Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The classic mole hunt by John Le Carre.

I liked it.

I liked it because it seemed more complex than it was. I liked it for its casual fear and resentment of America.

"You hate America?"

Not at all. America is all I have ever known. I love its out-sized sloppiness, its unending variety, it's energy. Its intelligence and stupidity in equal measure.

"But it's the French who hate America."

And the Americans hate them back for it. Like children in a kindergarten. But always remember, there is that same strain of hate, perhaps more virulent, among the British intelligentsia, the last true outpost of French existentialism. They hate the French too, though. They have that strong belief in their divine right to rule and have found themselves instead on the last bus to Hampstead Heath.

This was a very enjoyable read. There are few spy or detective novels that hold up all the way to the end and Tinker is one of them. Usually I become a little disenchanted about 2/3 of the way through. Plot holes surface, explanations become a little too pat, there is a drawn out 'chase' at the end. None of this for Le Carre.

What he did right by me:

He had a great story. Seemingly complex. Mole hunts are tailor made (forgive the pun) for complexity. The way in which a mole is even suspected must be a bit round about otherwise the mole hunt would have already commenced (Le Carre has it both ways - genius). Catching a mole is tricky because great measures have been taken to conceal his identity. A ruse is required (Le Carre uses two).

Character development. Early spy/detective novels were mere puzzles - you have seen the clues afforded our detective, can you solve it? Some contained elaborate summaries to help the reader. This kind of thing got old fast, enter Hammett, Chandler, et al. Le Carre works at characterization and there is no ham-fisted explanation at the end for why the mole did it (rather, more than one explanation offered by the characters involved).

Good, clear prose. Fresh and descriptive, very serviceable. I liked the way he interspersed dialog with brief summaries of digressions. It makes it all very natural without having to wade through the irrelevant bits.

The weaker bits:

Plot is inseparable from motivation which is inseparable from character. We understand the characters when we can explain their motivations for ourselves.  This is forever and always a hugely difficult undertaking and almost no one carries it off completely (please comment if you know an exception). Le Carre did work at characterization, just not enough.

A novel, a good novel, is made up of many things. A good novel has a story and a theme and Tinker has a theme. It is betrayal. Gerald the mole's betrayal of his country, his colleagues, and his lovers. Ann Smiley's serial betrayals of her husband, George. I do wish Le Carre would have done a little more with it.

Would I recommend this? You bet. To anyone. It's a must read.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Post Office

Charles Bukowski's first novel, published in 1971. I liked it.

John Martin of Black Sparrow Press offered Bukowski, at that time noted more for poetry than prose, $100/month to quit the post office and write full time. As poetry did (and does) not sell, Bukowski wrote Post Office, which is a fictional account of Bukowski's life from the early 1950's to 1969 when he quit the post office once and for all.

Bukowski transforms himself into Henry Chinaski and the women in his life into beautiful nymphomaniacs, tragic alcoholics, and free living hipsters. Chinaski is no sucker, he detests the work ethic and the colateral death march. He enjoys pretty girls, the race track and plenty of liquor with which to chase it all. He has no real philosophy, no selfless ambition, cares for everyone, but mostly for himself.

Post Office is written in very short chapters, many only a half page long, slices of life. Bukowski's prose is simple, fresh and direct. The tone never changes, the essence of the experiences never changes, yet Bukowski kept me reading, reading 'til the the very end. I didn't feel disappointed; I didn't feel cheated.