted traumas. While none of the trio endure quite so rough a time as that, they nonetheless live apparently shapeless lives pocked by impulse, inertia, and confused frustration. They display flashes of agency, whether about the places they live, the books they read, or the fellows they let in, but the book’s overall form never stops asking whether agency is really what you’d call it.

Jane, constantly struggling with her weight, desperate to shed her virginity, and genuinely close only to her hokey, obese uncle Larry, ultimately loses that virginity to a dopey co-worker at Macy’s. The bookish Emily — “Why can’t you be more normal?” laments her mother — grows into a sloppy, lackadaisical culture vulture who attaches herself to English rockers and married Austrians. Grace, spooked in childhood by periodically tussles with her erratic mother and the sight of a blank-eyed farm boy tossing a bag of kittens off a bridge, drifts to Providence and becomes the spitefully reluctant muse of her gay, Oscar Wilde- and Marilyn Monroe-worshipping best friend Mark who stages plays at bars.

Tillman sketches the three childhoods in gritty enough detail to let you assume that, having established the wrongs foisted upon these ladies in youth — isolation, imagined frights never corrected, groundless disapproval, dead friends, freaky dads — she’ll proceed to deterministically follow the reverberations into three disappointing adulthoods. Yet she plays it just craftily enough to throw that interpretation into question while also avoiding the obvious move of getting these three together. From start to finish, Jane, Emily, and Grace remain united mainly by the late-mid-20th century in which they come of age and the geographical territory they do it in. Even when one breaks away, as when Emily takes a proofreading job in in Amsterdam, none shake their vague existential claustrophobia.

3. What we call personality
The travel bug bites Motion Sickness’ unnamed American heroine harder, so much harder that she never stops traveling — indeed, barely pauses in any one place — rendering normal whatever “motion sickness” she suffers. This twitchy peripateticism offers Tillman the chance to structure the novel both in fragments and geographically: you read a shard of narrative in Paris, then one in Istanbul, then one in Agia Galini, then one in Amsterdam, then another in Istanbul, and so on. The protagonist’s financial support? A bit of savings and a small loan from Mom — no wandering aristocrat, she. Her cultural armory? Copies of The Interpretation of Dreams, The Quiet American, and My Gun is Quick, and a love of Chantal Akerman and Luis Buñuel.

Despite her intriguing taste in books and films and merciless drive toward perpetual flight, this woman reveals remarkably little about herself. Yes, we’ve all read narrators who do and say much while concealing even more, but Tillman somehow casts aside even our standard desire to get further into her interior. A swirl of secondary characters, almost all compulsive travelers with a tendency to turn up in several different nations, offers a distraction: our heroine helps an aged eccentric assemble her memoirs, signs on to a tour of aggressive sightseeing with a pair of English brothers, drinks with an ill-fated ex-cop, separately encounters a Buddhist American single mother and her runaway husband, and falls for a Yugoslavian who argues, with increasing strenuousness, for the melancholic weight of history that supposedly hunches all Europeans.

But does this supporting cast counterbalance the failure to probe of the narrator’s deeper character, or do the countless, always-developing nuances of her various relationships with them constitute her deeper character? Haunting cafés with one, momentarily shacking up in a rented room with another, writing postcards to many others but tearing most of them up — these actions, and nothing else, could prove enough to make a human being. “In a sociology course I took the professor said that what we call personality doesn’t exist except in relation to others,” Tillman, with an uncharacteristic explicitness, has her protagonist say toward the book’s end.

In Cast in Doubt, Tillman creates Horace, another traveler whose gender alone makes him feel at first like a stark departure. But his homosexuality emerges in the early chapters, either bringing him closer to or distancing him from his lady colleagues in the Tillman oeuvre. The relevant question: what do male homosexuality and female heterosexuality have in common — a lot, or nothing? If Horace doesn’t approach this issue directly, he at least takes on questions in its orbit when he develops a controlling aesthetic-intellectual infatuation with a girl who one day lands in his tiny Greek town.

Horace, you see, has long since gone expat. At 65, shacked up on Crete with a surly twentysomething local, he tosses off crime potboilers while avoiding work on a hazy magnum opus called Household Gods. When Helen — surely the most loaded possible name, given the Greek context — enters his life, his hypertrophied fictionalist’s mind builds around her a towering mystique. Though the objective details portray Helen as nothing more than a callow, flighty psychiatrist’s daughter with a loopy scrapbook in hand, Horace looks at her and practically gets vertigo. Needless to say, her disappearance, which comes as suddenly as her arrival, only intensifies his obsession.

Beneath Cast in Doubt’s stolidly un-flashy surface, Tillman uses Helen’s draw on Horace to perform a fascinating act of genre subversion. Horace funds his self-imposed exile by writing the surprisingly inventive yet still groan-inducing exploits of detective Stan Green, and Horace looks to Green as his model when he resolves to drive across the island in pursuit of his quasi-muse. But Tillman very nearly sets the issue of whereabouts entirely aside, focusing instead on who-abouts. Soon after dedicating himself to his investigation, Horace comes to realize how little he ever knew about Helen. This doesn’t stop him from speculating, sometimes wildly, which enriches the inevitable collision of his imagination and reality — reality coming in the form of that diary in which Helen scribbled so purposefully.

Parts of the book play as a detective tale; other parts play as a standard psychological narrative; most parts play as a genre less easy to pin down. Horace’s way with stories, the remote setting to which he relegates himself, the hodgepodge cast that surrounds him — a South African provocateur; a black New York “scenemaker”; a former opera star, a limp, cynical aesthete; a hirsute English hermit — and the reigned scowl underlying even his happier moments all remind me of David Markson’s Going Down. What can we call this tiny genre? I suggest “oblique, vaguely menacing narratives of fictional complacent expatriate writers.” Barnes & Noble can start building that shelf any day now.

4. What every malcontent needs
If it weren’t for all the jokes, No Lease on Life would read as yet another story of crushing rent-controlled New York squalor. When Tillman writes squalor, she writes squalor: layer upon layer of grime; collapsed, immobile junkies; heaping piles of human waste; slashed bags of garbage; spreading pools of milk. And that’s just inside Elizabeth Hall’s building! In the first half of the book, Tillman recounts Elizabeth’s battles to nail down an apartment in New York, to fight a minute rent increase, to get her drunken superintendent to clean anything at all, to convince the guy across the street to quite revving his car so early in the morning — all in the course of one night.

Transfixed by the sweep of street chaos on her block, Elizabeth stares out the window instead of sleeping, fantasizing about taking up a crossbow to murder the “morons” and “crusties” vomiting and knocking over trashcans all night long. Tillman evokes an almost farcically shambolic New York familiar to anyone who enjoys the literature and film that came from the city in the seventies, but she sets this novel in 1994 — you can tell by the O.J. trial references — thus illustrating that the place didn’t go completely minty-fresh in the nineties. Or at least Elizabeth’s block — her world — didn’t.

When I talk about No Lease on Life’s “jokes,” I don’t necessarily mean that Tillman or Elizabeth, despite the grit-toothed resolve evident in the both of them, lighten these circumstances with the cynical wit every educated lowish-class urban malcontent needs. Besides the line between the book’s two days, which bear the titles “Night and Day” and “Day and Night”, only jokes break up the text. Common, punchline-y, sometimes tired, often sexual or racial jokes, none of which, miraculously, have an explicit relationship to the narrative. I happened to laugh the loudest at this one, which also bears an unusual thematic relevance:

A man who lived in New York City couldn’t stand it any more. So he moved to Montana. His closest neighbor was ten miles away. The first month was great — he didn’t see anyone. It was quiet. After three months he started to get restless. After six months he was so bored, he thought about moving back to the city. A neighbor called. He invited him to a party. The neighbor said, get ready for a lot of drinking, fighting, and fucking. Great, the man said. Who’ll be there? You and me, the neighbor said.

In American Genius: A Comedy, Tillman brings strands of Elizabeth, Emily, Grace, Jane, and the others into a single consciousness, allowing us unprecedented entry. But do we enter it, or does it entrap us? Not until a hefty chunk of pages has passed does Tillman reveal the name of Helen, the novel’s central character and one who has voluntarily entrapped herself in some sort of colony or low-security institution. Though she rarely roams far from wherever it is she lives, her thoughts spread, soar, and loop — especially loop — through subjects and variations on the industrial technology of textiles, the Zulu language, former Manson acolyte Leslie van Houten, and dermatology — especially dermatology.

Helen: we’ve heard that name before. Could the mind of this middle-aged American History PhD. exiled from the greater social sphere belong to the very same Helen of Cast in Doubt, thirty years on? Or to one of the now very much grown girls of Haunted Houses? Or to the traveler of Motion Sickness, who finally learned a way to stay put and then some? Tillman prevents us from firmly believing or rejecting any or all of those possibilities. I can imagine any of her main characters at home here, wrapped in this oversensitive skin and oversensitive consciousness, reacting in vast paragraphs to this community of disparate eccentrics, ready at any moment to see and build upon the patterns in the seemingly yet deceptively formless play of data, ideas, and recollections that combination sparks.

A Chiefest Pleasure: Discovering The Sot-Weed Factor on its 50th Birthday

Some of the chiefest pleasures in a lifetime of reading fiction are those moments when you stumble upon a gem of a book you somehow missed.  This happens more often than we might care to admit because reading fiction is a lot like its distant cousin, the acquisition of knowledge: the more you do it, the less of it you seem to have done.  There’s no shame in this.  Lacunae are inevitable for even the most voracious and catholic of readers.  The consolation is that the deeper you go into your life and your reading, the more precious the long-overlooked gems become once you finally unearth them.

All this came to mind recently when I picked up a novel I’d been meaning to read for many years, John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor. Reading the opening words was like touching a live wire: “In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke…”

I was instantly transported to another time and place, as much by the music of Barth’s language – fops, fools, flitch – as by his characters and story, which were at once fantastical, venal, ribald, preposterous, plausible and flat-out hilarious.  Usually a slow reader, I galloped through the 755 pages, mystified by the criticism I’d heard over the years that Barth was a difficult and needlessly long-winded writer.  Here was a masterly act of authorial ventriloquism, a vivid recreation of the cadences and vocabulary, the mind-set and mores (or lack thereof) of English colonists in America’s mid-Atlantic region in the late 1600’s, when tobacco was known as sot-weed and those who sold it were known as factors.  One such man is Barth’s protagonist, Ebenezer Cooke, a feckless London poet in love with his own virginity and virtue, a dewy-eyed innocent who is sent to the cut-throat Eastern Shore of Maryland to tend to his father’s tobacco holdings and, in the bargain, write an epic poem about the place.  Ebenezer describes himself as “a morsel for the wide world’s lions.”  What a gorgeous set-up for a satire.

It was only after finishing the novel that I went back and read Barth’s foreword, which he wrote in 1987 for the release of a new, slightly shortened Anchor Books edition.  From the foreword I learned that The Sot-Weed Factor was originally published in the summer of 1960, when Barth was just 30, exactly 50 years before I finally came to it.  I also learned that the novel sprang from an actual satirical poem of the same title published in 1706 by an actual man named Ebenezer Cooke.  Much more interesting, I learned that this was Barth’s third novel, and he originally envisioned it as the final piece of a “nihilist trilogy.”  But the act of writing the novel taught the novelist something: “I came to understand that innocence, not nihilism, was my real theme, and had been all along, though I’d been too innocent myself to realize that fact.”

This realization led Barth to a far richer one: “I came better to appreciate what I have called the ‘tragic view’ of innocence: that it is, or can become, dangerous, even culpable; that where it is prolonged or artificially sustained, it becomes arrested development, potentially disastrous to the innocent himself and to bystanders innocent and otherwise; that what is to be valued, in nations as well as in individuals, is not innocence but wise experience.”

The dangers of innocence versus the value of wise experience.  Here, surely, is a rich theme for any American novelist trying to capture the impulses and foibles and follies of a nation convinced of its own righteousness – in love with its own virtue and virginity, if you will – a nation that historically has had little use for history and therefore has spent several centuries blundering its way, usually uninvited and ill-informed, into the affairs of other nations, beginning with the settlements of native Americans and moving on to the Philippines, Mexico, Guatemala, Iran, Cuba, Chile, Vietnam, Cambodia and, now, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps no other novelist has explored Barth’s theme more surgically than Graham Greene did in The Quiet American.  Published at that fateful moment in the mid-1950s when the French disaster in Indo-China was giving way to the blooming American nightmare in Vietnam, Greene’s novel tells the story of a world-weary British war correspondent named Thomas Fowler who can’t hide his loathing for all the noisy, idealistic Americans suddenly popping up in Saigon.  He reserves special contempt for an American innocent named Alden Pyle, some sort of foreign-aid operative who shows up on Rue Catinat with a head full of half-baked theories and a heart full of good intentions.  Fowler, despite himself, begins to feel protective toward Pyle.  He muses, too late, that he should have known better:  “Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

And therefore, of course, causing all natures of harm to himself and to bystanders, innocent and otherwise.  Alden Pyle is the title character of the novel, and a perfect title it is – because you can’t get any more quiet than dead.

While Greene set out to illuminate the dangers of innocence in The Quiet American, Barth chose to mine its comic potential in The Sot-Weed Factor.  And so innocent Ebenezer gets captured by rapacious pirates (twice) and murderous Indians, swindled, stripped of his clothing and his name and his estate – only to wind up with his virtue, if not his virginity, intact.  His epic poem even becomes a hit.  It’s one of the funniest, raunchiest, wisest books I’ve ever read.

While I believe it’s best to let fiction speak for itself, just as I doubt that an understanding of a writer’s life sheds useful light on his work, I itched to know more about Ebenezer Cooke’s creator and his methods.  A little digging taught me that John Barth grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where much of the action in The Sot-Weed Factor takes place, and as a young man he switched from studying jazz at Julliard to studying journalism at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.  It was there, while working in the library, that he discovered Don Quixote, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Petronius’s Satyricon and, most tellingly, One Thousand and One Nights. Barth became intrigued with the literary device known as the frame tale, in which a character in a story narrates the story.  For Barth, then, the telling of the story is the story.  This explains why he has called Scheherazade, the character who narrates One Thousand and One Nights, “my favorite navigation star.”  She, like every writer, will survive only as long as she keeps coming up with good stories.

And Barth’s musical background helps explain why he channeled Fielding, Sterne, Smollett, Cervantes, Rabelais, Voltaire and other masters of the picaresque novel to arrive at the narrative voice for The Sot-Weed Factor.  “At heart I’m still an arranger,” Barth once told an interviewer.  “My chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody” – a classical myth, a Biblical scrap, a worn-out literary convention or style – “and, improvising like a jazz musician within its constraints, re-orchestrate it to present purpose.”

This got me thinking about my other belated fictional discoveries.  A few stand out, including James Joyce’s magisterial Ulysses, which I’d dipped into many times but never read wire to wire until a few years ago.  (What was I thinking to wait so long?)  Another was James Crumley’s crime novel, The Last Good Kiss. I broke down and read it after I got tired of hearing fawning references to its immortal opening sentence – “When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”  For once, the fawners nailed it.

And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, which was once, according to Richard Ford, a sort of “secret handshake” among its small but devoted band of acolytes.  For better and for worse, the novel forfeited its cult status not long after I discovered it, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were horrifically miscast as the disgruntled suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler in the big-budget movie version of Yates’s masterpiece.  The movie, for all its many flaws, worked in concert with Blake Bailey’s biography of Yates to bring his work to a far larger audience than he ever enjoyed in his 66 years of life.  Even bad movies sometimes do good things for books.  It’s a pity Richard Yates wasn’t around to enjoy his revival.

And finally there was the curious case of Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer who, like Yates, was obscure in his lifetime and will soon receive the posthumous big-screen treatment.  I first heard of Flann O’Brien (the pen name for Brian O’Nolan) when I read that Graham Greene had reacted to the humor of O’Brien’s novel At Swim-Two-Birds with “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.”  That sounded promising.  So did the discovery that Anthony Burgess, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce were also O’Brien fans.  While browsing in my neighborhood bookstore soon after making those discoveries, I happened upon the handsome Everyman’s Library collection of all five O’Brien novels.  Books find us as often as we find them.  I bought the volume and swallowed it whole, each short novel more hilariously disorienting than the last.  “A very queer affair,” as the author himself admitted of his life’s fictional output.  “Unbearably queer perhaps.”

Or perhaps not.  In the forthcoming movie version of At Swim-Two-Birds, Colin Farrell has been cast as the unnamed hero, a dissolute young Irishman who is writing a novel about a man writing a novel full of characters who come to life when he’s asleep (including one he conceived with one of his own female characters).  Frustrated by their maker’s iron authority, they set out to destroy him and win their freedom.  On paper this might sound un-filmable, but I thought the same thing about William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, and the director-writer David Cronenberg worked cinematic magic with it.  We can only hope that Brendan Gleeson, the director of At Swim-Two-Birds, is a sharper interpreter of O’Brien’s weird proto-postmodernism than Sam Mendes was of Richard Yates’s blackly unblinking realism.

In the end, these belated discoveries did what all good fiction does: they illuminated the world I live in, enriched its colors, deepened its music.  None moreso than The Sot-Weed Factor, because in addition to its purely literary virtues it helped me see just how different today’s world is from the world that greeted the novel 50 summers ago.  Today Americans who write “serious” fiction face what the Dublin-born, New York-based novelist Colum McCann has called “the prospect of irrelevance.”  When John Barth was hitting his prime in the 1960s, “serious” American writers faced no such worries.  (I place the word serious between quotation marks because no one seems to know quite what it means as a modifier of writer, unless it means someone who is after something above and beyond the most basic and necessary thing, which is, of course, money.)

Among the discoveries during my brief background check on Barth was an essay by a man named John Guzlowski, who, as a grad student in the early 1970s, was drunk on then-current American fiction – not only the mainstream realism of Updike, Bellow and Roth, but all the untamed, unnamed new writing by the likes of Barth and Pynchon, John Hawkes and William Gaddis and Robert Coover, very different writers who eventually got lumped together under a vague and porous umbrella called Postmodernism.  Guzlowski went on to teach at Eastern Illinois University, where he taught a course in Postmodern Fiction half a dozen times over the course of 20 years.  “Every time I teach the class,” Guzlowski writes in his essay, “there is just a little less interest in looking at Postmodern novels.”

He might as well have said serious novels or literary novels or novels that seek to do more than titillate or entertain.  Those things, as Colum McCann knows, are becoming harder and harder to sell to American book buyers, and the people who write them are edging closer and closer to the brink of irrelevance, which is a gentle way of saying extinction.

John Barth and John Guzlowski have reminded me that this wasn’t always the case.  There was a time, not so very long ago, when serious – and funny, challenging, mind-bending – fiction was passionately read and discussed, a vibrant part of our national life.  It was a time, in Updike’s phrase, when “books were a common currency of an enlightened citizenry.”  Those days may be gone, and gone forever, but novels like The Sot-Weed Factor will always be with us.  And as I was happily reminded this summer, it’s never too late to discover them.

Telling the Truth in Vietnam: The Spy Who Loved Us by Thomas Bass

Like at least several members of my generation, my understanding of the Vietnam War is limited to a kind of shivery awful reverence felt in the presence of veterans, or when looking at photos of the great and glorious war dead.  My impressions are a mélange of movie stills (Willem Defoe), novels (Fallen Angels), songs (Adagio for Strings), photos (Eddie Adams), legends (friend’s dad’s Zippo collection), and, it must be said, Walter (The Big Lebowski).  I feel like this can’t actually be the case, but I simply do not remember learning anything about the Vietnam War in school.  I have read The Quiet American, but I had no idea what it was about, and I have read Tim O’Brien stories, which feature young men who had even less of an idea. Unfortunately for them, they still had to go and get themselves exploded, physically or otherwise.  Cue the Adagio, cue the hairs on the back of my neck.

Given my pathetically skewed and Forrest Gump-y understanding of the Vietnam War, I was very pleased to see The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An’s Dangerous Game, which was written by my former college professor, Thomas Bass, whom I consider to be a huge fucking deal, not only because he writes books and was in The New Yorker, but because he taught a class wherein we read Neuromancer.  I’ll start my review with a digression, which is that there is a major problem with nonfiction books, regarding what to call them.  The truth being what it is (that is, stranger than fiction), nonfiction books with titles that accurately present the facts either sound absurdly melodramatic or tremendously boring. Some nonfiction books try to circumvent this by choosing titles of impossible vagueness, but that can end up worse.

Taking a short gander at the limited selection of nonfiction books in my home at the moment, I see a book called Rebel Land, a somber-looking read about Turkey with a title which could nonetheless pass as the forgotten third in the Gone With the Wind franchise (after Scarlett).  The Spy Who Loved Us attempted to solve the problem with a modest sort of pun, but puns tend to put everyone on the defensive right away.  I don’t know how to fix the problem (“Vietnam: WTF?”), I am just noting its existence.

James Bond references notwithstanding, The Spy Who Loved Us is, in fact, about a spy who loved us, “us” in this case being America, and the spy being Pham Xuan An, Reuters and then Time correspondent and go-to journalist in Saigon, who, while loving us and filing articles for the American news complex, spent his nights planning the Tet Offensive and writing messages to the North Vietnamese in invisible ink.  It’s a hell of a story.  In fact, it took me longer than usual to read, because there was much to process.  This book is not Vietnam 101, so I had to fill in some things on my own.

Given that the book is not 101, my hope of understanding the conflict remains unrealized, although I now have a better sense of how hard it might be to fully understand anything at all.  What I learned about the actual events are as follows:  the French were there, and felt very strongly that they should continue to be there, and espoused a (befuddling under the circumstances) enthusiasm for Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.  The Japanese, were there, Chinese were also there betimes, and sometimes Koreans.  Vietnam told France to go away, but Americans were like, no, no, France stays (even though they apparently liked the Vietnamese when they were fighting the Japanese while France was collaborating furiously).  Then the Americans, for no reason that I can understand, started coming over for long visits and someone called Lansdale decided there was to be a war.  There was the North, which were the Communists, and the South, which were the non-Communists, except for the Vietcong, who were also Communists.  The Americans were with the South, and did something involving Catholics and puppet government.

Thomas Bass provides lots of background, but mostly to explain the education and evolution of Pham Xuan An, who, showing remarkable fidelity during several decades that would seem rife with near-constant turncoating, was a devoted (and heavily decorated) Communist. Through various channels, An worked in Intelligence for the South Vietnamese, and then as basically the most important journalist in Vietnam.  He seems to have been friends with literally everyone, but he was also a spy.  I know from John Le Carré that spies exist in nebulae and shades of gray, often simultaneously holding two incompatible views, and An was apparently no exception.  He seems to have been a moral spy, as moral as anyone could be during war.  In spite of spying, An, purportedly provided genuine assistance and objective reportage for every major news presence in Vietnam.

The thrust of the Bass’s book as I read it is that An was a purveyor of truths, as a spy and a journalist.  If journalism can be said to change the course of human events, An worked in two opposing ways to end the war, one directly, with a clear national objective, and the other obliquely, by reporting the ugly facts to the world outside (even if the ugly facts were subsequently rewritten by the Henry Luce/Time machine).  An’s story has breathtaking implications on a variety of fronts, which is clearly why Bass invested years and quite considerable effort to write this book (considerable effort admirably concealed, I should say; The Spy Who Loved Us reads like a book, and not a dissertation, always a threat in nonfiction).

The Spy Who Loved Us was well-researched and well-told by someone who obviously cares quite a bit about the material.  Reading it reminded me that I need to read more nonfiction, because history is full of incredible stories, and I know hardly any of them.  For example, I did not know that the CIA has admitted to orchestrating news stories like, a lot.  That a Quaker fellow self-immolated in front of McNamara.  That spies were incrementally cut into pieces to reveal their information, and that sometimes they didn’t.  That the man holding the gun in the Eddie Adams photo wasn’t such a bad guy to begin with.  That journalism is a byzantine nest of loyalties and codes of behavior.  That America lost the Vietnam War.

I will likely continue to ascribe certain cultural symbols of America’s Vietnam with a schmaltzy sacrosanctity (sleeveless jean jackets, empty helmets).  I sound facetious, but I think for people who experience history second- or third- or fifth-hand, for whom events have slim or no personal relevance, it is easy to make objects and images the locus of a lukewarm national sentiment. This book reminded me that the Vietnam War took place in Vietnam, not a tropical corner of America, and that Vietnam was full of Vietnamese people, who suffered horribly and made complex series of decisions, and for many of whom the end of the war was a victory wrested from a hundred years of occupation.  Throughout the The Spy Who Loved Us there are a number of people, American and Vietnamese, who describe An as the ultimate patriot, but it’s not as though the Vietnam War was simply Vietnam against the colonial and neo-colonial oppressors, it was between Vietnamese people as well.  And they all died in spades, so it seems likely there are people out there for whom An’s life and work would be a great source of rancor.  I don’t know.  It’s a lot to think about.  And it should be; war should always be a lot to think about.

Modern Library Revue #40: The Heart of the Matter

I have a slightly hard time with Graham Greene. I don’t know why. I think his writing is very good. He has weighty themes and sexy titles. And yet I have found that I can’t really remember anything about his novels beyond the most basic plot points. I’m talking about his “serious” fiction here. I could tell you the story of Travels With my Aunt in painful detail, but recalling The Power and the Glory, I can only come up with “The priest died.” I also read The Quiet American; in that one I remember the American died. A pattern emerged in The Heart of the Matter, wherein the policeman was also called to Graham Greene’s crowded firmament.

The Heart of the Matter might turn out to be more memorable for me because it is about unsavory colonials (Although I suppose The P & G and The QA are also about unsavory colonials, in their own ways. I guess most things are about unsavory colonials, when you get right down to it). But I was more receptive to The Heart of the Matter because it reminded me of one of my favorite books, Burmese Days, George Orwell’s first novel and what I consider to be his unsung masterpiece. Burmese Days, like The Heart of the Matter, is about unsavory colonials, and it is about suicide. Both novels are populated with pathetic, overgrown schoolboys and refined women living for their husbands’ promotions; in both you feel what a shoddy business colonialism is. Although I prefer Burmese Days and its overall effect, Greene’s description of the bachelor cable censor and the bachelor spy (both graduates of the same second-rate school) competing at cockroach-hunting in the decrepit Bedford Hotel is a great moment in literature, and in the history of Empire.

The novels share a handful of other elements. (Let me to take a moment to apologize if my penchant for well-trod literary territory and retrograde comparey-contrasty analysis revolts readers, lowers the general tone, and threatens to turn this site into a high school English class, as one truculent darling recently noted in a thrilling commenter skirmish. Like Elvis, I’m just doin’ [sic] the best I can.) At any rate, both of these novels have: 1. A rich, conniving Native, the baseness of whose mind is rather cheaply reflected in the grossness of his person. 2. A comparatively fetching young English woman, marooned in an undesirable outpost of empire. 3. A small, grumpy, racist English population, whose primary concern is the eternal struggle to keep the gin cold. 4. And, by christ, they’ve both got a main character whose surname is five letters and ends in a y!

Perhaps these similarities have to do with the universality of the colonial (and, dare I say, the post-colonial) experience and mentality. And maybe Graham Greene had a gander at Orwell’s earlier novel and used it as a jumping-off point for his more complex and (to me) less convincing story. Because ultimately the novels diverge, and The Heart of the Matter goes in a puzzling direction.

Both novels end in a suicide. I understand the motivations of Orwell’s wretched Flory, whose public disgrace, as a casualty of local political machinations, prevents him from marrying the (awful) woman of his dreams. Love hurts. And life, especially his, sucks. But Greene’s Scoby, who is also a suicide and also in some respects a victim of local politics, is harder to empathize with. Scoby is a converted Catholic and a real boy scout. His official career is undistinguished, despite his devotion to his various duties. His young daughter has died. His wife is a trial but he tries to make her happy. She remains unhappy, and goes to live in South Africa, and through a series of extraordinary events, Scoby is unfaithful. The wife comes back, and then he is unfaithful to his mistress with the wife. He feels awfully guilty, but he takes Communion anyway which is a mortal sin, and then he’s so distraught by this that he ends it all. Meanwhile, he finally gets that promotion. His life sucked too, maybe more than Flory’s, but he seemed okay with it for the most part. It was the sinning that finally got him down.

I read Brideshead Revisited, where I learned that British Catholics are an obscurely persecuted minority who have to Stick Together No Matter What. I am also familiar with the adage about the converted and his alarming zeal. But still it seemed odd to me that Scoby committed one easily forgiven sin, and then made it worse by taking Communion, and then decided to do the one thing that is basically unfixable in his cosmology, which is to leave the party early and on purpose. It was clear that Scoby was bound for a sad end, but I thought it would be from borrowing money, or for not being whatever the word for “pukka” is in West Africa, or for some terrible scandal with his job. But no, it’s all got to do with his immortal soul. I suppose I am very privileged in that, if I am in possession of an immortal soul, it gives me very little trouble, like an unerupted wisdom tooth.

And I wasn’t quite sure what Graham Greene made of this behavior either – whether he presented this character as exemplary of an excess of virtue, or of Catholics being crazy, or whether he thought Scoby was a saint or an idiot or what. He’s certainly the nicest person in the book. Maybe it isn’t something easily categorized. Maybe it is, to use the abhorrent popular expression, what it is.

For a while I thought that Greene’s novel was the less depressing one, because it dealt with somebody who is not like most people, instead of, as in Orwell’s novel, with a a pretty ordinary man in an unfortunate spot. I venture to say that most people don’t kill themselves because they’ve told two women they love them and then go to church, as Scoby does. I was going to say that Orwell’s novel is more rugged and brutal than Greene’s, without any of this airy-fairy spiritual stuff, but the more I think about it, the less I know (and the more confused I get). Most functioning organisms will almost always believe that life is better than death, but something about Scoby’s psyche was obviously incompatible with life, even though he seemed like such a nice guy. I wanted to shake Scoby and say “Snap out of it, Scoby! You have every reason to live!” but even without the compromised immortal soul aspect, he really didn’t really have a lot of good reasons to live.

Both Burmese Days and The Heart of the Matter seem to say that life, or life in a certain place, is kind of rubbish, but Greene takes it further to say that the most, I guess principled person, in the place isn’t able to live in it. That, maybe, is the heart of the matter. And that’s dark.

Literature in Lieu of the Tour Guide: Fiction (and Non) to Take on Vacation

On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.

A Mexican Interlude: A Review of The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene

This guest contribution comes from Kevin Hartnett. Hartnett lives in Philadelphia with his fiance. After graduating from college in 2003, he joined Teach For America and taught sixth grade in the Bronx for two years. He enjoys politics and travel and writing about both.In early 1938, at the behest of the Vatican, Graham Greene traveled to Mexico to report on the anti-Catholic initiatives of President Lázaro Cárdenas. The Lawless Roads, his account of that trip, opens with a disclaimer: “This is the personal impression of a small part of Mexico at a particular time, the spring of 1938,” he writes. “Time proved the author wrong in at least one of his conclusions – the religious apathy in Tabasco was more apparent than real.” During his visit Greene pronounced the situation calm, but only a month later the peasantry erupted into violenceThe reliability of the narrator is a central issue in any book, but particularly a travel story where the author by definition treads in unfamiliar waters. As a colonial era Brit come to Mexico, possessing limited Spanish and a meager tolerance for the food, Greene appears at first to be a tenuous interpreter. On his way down the Gulf coast to Mexico City, he remarks with a breezy confidence on the “sexual impertinence” of a young maid and the “sensual” look on an indigenous girl’s face, and later levels an incurious verdict against the character of his guide. “He had a feeling of responsibility,” Greene writes, “and no Mexican cares for that.”But there is also a measure of hesitation in Greene’s voice. 1938 is worlds removed from 1838, and Greene is not the obstreperous H.M. Stanley stepped boldly into Africa. He acknowledges early on the caveat familiar to anyone who has ever written an email home from a foreign country. “The danger of the quick tour,” he writes, “[is that] you miscalculate on the evidence of three giggling girls and a single Mass, and malign the devotion of thousands.” While Greene has some of the cocksure colonialist in him, he’s just as much a modern pilgrim, approaching his journey with epistemological caution and an awareness of how far he is from home.The heart of Greene’s journey is a rugged trek through the remotest parts of Chiapas. He makes his way by barge, prop plane and mule back and often arrives at the next town well after dark, when all the locals have claimed sleeping spots for the night and only the floor remains. Greene rarely misses an opportunity to comment on his discomfort – the heat, the cold, the beetles, the food – but what he does is more important than what he says, and it’s hard not to admire the lengths to which he goes to get from place to place. When a rainstorm prevents a plane from landing to take him to Las Casas, he hires a team of mules instead. The trip takes three days over an undulating, spiraling track through the mountains. Greene writes of the constant way he exhorted his beast, “After nine hours I began to feel that the words ‘Mula. Mula. Echa, mula’ were graven on my brain forever.” Greene fails to gain any real insight into the religious situation in Mexico, but that aspect of his trip becomes almost beside the point. The book is sustained by the adventure along the way, and the honest, personal way he describes it.1938 was of course a momentous year in world history. German troops annexed Austria nearly the same week that Greene began his trek through Chiapas, and while he does not dwell on the events in Europe, his writing is accented with premonitions of change. Arriving in a small village high up in the central plateau, Greene encounters an expatriated German “who kept a tiny photographic store.” Looking around, Greene notes the torn covers of magazines decorating the walls and “among them, rigidly, the face of Hitler.” As Greene makes his way through the mountains there is a feeling, particularly with seventy years of hindsight, that this journey is the last of its kind. Europe was set to burn and the jaunty colonial prerogative would not survive the war, to be replaced as it were by the ambiguous opium haze that Greene later described in The Quiet American.But as Greene goes along, recording his impressions of Mexico and complaining about the bulbous mosquitoes, he seems already to have a foot in the remade world. Reading Trollope, he grows momentarily homesick for London, missing his bookshelves and chairs and the buses going by on the street. But he snaps out of it and reminds himself, “it wasn’t real: this was real – the high empty room and the tiled and swarming floor and the heat and the sour river smell.” The genocide in Europe and the horror of Hiroshima ushered in a long postmortem skepticism, which challenged our claims to know much of anything about the world. Greene shakes his head free of Trollope in favor of what is right in front of him, and while a hot and swarming floor might not explain Mexico, it’s true to what he saw and better than any fanciful alternative.The result is a precise, modest book that does not try to explain more than it can. At the celebration of a saint’s birthday in a small town, Greene observes a fireworks display. “A Catherine wheel whirled in the road,” he writes, “and the rockets hissed up into the sky and burst in flippant and trivial stars.” It is a small moment, over almost as soon as it began, and yet one that lingers where a more percussive racket might have been forgotten already. I would say the same of The Lawless Roads.

New Book Previews: Philip Caputo, Charles Chadwick, Jonathan Coe

Philip Caputo’s new book Acts of Faith is being favorably compared to The Quiet American. Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has traveled extensively in Africa, and this new novel is set in Sudan. According to PW, Caputo “presents a sharply observed, sweeping portrait, capturing the incestuous world of the aid groups, Sudan’s multiethnic mix and the decayed milieu of Kenyan society.” Though the novel has a timely, flashy, “ripped from the headlines” sound to it, Kakutani called it “devastating” before comparing it to the work of Robert Stone, V.S. Naipaul and Joan Didion. Scott noted Kakutani’s “heady praise” a couple of weeks ago. And here’s an excerpt from the book (which weighs in at 688 pages, by the way. Whoa!)Charles Chadwick wrote recently about being a first time novelist at the age of 72 (scroll down): “A first novel of 300,000 words by a 72-year-old sounds like someone trying to be funny. Acceptance by Faber and then by Harper Collins in the US – the recognition that all along one had been some good at it – took a lot of getting used to. Still does.” The book, It’s All Right Now, which also weighs in at 688 pages, oddly enough (not exactly light Summer reading, these books), was panned by Nick Greenslade in The Guardian. Greenslade suggests that its publishers were more enamored by the idea of a 72-year-old debut novelist than by the book itself. I’m curious to see what US reviewers say because the book doesn’t sound all that bad to me.As I recall, Jonathan Coe’s 2002 novel, The Rotters’ Club, was well-received by my coworkers and customers at the bookstore. A sequel, The Closed Circle, comes out soon. Here’s a positive review from The Independent and an excerpt. These are good times for Coe. His recently released biography of British writer B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant has been shortlisted for the $56,000 Samuel Johnson Prize.

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