The Spy Who Loved Me

by Ian Fleming

 

The Spy Who Loved Me was an experiment for Fleming, who felt it so different from his other Bond novels that he claimed in the prologue to have received the book as an anonymous manuscript. He also seemed to have regretted publication, later ensuring that the Bond movies wouldn’t adapt the novel. (They did not: the film producers took The Spy Who Loved Me for their title, but used an entirely new story, new characters, new settings, and a new plot. Luckily, we got a great song out of it.) Maybe Fleming was right; the book was seen as a break in the formula–which it absolutely was–that failed to live up to the high standards set in previous books.

The main departure for this book involves James Bond’s own presence, or lack thereof. He is, in fact, absent from about two thirds of the novel, which follows French Canadian Vivienne Michel’s unfortunate decision to watch over a secluded motel for the last week of the tourist season. But the first chunk of the novel isn’t about that, either. The Spy Who Loved MeAct one recounts Vivienne’s life story, from Canada to England and up to her travels through the mountains of upstate New York. The trouble then begins when two gangsters show up with orders to burn the place down. Bond makes his entrance when the gangsters, who have no incentive to let Vivienne live, are deciding exactly what they want to do with her.

As a Bond fan who’s been critical of both the rigidity of the formula and the inconsistency of its results, I actually welcome this change. Waiting around for Bond to receive his assignment, get the lay of the land, and start working his way towards the villain gets a bit stale after a while. Spy solves this problem by showing us the action through the eyes of someone else, and by having Bond simply stumble upon the plot, which is entirely self-contained. Actually, Spy has an appeal similar to the short stories of For Your Eyes Only, with smaller threats and cozier casts of characters. Vivienne, Bond, and the two gangsters are the only characters in the novel, and their motivations are neither grand nor complex. Simple characterization isn’t always a positive, but to me it was a breath of fresh air.

The bad guys are just two mobsters, Sluggsy Morant and Sol Horror, who are sent to the motel in order to burn it down for their boss. While I admit that they’re not the most well-rounded villains of all time, or even of the Fleming oeuvre, it’s nice to have a different set of tensions and stakes than in, say, Goldfinger or Thunderball. Since we’re introduced to these characters through the eyes of a young foreign girl, who has no idea who the men are or what she’s gotten herself into, I’d argue that they’re scarier than the supervillains Bond usually faces. Sure, Bond has been tortured and whatnot–pretty regularly, actually–but he’s a double-oh agent. He knows what he’s getting into every time he leaves his desk in London. Vivienne, though confident and self-assured in other ways, is simply not equipped to handle these things. From this perspective, regular gangsters can be just as scary as megalomaniacs, especially when they plan to kill Vivienne and show no qualms about raping her in the meantime.

If you think it odd that Fleming writes from a female perspective, and that he uses rape as a threat to this heroine, I hear you. It’s uncomfortable for me too. But to me, Vivienne is Fleming’s attempt to write about a woman who’s had to deal with dicks like Bond (and Fleming) her whole life. By the time we meet her, she’s a self-sufficient woman in her twenties, but in her earlier years she got involved with dudes that undervalued and mistreated her. To me, that sounds a lot like how Bond treats the average Bond girl throughout the series. Maybe Fleming is absolving himself here, by making Bond the knight in shining armor, coming to rescue Vivienne from the big bad men of the world, the run of the mill kind as well as the gangsters. Maybe Fleming just sucks at writing women, and can’t imagine a woman that could resist Bond’s charms. I don’t pretend to know what he was trying to do, but I found the shift in perspective to be a welcome change, though it might not work for everyone.

The last thing I’ll say is that Fleming creates a mood that is much more consistent than many of his other outings. Again, it reminds me a lot of the short stories, which seem to be a real strength of his. It’s not as if the Bond novels are weighty tomes, but they push Fleming’s writing style to its limits. Spy is an intimate and concise novel with clearly defined boundaries, few characters, and a tense plot, making it a unique entry into the series, and one which showcases the strengths of Fleming’s writing.

In The Spy Who Loved Me, Fleming breaks the mold and creates a new kind of Bond novel. Whether you like the end result probably depends on how much you liked the formula to begin with.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

 

On Labor Day weekend, after attending a party in Falls Church where much cornhole was played and much beer was drunk, I found myself (and my ride) unwilling to make it all the way back to DC; we ended up sleeping at my ancestral dwelling in Arlington. I didn’t bring a book, and my phone was dead, so in the wee hours of the morning, unable to sleep, I decided to pick up a novel that would kill some time, something I’d read before, something that I could potentially finish quickly. If you’re good at following clues and taking hints, you know what book that is.

Actually, clues and hints aren’t a bad segue into Curious Incident. The title refers to a dead dog discovered by a teenage boy with undisclosed behavioral and emotional disabilities, perhaps most similar to the autism spectrum. Upon finding the dog’s body, the boy, Christopher, takes it upon himself to discover who might have killed the animal. Despite his reticence with and fear of strangers, Christopher identifies and interviews suspects in the neighborhood, following the clues and crossing people off the list as he gets closer to uncovering a major conspiracy.

I love that the plot of Curious Incident both follows and deviates from the whodunit structure that Christopher lays out. He realizes he’s writing a mystery novel, dutifully following clues wherever they may lead him, but he remains almost completely oblivious to what’s really going on, no matter how many of his “suspects” hint at the truth. Curious IncidentOn one level, yes, the mystery of the dead dog is the plot of the book; the search for the killer’s identity drives the first half of the novel, while the second half reckons with the killer’s motivations. However, were we given a more conventional narrator, the dead dog might better be described as the catalyst for the novel, rather than its central mystery.

As you can probably tell, the unique narration plays a huge part in the novel. On top of treating a neighbor’s dead dog as a Sherlock Holmes novel, Christopher omits composite numbers from his chapters, digresses into math or scientific fact at inappropriate times, and, most importantly, fails to even realize what his own novel is about. In one sense, he’s an unreliable narrator; we can’t trust him to accurately report on the goings-on around him, simply because he doesn’t always understand what’s happening. He misinterprets the intentions of strangers and loved ones, and he fears everything that he’s not familiar with. On the other hand, he is always truthful, especially with his own thoughts and feelings. He explains why he hates certain colors, why he likes to listen to white noise at full volume, and any other behaviors that most would consider “abnormal.” He’s honest to a degree that is unusual for fictional characters, especially in the noir world of mystery novels.

One important question will come to anyone who picks up this book: Does it accurately reflect the way autistic people think, feel, and experience the world? I couldn’t possibly answer that; I have no personal experience with it and I’m nowhere close to being qualified. I think it’s comforting to believe that the book is accurate. I mean, for one thing, Haddon is such a good writer that we desperately want his words to be a reflection of something real. Christopher’s narrative is so believable, and his line of thinking so logical, that we’re tempted to assume it must be grounded in either expertise or first-hand knowledge. But more importantly, I think we all want to believe that people on the autism spectrum, especially the more extreme ends, are more similar to non-autistic people than behaviors show. I’m guessing that this is why the book’s publisher, and the public, latched onto the notion that Christopher’s behavior was not only a portrayal of Asperger’s, despite the author leaving us without a diagnosis, but an extremely accurately portrayal of the syndrome. It would be reassuring, in a way, to think that a simple, short novel could bridge the gap between those with autism and those without.

Alas, I don’t know if these beliefs are warranted. I’m not saying they’re not; I really just do not know. I have read conflicting opinions on whether this novel portrays autism realistically, and I’m not going to jump into the fray with people who know way more than I do. Haddon himself does not specify what disabilities Christopher might have, and readily admits that he’s not an autism expert. Some might think of this as a cop-out, given the book’s marketing strategy clearly hinting at autism or Asperger’s.

I tend to side with the author, though. To me, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the writing is real, or whether it corresponds in some way to a specific disease. Haddon’s goal in this case was to portray a way of thinking that is both human and alien at the same time, and in that he succeeds beautifully. Christopher appears to feel emotion like we do, but is simply unable to express it in the way that most people would. His preference for touching his palm to a loved one’s over a hug shows that he understands and sympathizes with the need for intimacy, even if he himself is terrified by being so physically close to another. These characteristics humanize behavior that might be jarring for someone encountering it for the first time, to the point where, towards the end of the novel, Christopher’s unique behaviors begin to elicit the same emotions in the reader that more “normal” behavior might; Christopher’s acceptance or rejection of an open palm gesture comes to mean the same thing as the acceptance or rejection of a hug, which is itself only a symbol of the acceptance or rejection of unconditional love.

The wonder of Haddon’s book comes not from the mystery, but from his ability to bridge the gap in understanding between narrator and audience. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time accomplishes this and more, breaking down and brushing aside human symbols and embracing the pure emotions behind them.

Live and Let Die

by Ian Fleming

 

Gotta get it out of the way right now: this one struck me as a little bit racist. It starts on the second page, in which Bond compares himself to a “negro whose shadow has been stolen by the witch-doctor.” Later on we get to the chapter called “Nigger Heaven” (referring to Harlem). Oh, and Bond’s mission involves taking down a nationwide organization of American Communists. That last one doesn’t seem so bad, right? Well, the organization in question consists of every black person in America. They toe the line out of malevolence, stupidity, or fear of Mr. Big’s voodoo powers. Fleming seems to have some, uh, old-fashioned views on race. Of course, if you’re reading any James Bond book, you’re probably at least aware of some of the more odious attitudes that can be found within. I mean, Bond isn’t exactly a feminist hero, either, so you can’t be surprised that he’s not at the vanguard of civil rights and tolerance.

That being said, Fleming writes a hell of a book. Live and Let DieAnd a refreshingly short one; I mentioned before how short Casino Royale was, and the rest of the Bond novels are no different. They’re quick and violent, and 007 rarely wastes time brooding. Sure, there’s always some exposition, and Fleming revels in the details of, for instance, a train ride from New York to Florida, which I doubt is actually as romantic as he seems to think. (I’ve ridden Amtrak.) But when action gets going, it goes hard and fast. The first action sequence of Live and Let die takes place beneath a Harlem nightclub following a burlesque act, and there’s something about the scene that just keeps you entranced.

This is also when 007’s nemeses started to become the “Bond villains” that we’re all familiar with. While Mr. Big is, like his predecessor Le Chiffre, a Soviet agent, he’s also an unusually large man with a skin condition whose appearance leads his cronies to believe that he’s also the zombie of Baron Samedi. (Black people are really into voodoo in in Fleming’s America.) In both appearance and status, Mr. Big is the first larger-than-life Bond villain, and he provides a good template that the books and movies return to again and again. (Kingsman jokes on this idea by giving Samuel L. Jackson’s villain a lisp. Actually, that whole movie is a great homage to and send-up of Bond and other spy movies. I highly recommend it.)

By the by, in addition to reading Live and Let Die the first time I read the Bond series in middle school, I started the book again a little over two years ago. I even started writing this very blog post. Unfortunately, I left a Dr Pepper on my bedside table next to the book, and apparently those Chipotle cups just aren’t meant to hold liquid for very long. I took the book off the table and left it somewhere to dry, then I went on to read something else. I ended up moving soon thereafter, packing up all my Bond books and letting them sit in a box for almost a year. I moved again, and again, until I finally ended up in a semi-permanent spot. Everything was unpacked, and I finally got around to finishing my soda-stained book as well as this blog post.

I just wanted to let you know how dedicated I am to the craft.

Live and Let Die might be the most politically incorrect Bond novel, at least to a 21st century reader, but the completist can’t just skip it, and its action makes it worth checking out anyway. Also, I wasn’t kidding about Kingsman. See that shit.

Watchmen

by Alan Moore (illustrated by Dave Gibbons)

Watchmen 1986 - Chapter 1 CoverEvery once in a while, a book or movie or, in this case, comic, comes around and totally changes the game for all future books/movies/comics. In the comic book world, Watchmen (1986) is the best example of that. Watchmen is the wild brainchild of Alan Moore, who built a completely new world around the modern Superhero in this franchise. Ditching the hero vs. villain concept, Moore forces us to see a spectrum of morality in which heroes sometimes look and act like villains and villains sometimes look and act like heroes.

The premise is that superheroes are real – they just don’t have super powers. In the 1940s and 1960s, there forms a band of masked vigilantes known as the Minute Men. The game changes when a research physicist is exposed to a blast of radiation. He uses his immense brain and will power to bring his atoms back together and build himself a human-esque shape. Now able to transport himself through space and time, Jon (now the blue Dr. Manhattan), becomes the first true super human, leaving the rest of the world in a vulnerable state.

The nonlinear story is told with flashbacks and subplots throughout, sometimes in the same panel. The main plot takes place in 1985 New York City: The United States is on the brink of nuclear war with Russia, and vigilante crime-fighting is now illegal. Most of the Minute Men have retired, except for the two government-endorsed heroes, the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, and one outlaw, Rorschach. The story begins as Rorschach discovers that the Comedian has been murdered. He believes that this, along with allegations against Dr. Manhattan, is evidence that someone is seeking to take down all past and present vigilantes. This becomes the main storyline: Rorschach seeks out the other Minute Men to share his suspicions and track down their shared enemy.

This is paralleled throughout the graphic novel through a kid who reads a comic, “Tales of the Black Freighter”, in which a sailor floats home on the backs of his dead crew to warn his town of approaching pirates. Let us pause and take a second to appreciate Alan Moore’s genius in this: the kid is reading pirate comics. In a world where superheroes are real, almost commonplace, kids read pirate comics instead of superhero comics – How clever! Anyway, as the unnamed kid reads Tales, the comic reflects events going on in the world around him. Meanwhile, there are several flashbacks in each chapter, explaining how and why the masked men (and women) took on their second persona, and how they all came together to fight crime.

In the end, what makes Watchmen so special is the psychology of Moore’s characters. Superheroes are, underneath it all, just human. They make choices, mistakes, sacrifices. They choose to compromise their morals, or not, in the face of dire circumstances. Despite immense power and influence, there are consequences. Ultimately it is unclear which character is morally superior. That is the brilliance of Alan Moore. He doesn’t tell you which character does the right thing. He has the characters ask the question, and allows the reader to decide for herself – what price should we pay to avoid war? Is the preservation of human life worth sacrificing our humanity?

Who watches the watchmen?

American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

 

A lot of people think religion is on the decline in the United States; that we brought our gods with us and are now casting them aside. Neil Gaiman thinks we’re simply trading old gods for new. Instead of worshiping Scandinavian and African and Indian gods, we worship the gods of television and the internet and drugs and sex. Instead of sacrificing in Odin’s name, we make blood sacrifices to the gods of highways and railroads. Our hero, Shadow, is introduced to this reality immediately after his parole from prison, entering the service of a man called Mr. Wednesday.

You might suppose that this is a combination of fantasy and Elmore Leonard-type crime fiction. It is, in a way, but it’s hard to explain how it actually reads. There are parts of the book that focus on Shadow trying to adjust to a ‘normal’ lifestyle, and there are parts that seem to have no relation to the real world. No matter what’s going on, though, both of these elements are present throughout the novel, and are pretty seamlessly woven into the story.

It helps, of course, that Gaiman can write. I tend to hate the stoic tough guy character, but Shadow is given depth that I’ve rarely seen in crime fiction. One of my favorite passages from the book features Shadow deciding to take a walk by himself, despite the ridiculously cold weather. Minute by minute he realizes that he underestimated the danger, or perhaps he overestimated his ability to tolerate the cold, and his mild annoyance is slowly replaced with panic. This human moment could’ve taken place in a world without magic, but it fits perfectly with Shadow’s character and Gaiman’s writing style.

I should add that, in addition to fitting in with the crime and fantasy genres, American Gods is a novel about the open road, which seems to be a American Godsuniquely American theme. I was shocked to find out that Gaiman’s a European; he really seems to understand American localities and cultural quirks. Shadow bounces all over the country on what can only be described as road trips, and Gaiman perfectly captures the freedom, the fatigue, and the anxiety that come with them. The journey to Cairo, Illinois has all of these things, as Shadow starts out alone and is joined by a hitchhiker named Sammi (sans smiley face over the ‘i’). What starts as an awkward situation (I think 70% of hitchhikers end up murdered by psychopaths) ends up with both characters recognizing one another as a kindred spirit, even if they don’t quite understand each other.

The road is just a part of what makes this book so ‘American,’ though. I mean, yea, there’s the title. American Gods. Good look. But each of the characters has a quintessentially American background. Shadow’s family history is never revealed, and he seems to not worry about the past or even the future all that much. All the gods in the book came from other lands, though many admit (or complain, depending on how you look at it) that America is not a good place for gods. I dunno how to explain, but I don’t think it could’ve been the same story if it had been set anywhere else.

Admittedly, American Gods has a weird plot and a weird structure, but Gaiman really makes it work. He’s able to introduce Shadow and the world of the gods simultaneously, and he also interrupts the narrative with occasional ‘Coming to America’ vignettes. The story of African twins who are sold into slavery in America- which has nothing to do with the rest of the narrative- was incredible to read. It might not contribute to the plot of the novel, per se, but it definitely added to its feel.

By the end of the book I was totally drawn into this world. Despite the side stories, there is no part of Gods that felt extraneous to me. I was completely satisfied by the conclusion, and every time i thought that a loose end hadn’t been tied off, or that a subplot was left unexplored, Gaiman settled it, in a way that felt completely natural. He wrapped it up about as well as any book I’ve ever read. Almost every character, living, dead, or somewhere in between, finds his or her resolution.

This is one of the most unique books I’ve ever read, in plot and in style. Though the whole idea may seem a bit ridiculous for an adult novel (not that kind of adult novel), I can almost guarantee that you would enjoy American Gods, even if you’re not all that into crime or fantasy.