Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Gentleman's Game


In May of 2012, Greg Rucka wrote an article for io9.com called "Why I Write 'Strong Female Characters'". It's a fascinating article that is both insightful and also painfully obvious. Essentially, he argues that writers write characters that are true to their backgrounds and their profession. Thus, if he writes a character that is a female spy, the story would be served by a writer who understands the background and psyche of the character. He writes, "if I'm writing a story about a pilot, it might, conceivably, be of use to me to know something about how to fly a plane" and goes on to say that it is more than verisimilitude but also respect for the reader. The audience absolutely knows when the author is a "poor liar". Thus, the effect of writing strong female characters is a product of being, essentially, a good writer with an eye for detail and an awareness of authenticity. The article is insightful for how Rucka achieves this authenticity (conducts interviews in the voice of his character to pin down the voice and mannerisms) and also painfully obvious: a good writer writes good characters. He concludes that writing is something one is never good enough at. One must constantly work at it, writing being an arduous process with limited rewards (emotionally speaking that is). It's this article that caused me to seek out one of his prose novels, after reading quite a few of his comics (Gotham Central) and concluding that I want to experience more strong female characters.

Note that the adjective strong refers not only to the character itself, but to the construction of the character. Tara Chace, lead protagonist of the Queen and Country series, is a very strongly constructed strong female character. She can kill people with her bare hands and get out of Iran with two bullets in her body, but she is unable to maintain a healthy relationship with people due to the job, which is a lead assassin for a British black ops group operating under the government's watchful eye.

A Gentleman's Game is the first prose novel after 30 plus issues of comics starring Tara Chace and many of the characters contained within the novel. Since I've never read the comics, I had assumed that I would be missing crucial information or I wouldn't appreciate the novel as much without that initial investment in the cast. Fortunately, Rucka is too strong of a writer to allow me to be left behind. I was given enough information about the characters to not miss a beat, but also, as I will get to in a bit, thoroughly understand the cast.

When a small group of Muslims set fire to various trains in the London Underground, the British government frantically looks for who might be responsible. Chace and her department go through intelligence from the Middle East and figure that Faud, head of an extremist and violent sect of Islam, is behind the atrocities. However, he is safely in Saudi Arabia, where no covert operation could ever hope to succeed logistically nor politically. When Mossad and the CIA come to Chace's department with crucial information, a deal is struck that will have vast consequences, including Chace being offered to the Saudi government as a sacrifice.

What separates A Gentleman's Game from all other spy action thrillers of the 20th and 21th century is not only Tara Chace, but Rucka himself. The adherence to brutal realism lends the novel a sense of verisimilitude that is practically unheard of. Only a few spy novels that I have read have ever struck me as believable. They're fun, and there's nothing wrong with that, but only Ignatius, Le Carre and Rucka seem to have managed this feat. In Tara Chace's world, one doesn't simply pop into the Middle East, execute somebody and then pop out. There are real world elements at play, including the massive bureaucracies of not only the governments but also the competing spy organizations. It's not simply the CIA and Mossad, but also the Home Office and the Foreign Office. Each is a colossal hierarchy with many people jostling for their careers. Some of these spies express a loyalty to the government, or at least their policies, but the truth of the matter is that many of these characters are functioning with an internal compass, sometimes at odds with the moral compass of those that employ them.

Again, this might seem obvious. Of course there are people in the spy world who are forced to behave or operate in ways that are opposite to their own beliefs. Le Carre has built an entire genre of spy fiction on this premise. What happens to the individual when they are forced to constantly compromise their own beliefs in the face of the organization? David Simon takes this to a logical place with his masterpiece The Wire. Whenever the individual struggles against the grain of the larger institution, they are inevitably beaten back or corrupted.

But what does this mean for the spy novel as written by Rucka? It goes back to verisimilitude and authenticity. Nobody exists in a vacuum. Nobody has no motives or ambitions or beliefs or morals or what have you. People are people: complicated, frustrating, inscrutable, obvious, greedy, and above all things, motivated by desire. By understanding this very basic and very conspicuous fact, Rucka has managed to populate his spy novel with believable people.

Thus, it is very entertaining when Rucka puts his cast into tight spots as dictated by other members of the cast and watches them extricate themselves. Notice that I didn't say dictated by the plot. Rucka is too professional of a writer to allow the machinations of his plot to command the characters. Rather it is the drama of humans that sustains the plot, not the other way.

Of course, it seems painfully clear that this is how novels should be organized. But the reality is that often the plot is written first and then populated with variations of the author's psyche. This isn't necessarily a negative thing. Emile Zola constructs a plot around factors of which the characters are never in control, and his novels are often masterpieces. The difference between Zola and airport-thriller authors is that Zola was interested in how the characters reacted against the factors, not how they were going to solve the factors. This is a subtle but essential nuance. Airport thrillers, including run of the mill spy thrillers have invariable strong-jawed men racing through the clockwork of the plot to the inevitable end. Any twist in the plot is merely to sustain the predetermined end.

A Gentleman's Game has a predetermined end of course. No writer should ever write a novel not knowing the outcome. However with this particular book, the end's details are determined by the actions of the cast rather than the arbitrary nature of the spy genre itself. There is a late stage twist in the game, but the seeds for it have grown logically from a) real world factors and b) the motivations of the characters.

As I said, it's hard to imagine how or why this is so different than other novels if you haven't really been trained to see it. Let me illustrate an example. In the twist of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, the only other character aside from the red herring character is revealed to be the villain. Because I am trained to predict twists or reveals to mysteries, I immediately discounted the villainous Kohler, who is clearly offered as the antagonist due to his simplified motives ("I blame religion for my paralysis!"). If he is a red herring, there are only so many logical choices. Thus, I correctly predicted that the nice friendly priest played by Ewan McGregor in the film (which I have not seen). In the logic of airport thriller, there is no other option. When his motives are revealed, the plot of the novel becomes ridiculous. He was conceived by artificial insemination and he wants to break any link between religion and science or some other fucking bullshit. The novel's fucking terrible. Why? Because the twist is a) obvious and b) makes no goddamn sense. The whole climax rests on a serious of astronomically impossible coincidences. Thus, it is the plot that dictates the twist and not the characters (who are all stereotypes anyway).

The twist in A Gentleman's Game, like I say, is carefully put in place and then is executed with a minimum of coincidence. Each step taken by the characters leads them to the conclusion because it is inevitable that this people who do this actions. Nobody totally reverses themselves in light of revelations. People are people. Rucka totally understands this. It's what gives A Gentleman's Game its power.

Plus, it's an aggressively paced and tightly bound thriller. Each (logical) step is followed closely by the next, with character detail providing the texture (and the plot) of the novel.

This might seem like a lot of words to articulate that Rucka isn't Dan Brown or other airport thriller authors. However, I think it's necessary to map out why I think this spy novel elevates itself from the pack. It's not just the artful plotting or the crisp prose, but something more, and I believe it has to do with Rucka's ability to write strong characters.

Tara Chace is easily one of the most engaging female characters I have ever encountered. Many people point to Ellen Ripley and other such females as examples of strong feminine characters who can still kick ass. That being strong doesn't equal being a bitch. That being a woman doesn't equal being overly emotional. But Ripley, while an amazing performance from Sigourney Weaver, is not a strong female character in the sense of being well constructed. This is no fault of the films. They provide an efficient and stripped down horror or action experience. They doesn't waste time filling in the gaps. Because A Gentleman's Game is a novel, Rucka is allowed that space to fill in the gaps. The immediate and positive effect of this is the logical nature of the plot, as aforementioned.

Chace is a woman who likes cigarettes but wants to quit, likes shooting things, bristles at sexism in the work place, but understands that to dress her inferiors down for it is counterproductive in this man's world. She likes sex, emotionless, but also in a loving but doomed relationship. Just like everyday people. Tara hurts herself and then curses herself for her clumsiness. She's clever, she's knowledgeable, she's snarky when tired, she has moods, she's wily, she's invested in her friends, she has respect for her bosses that respect her. She doesn't like to be told what to do, but she understands the logic of a military hierarchy. She's got a mouth on her. She likes lagers.

These are details that I simply remembered from my reading of the novel yesterday. I didn't open the book to write this list down. If this doesn't speak to the authenticity of Tara Chace, I'm not sure what else I can write that will convince you. Greg Rucka has written an effective and efficient spy thriller. It's not a masterpiece, and it's not a game-changer. It's imminently successful in its intention to provide a quick and entertaining spy action thrill. It's intentions are to say something about the characters and to vaguely point to larger themes of globalization and the impossible end to the Global War on Terror. Surely art's success should be judged on its ability to provide what it purports to. If this is the case, then A Gentleman's Game succeeds as an entertainment and a work of art due to its characters and its writer.

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