Sunday, December 17, 2017

December Reads Part One

Smiley's People by John le Carré
Shark by Will Self

A project almost a decade in the making, I have finally finished the Karla Trilogy, still in the same old hardcover omnibus I bought all those years ago, though it's yellower and stuck with more cat hairs.

What drew me to le Carré in the first place was the elliptical, opaque style, with baroque, ornate dialogue, and a labyrinthine plot. But what drew me back time and again was not just these surface elements, but the morose end-of-empire malaise that weighs upon the shoulders of every character. George Smiley is such an impeccably drawn central metaphor for the collapse of the Empire: downtrodden, frumpy, weathered, ineffectual, in an old wrinkled overcoat. Smiley's People gives the eponymous character his first major victory in the trilogy, but it's, of course, a Pyrrhic victory, in the way the best spy fiction is. I keep coming back to spy fiction not just for the cleverness of the plotting but what these novels end up saying about the intelligence community; I'm understandably more drawn to those of its ilk which are far more cynical than celebratory, such as Len Deighton and le Carré.

Smiley's People wasn't quite the masterpiece of the two previous Karla novels. Very little can come close to the practical perfection of the first entry, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In terms of its difficulty, this third volume is perhaps the most accessible: the plotting is more linear and the narrator seems more willing to give up the exposition goods, as it were. It's less opaque. Neither the first nor the third come close to the intricacy of The Honourable Schoolboy, which took hundreds of pages before Smiley's plan became clear to the reader (a close comparison could be Robert Towne's screenplay for Mission: Impossible, which withholds motivation from the audience, to great effect). I quite liked Smiley's People even if it doubles down on the kind of soft sexism bubbling throughout le Carré's Smiley novels.

For about half of Shark, I was convinced it was a lesser shadow of its older sibling, Umbrella. I wasn't sold on the threading of the multiple themes Self had set up for himself. Where Umbrella kept reminding the reader, kept finding novel ways of examining his themes, Shark felt a bit directionless, jumping from narrative thread to narrative thread, with little thematic connective tissue. I should have trusted Self because once the final third revved into action (if the word "action" can be called appropriate for a modernist novel about psychological trauma), the larger picture emerges, and I was left a bit stunned by how well Self pulls it all off. I still think I liked Umbrella more, if only because of its stylistic rawness, its novelty—the shock of the new and all that, even though the stream-of-consciousness style is definitely not new. Umbrella surprised me, and I think Self anticipated that the reader would be left a bit underwhelmed if he simply repeated himself; hence the dazzling structure of Shark, which, when I think of it holistically, replicates the circling of water down the drain, or more aptly, the circling of the shark around its prey. The strands of the novel I felt weren't connected enough? Self sews it all up with aplomb. He compares the shark's voracious appetite and inability to stop swimming to the hunger and ache of the drug addict, the self-medicating walking maw, constantly stuffing themselves but never feeling satiated. The teeth, chewing over and over, but never digesting. Self brings up multiple times the scene in which Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider cut open the tiger shark to reveal the fish's stomach contains a license plate (from Louisiana), indicating the characters' inability to pass the trauma they all carry.

The two authors I thought most of during my read of Shark was Alan Moore and Thomas Pynchon. I'm not sure how Self would feel about this comparison. Moore's gargantuan novel Jerusalem (of which I'm more than halfway through) concerns the decay and rot of Northhampton via the force of a psychic wound through time, localized on a garbage processing plant, a metaphor for the rapacious and insatiable jaws of capitalism. Self's thesis, or rather, the novel's thesis, reminded me of Moore's seething anger towards the decline of his hometown by the uncaring grasp for profit. I was also inclined to compare the two thanks to their sheer Englishness: there's a strong strand of English colloquialism and affection for the idiosyncrasies of the English. I read more of Jerusalem after finishing Umbrella and I've been jonesing to take back up again the mammoth novel after completing Shark.

I felt the desire to read Pynchon afterwards, too. The American soldier around which the novel drains (haha), Claude Evenrude, feels like he walked out of Gravity's Rainbow or V. and onto Self's stage without a pause. He has that same rolling speech pattern, that same ironic racism, that same looseness, as if a good shake would bring all his words crashing down. Part of it is that he's a soldier and Gravity's Rainbow was chock full of them, stumbling around, falling into toilets, saying absolutely bananas things. But again, it wasn't just the superficial connections, but something more. Though Self is reaching back to modernism for his style, he is not writing in a vacuum, and has clearly internalized decades of contemporary realism and postmodern literature. It's almost as if he can't not write in that rolling breathless hypnotic way Pynchon does, the way his characters speak in rhythmic song, almost in meter. Self's characters, or rather their consciousnesses make constant references to popular songs, pop hits, famous lines. For every two references I would pick up, another one would slip by me, with only the context telling me the phrase was a reference to something at least.

Shark was a stupendous read. If I wasn't already sold on Self's brand of dazzle and wonder, then this would have pushed me over the edge.

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