I Spy, too

By coincidence, at least three books this year have fulfilled the Graham Greene-John le Carre aesthetic much more satisfyingly than either of the Robert Littell spy novels I recently read-- despite all the attention and reviewers' praise that Legends and The Company received when they first appeared. All three are more modest, more emotionally affecting, intriguing and, needless to say, more stylistically interesting than the rather programmatic Littells.

To begin with the one that's most like a genre spy novel: William Boyd's Restless is a period piece concerning Britain's little-known undercover operations in the U.S. prior to Pearl Harbor -- these were sizable propaganda and disinformation efforts to persuade America to enter the war against the Nazis.

Told in a two-track fashion, Restless alternates between the story of Ruth, an Oxford history grad making ends meet teaching English to immigrants in the late '70s, and her aged mother Sally, who starts acting strangely paranoid. Ruth eventually learns that much of her family life was a fake: Sally isn't even Sally. She was a World War II spy, a Russian emigre in France who was hired by the British secret service (she wanted to avenge her murdered brother) and who took on a British identity. Decades later, a badly compromised operation that Sally undertook in America seems to be catching up with her: She thinks the traitor she discovered back then has finally tracked her down.

Restless is highly entertaining in that somber but suspenseful manner the British do well. The setting moves from France to England to New York to New Mexico and there are a number of sub-plot complications -- Ruth has visitors staying with her from Germany, one of whom may be smuggling drugs or may be a distant member of the Baader-Meinhof gang -- but the novel feels small and tightly-focused like a family drama. It's really about only three people: Ruth, Sally and Romer, the man who brought Sally into the wartime undercover trade.

In an earlier posting -- I Spy -- I argued that the best espionage novels generally relate some variant of three different stories, the story of betrayal, brutalization or sacrifice. Many also depict what I'd call the persistence of history. Some personal, political or professional event in the past cannot be escaped. In many cases, this simply means that the Cold War's demands are inexorable and ruthless or the longstanding clash between nations still chews up individuals, despite their best intentions.

But obviously, history's continued grip on the present is often a matter of old secrets or unfolding conspiracies. The chickens coming home to roost, as it were. It's hardly an accident that the master ironists of the so-called "paranoid" school -- Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo -- often use the equipment of noir-ish espionage thrillers: codes, secret agencies, government murder plots, terrorists, double agents and the like, just as Vladimir Nabokov repeatedly used the elements of the murder mystery in novel after novel. Consider Gravity's Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49 or Running Dog and Libra. In fact, in Underworld, DeLillo calls all this "dietrologia," the "science of dark forces," the science of what lies behind events. It's an apt 'term of art' for the spy novel.

Obviously, Restless is an affecting demonstration of this, with its intertwining of past and (roughly) present. So, too, in a very different (but still disturbing) fashion is Forgetfulness by Ward Just-- up next.

November 22, 2006 1:46 PM | | Comments (3)



Good point. I have not read The New Confessions, I confess. But your point applies also to Brazzaville Beach, which uses flashbacks to tell the story of the main character's previous life back in England (she's now a chimp researcher in Africa). I hadn't thought about it because the two novels are so different.

Thanks for writing

Jerome Weeks

It is interesting to note that Boyd has used that structure--story that is told in the past alternating with chapters told in the present--for similar ends in the resolutely non-spy-novel, The New Confessions. Boyd returns to this them-- that ourselves today reflect ourselves in the past, no matter how much we think we've erased the past--often in his books.

Happy Thanksgiving! I'm thankful that you and your writing are now available to my perusal (not that I'm saying I'm glad you left your job, mind you...but I didn't have access then) and that it's a beautiful Fall day complete with sunshine and blue skies...and uncommon set of things in Michigan this time of year.


Best of the Vault


Pat Barker, Frankenstein, Cass Sunstein on the internet, Samuel Johnson, Thrillers, Denis Johnson, Alan Furst, Caryl Phillips, Richard Flanagan, George Saunders, Michael Harvey, Larry McMurtry, Harry Potter and more ...


Big D between the sheets -- Dallas in fiction


Reviewing the state of reviewing


9/11 as a novel: Why?


How can critics say the things they do? And why does anyone pay attention? It's the issue of authority.

The disappearing book pages:  

Papers are cutting book coverage for little reason

Thrillers and Lists:  

Noir favorites, who makes the cut and why



About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on November 22, 2006 1:46 PM.

A career in journalism was the previous entry in this blog.

What we always thought about Mitch Albom ... is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.