Books in limbo: Encounters with three novels

December 3, 2012

Author’s note: The week after I originally posted this item, I added two words to the second paragraph for clarity’s sake. The added words, which follow Gary Oldman’s name, are boldfaced. Thank you for reading, digital eyeballs! MEM

***

I have before me two novels by John le Carré, an author whom I love. I have in mind a third novel by Tom Perrotta, an author whose work I’ve greatly enjoyed.

Le Carré (real name is David Cornwell) is a British author, born in 1931, who worked during his 20s and part of his 30s as a teacher and as a diplomat with ties to British intelligence. He is probably best known for his novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, about the hunt for a traitor at the highest levels of the British espiocracy. It was adapted as a television miniseries starring Alec Guinness in 1989 and as a feature film starring Gary Oldman in 2011. Le Carré’s had many other best-selling novels, several of which have also been made into movies.

Perrotta is an American writer, born in 1961, whose ethnic background I’ve seen described as Albanian-American and Italian-American. He has taught creative writing. He’s probably best known as the author of the 1998 novel Election, about a high school campaign, which was made the following year into a popular film starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. (The book was inspired by the three-way presidential campaign among Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot in 1992.) Another of Perrotta’s novels, Little Children, was released as a film in 2006.

So what could these three novels by these two very different men possibly have in common? Let me answer that question in a roundabout way.

As readers of this blog may have surmised, I love to read. My tastes, naturally, have evolved over the years.

Initially I was wild about science fiction. In particular, I loved space opera, which I’d say emphasize plot-oriented tales of starship combat and other warfare over character-driven stories. I have largely set aside my passion for science fiction, but I return to it on occasion.

I’ve gone through different genre phases. In my teenage years, I developed a love of fantasy, now abandoned. (I have made an exception for the Harry Potter series, which I scoffed at until, in a fit of insomnia one night at my grandmother’s Manhattan apartment, I picked up The Chamber of Secrets.) I later nurtured enthusiasms for thrillers and detective and spy novels that, again, are essentially burned out by this point.

Later, I turned to reading contemporary fiction. And occasionally I’ve become very interested in various types of nonfiction works.

How many books have I read over the years? I’ve no idea.

How many books have I started but not finished reading over the years? It’s hard to say. There have probably been a fair number.

How many books have I read nearly all the way to the end without finishing?

Aye, there’s the rub…

***

Perrotta’s fourth published novel, Little Children, was released in 2004.

I don’t remember the story very well, but I believe it was set in a pleasant (Massachusetts? New Jersey?) suburban community. It involved three or four families, most with (yes) young children. The characters are pleasant enough, but their lives seem to be, well, rather boring — unfulfilling, even. Secret vices, including infidelity, help spice things up.

The novel climaxes one night as the different characters are wrestling with their demons, with varying degrees of success. That is to say, they’re teetering on a knife’s edge, balanced between redemption and catastrophe. And it’s not always obvious whether the morally just choice will in fact lead to the optimal outcome.

As I recall, one mother and her child go to a playground so she can meet her lover. But that lover is torn between making the illicit rendezvous and ending the affair so he can salvage his marriage. And as chance would have it, a very angry, very dangerous man is heading toward the very spot where the straying woman and her child are waiting…

Over the course of a few hundred pages, I had come to care about Perrotta’s fictional constructs. Perhaps it was because they were such fundamentally decent people, despite their flaws. Perhaps it was because I shared many of their flaws and discontents.

No matter the reason; I set aside the book. It seemed that disaster was afoot, and I simply could not bear to see (relatively) innocent characters come to harm. To this date, I have never finished Little Children, nor watched the film based upon it.

***

Our Kind of Traitor was published in 2010. It is, to the best of my knowledge, le Carré’s 21st and most recent novel. I plunged into it sometime in the summer or fall of 2010 or 2011.

Memory fails to specify when I read Our Kind of Traitor, and it’s vague on plot particulars. But I’ll try to summarize.

Perry and Gail are British yuppies, long a couple but childless and unmarried. They are both intelligent but of only modest accomplishment. A small inheritance affords them the opportunity to vacation on the Caribbean island of Antigua.

There they happen to meet one Dima, a Russian man in his mid-50s. They also meet his entourage. For Dima is not just any Russian: He is a Russian mafioso. And he’s not just any mobster: He’s a mobster with secrets to sell and good reason to flee his homeland. His ideal exit would involve absconding with his loved ones into the protective and secretive embrace of British intelligence.

Normally, Gail and especially Perry would be the last two people to get into bed with a secretive (read: anti-democratic) government (read: oppressive) agency. But Perry and Gail, like many well-meaning left-wingers, are also suckers for a cause. And that’s exactly why helping Dima and especially some of his innocent relatives appeals to them…

Having pledged to aid Dima, and not fully trusting the intelligence professionals who have vowed to assist him, Perry and Gail become intimately involved in the operation to extract the mobster and his flock. But the best-laid plans start to go badly awry as two vulnerable innocents embark upon a very dangerous tangent.

Again, these are not real people; they simply seem that way. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I was convinced it would be something bad.

After all, this is le Carré: His engrossing but grim books involve victories that tend to be Pyrrhic more often that not. If memory serves, at the very end of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, an innocent is abruptly and randomly snared by a trap from which there can be no rescue and to which there can be no retribution. The closing to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy sees characters’ personal and professional failures seriously undermining their successes. At the conclusion of Smiley’s People, a sequel to Tinker, at a moment when one character might be expected to exult, he feels hollow instead. As The Night Manager approaches its climax, a character balances sparing the life of one specific person against passively allowing many unknown people to die.

So again, as with Little Children, I put aside Our Kind of Traitor.

***

Le Carré’s 20th book, A Most Wanted Man, came out in 2008. I have had it for years. But I put it down at least once, finding myself unable to get past the opening pages.

Some days ago, I embarked anew upon this book, which I understand is being made into a movie. And it wasn’t long before I fell in love with A Most Wanted Man.

Le Carré, long an aficionado of Germany, sets the novel in the (evidently cosmopolitan) North German city of Hamburg. There is a mysterious fugitive named Issa and the people caught in his orbit: Annabel Richter, Issa’s do-good lawyer, who works for a refugee aid society; Tommy Brue, the banker, whose dustiest, darkest files may contain the unlikely key to Issa’s salvation; and Günther Bachmann, the spy, whose discovery of Issa may provide the key to…

Actually, it’s not obvious what Bachmann wants or hopes to get, or what he’ll settle for once other intelligence officials get wind of Issa. And for long stretches, it’s not clear what Issa really wants; nor what motivates Richter; nor what path Brue hopes to navigate to achieve his personal or professional goals.

What gradually emerges is that Bachmann, a consummate professional, may not be telling the truth — or at least the entire truth — to the other characters. And it also becomes clear that Bachmann is losing control over events as things come to a head. Which is exactly what many of the characters begin to sense as they approach a moment that could change, or end, their lives.

I got to this point in A Most Wanted Man and, well, I think you know the rest:

Yup. I set this book aside as well.

***

But that’s not the end of the story — I hope.

I’ve thought about Little Children many times over the years. The same with Our Kind of Traitor: I keep on wondering about how they end. That’s true of A Most Wanted Man, too.

So I’m going to do it. I’m going to read the end of A Most Wanted Man. I will also read the end of Our Kind of Traitor. And then I’ll get a copy of Little Children and finish reading it too.

I suspect that all three of these books will sadden me. But it’s important to see things through to the end. And it’s time I become a man who does that — who finishes, who sees things through to the end — more consistently and more often.

As always, thanks for reading this blog. I’ll be doing more reading of my own — and I’ll be sure to let you know what I find!

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