Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Yes. That Was Good of You

I never imagined loving a Le Carre book, or frankly any spy novel, as much as I love The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I like the big-scale anger of Alec Leamas, and his desperate romance with Liz Gold, but most of all I love how clean the book is. I think of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in the same way I think of sharks: the book is muscular and sleek and efficient, and it feels as if it does one or two things better than just about anything else on the planet (provide a ground-level view of the Cold War and show what it’s like to be a field agent).

Rather than supplant The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy compliments it by depicting and dramatizing the business of Intelligence at the command level. There is none of the standard espionage action or motion of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; what little reference there is to being a field agent comes from the stories of others. Instead there is George Smiley, who begins the book as a cipher and ends it as a quietly remarkable protagonist. Rather than run run run, Smiley just does a great deal of listening.

With a character that could have easily been a bland plot engine/proxy for the reader, Le Carre crafts Smiley into a reluctant, ideal machine, while still managing to give brief, striking and usually deeply sad insights into his character. To all outward appearances, Smiley seems a dumpy bureaucrat—underneath that Le Carre takes care to show the precision of his mind and depth of his memory when focused on uncovering the mole in the Circus. But under that, and apart by force of will, are Smiley’s emotional and moral sides, and as the book progresses, particularly near the end, that emotional and moral register surfaces. There is none of Leamas’ operatic drama, but there is a romanticism, even though it’s subdued and melancholy.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a mystery of sorts, a puzzle book, and the mystery is unraveled not by the discovery of physical clues so much as the compiling and comparing of various fragmented narratives. The singular concern of Smiley, and the focus of book, is ferreting out a mole in the upper reaches of British Intelligence (The Circus in Le Carre-speak). This leads to a procession of one type of scene: a character tells what they know; Smiley listens; and the reader constantly reorients themselves to the new knowledge and tries, in my case usually futilely, to keep up.

In addition to the pure volume of information, Le Carre also doesn’t stop to explain the various industry terms his characters frequently use. The reader is left to largely pick up through context what it might mean when a character is described as “pink”, or what a lamplighter does. Some terms are common, but some are also part of a particular character’s lexicon.

While this makes the book more dense going, it also reveals Le Carre’s pitch-perfect ear for voice. Each of the characters has a distinct one. They tell their stories in unique ways, with unique language and cadences, and Smiley interprets the tells, elisions, and obfuscations of each. Jim Prideaux gets furious in his conversations, while Connie Sachs gets flirtatious, but Le Carre shows how, though different in result, both stem from the characters attempting to hide something. Considering that the book is really a mass of exposition, this cacophony of voices would seem to get both dull and confusing. But because he nails the voices, and the dialogue usually has layers of subtext, it never does get dull; and because confusion is an integral part of the story, it’s a confusion that, for me, was compelling. One of the joys of the book is watching Le Carre’s pinpoint ear at constant work. He seeds all his dialogue with minor, telling details that simultaneously advance the plot and characterize the speaker. And in the tradition of smart thrillers, it’s left unclear which of those details hides a deeper significance to the central mystery.

In its collection of distinctive voices, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is similar to my constant touchstone—The Wire. It’s also similar in that “fuck the average viewer” mentality; neither work talks down to its audience, perhaps out of respect for the audience’s intelligence, a desire for authenticity, an innate arrogance, or some combination. Regardless of origin, it’s an aspect I increasingly find in work that I like (last year’s favorites A Prophet and The Friends of Eddie Coyle also share this characteristic). More and more, I prefer to chew my own food.

This lack of explanation, I think, allows the reader or viewer to lose themselves in a work; there is never that distancing moment when a character explains something purely for the benefit of the audience. After watching The Wire I’d walk down Dickson St. in Fayetteville and imagine how the corners might operate in plain sight (which, in The Wire sense of corners, Dickson St. doesn’t have). Similarly, after reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I’d be sitting in the airport analyzing the people around me, trying to memorize details with one look, trying to read postures and conversational subtext, trying to distinguish patterns. Now, a big part of this is just me being really lame, but I think it speaks to how completely the book sinks the reader into the world of espionage. Smiley, and others in the trade, have a rigorous, constant worldview—one that necessitates awareness and remembrance of detail, that assumes duplicity and ulterior motives, that prizes objectivity and dispassion. It may be exhausting (as it often is for the characters), but it’s also so well rendered and consistent that it lingered after I put the book down.

As in other Le Carre books, this constant vigilance and sacrifice is in service to something –nation, the system of capitalism, the unaware masses- that is portrayed as at best murky and at worst unworthy. Unlike Graham Greene, who is similar as an author to Le Carre in many ways, there is no concrete world beyond to contrast with our own flawed one. Greene is an absolutist (though a flexible one, as in The Quiet American or The Third Man, which are similar to Le Carre’s work). Le Carre is a relativist. There is nothing but grey in Le Carre’s world, where humans are routinely ground up in the gears of capitalism and/or communism and dubious ends justify inhuman means. While you never get the sense that there is a definite right in Le Carre’s world, there are terminal wrongs, often involving the betrayal of those who trust and love you, and the line separating the relatively right from the absolutely wrong is a shifting and thin one.

Even in love, Le Carre’s constant juxtapositor to the business of espionage, there is no pure good. Characters are often led by love to betray their nations, or allow love to lead them to their deaths. Those characters who are able to compartmentalize their feelings, as Smiley is, are still wounded by the constant betrayals, compromises, and confusions that make up realistic, adult love. Rather than make it an ideal to contrast against espionage, Le Carre presents love as utilizing many of the same practices, if for an end that he views as nobler or more true than God and country. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Constant Gardener, it is love ultimately that stands as the one, worthy, human thing that connects us, for what small bit Le Carre shows that to be worth. He says of Smiley that love is “the last illusion of the illusionless man,” and that quote would seem to apply to Le Carre just as easily.

Apart from love, which mostly hinders Smiley, there is another compulsion, a sense of duty, that drives him to complete his task. It’s not simply duty to one’s nation, or even duty to a dying notion of England, central player in the grand geopolitical game, though there is an occasional nostalgia that touches Smiley even as he distrusts it. It’s not totally duty as a means of giving life purpose, or of avoiding life’s other complications, though Smiley is miserably directionless at the novel’s start. It’s all those things, but at base there’s also a sense that Smiley feels a driving need to do the task correctly: if you’re going to find a mole, you should find a mole in the best way possible. It’s this aspect, this sense of duty stemming from multiple sources, that differentiates Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Alec Leamas is furious and disenchanted, and places what little faith he has in love. Smiley, too weary and too smart to work up much fury, is irrationally moved by love, but he’s equally, and equally irrationally compelled by duty. He notes the paradox of it, maintaining a powerful sense of duty to something you don’t really believe in.

This isn’t all to say that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not without faults. There is a massive exposition dump in the middle, just as there is in The Constant Gardener, that, while potentially necessary, is awkward and lumpy and artless in comparison to how he handles exposition in other places. And unlike The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which is a romantic book narrow in scope but masterful in execution, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is sprawling, messy, ambitious, and ambivalent. It also feels very true, which in a story entirely given to deception, is a marvelous thing. Le Carre does not cut corners, oversimplify, sentimentalize, sex things up, get blood on the page, force the pace, or any of the other myriad tools that make for more marketable and undoubtedly shittier genre fiction. Instead he throws you in the middle of web, starts methodically working his way out, and asks that you keep up.

None of this touches on the other pleasures of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Le Carre renders setting with a precise, lyrical hand. He creates fully realized characters that are either difficult not to like (Prideaux, Guillam, Mendel, little Bill Roach) or at least made to seem deeply human in their faults (Esterhase, Connie, Haydon, Tarr, Alleline). There are scenes that are intense without sacrificing either pace or character—the scene between Smiley and Karla is the best kind of slow motion disaster. If Le Carre had just unraveled the knot at the center of the story, the book would have been very good. With all these extra touches, and the increasingly admirable and complex Smiley both driving the plot and giving the story its quiet, basic humanity, it is something great.

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