This is not the kind of book I willingly pick up at the store. It’s hugely thick and tries to unite several genres, all of which represent humanity and the world as darker, scarier, more evil than I believe them to be. But when a student says, “I know you like novels, so I got you one as a going-away present,” I can’t refuse.

The last time I read a book this long from beginning to end, it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Seriously, this book is fucking massive. There were a few times I mentally edited his prose to eliminate unnecessary words (I don’t believe in coincidences, especially in fiction, so the phrase “it just happened to be” really irritates me), but it’s not something I could do much of. His prose is fairly tight, and he keeps the story moving pretty quickly. Every now and again you get a glimpse of a lovely bit of figurative language, like

But there was nothing, just a gale of fear blowing down the lonely corridors of his mind.

but normally he avoids anything that isn’t literal. It is what it is, as it is, and there’s not much to say about it. What commentary there is, is often cynical and snarky:

nobody’s ever been arrested for a murder; they have only ever been arrested for not planning it properly.

Which happens early on, when it’s still a murder mystery, and sounds so very Dashiell Hammett that I can’t fault him for it.

We start with murder, then go on to spy thriller, end up at 9/11 conspiracy theory, then they all sort of get jumbled up together. It may seem that this genrebending might be the biggest narrative problem, but I think it’s his sequence. The first half of the book is weighted with flashbacks, and sometimes flashbacks within flashbacks, so that the order of events is rather confused.

I have the most difficulty forgiving Hayes for his first-person narrator/protagonist. The first problem is at the linguistic level. Pilgrim’s speech is almost entirely British, which is almost wholly nonsensical. He’s an American. He spent a number of years living in Europe, but as the leader of a supersecret spy organization, he wouldn’t have spent that time hanging out with Londoner chums or watching Doctor Who. For their linguistic patterns to rub off on him, he needs either to be interested in language for its own sake or to spend a great deal of time talking with Englishmen he likes well enough to want to blend in with them. Neither of those things is true for him. He’s so insulated and ethnocentric that the Britishisms just don’t make sense. My occasional British usage is more logical because most of my friends for the last two years are British, and I tend to adopt the speech patterns of the people I love; I’ve also been teaching English from British texts, so I’ve been confronting the basics of the language from a British perspective. Still, I know to use only one l in words like traveled or canceling (Brits use two).

The second problem is with his supposed identity as the agent so secret that no one can touch him. He makes so many mistakes that it’s kind of embarrassing. Most of them are necessary to move the plot forward, but if the plot demands that you make your superagent an idiot, maybe the plot needs to change. Pilgrim retires from the spy business and writes a book about his cases, changing the details and his identity to preserve state secrets. A New York policeman reads the book, finds the tiny hints he drops about his personal life, tracks down his real name, and follows him to Paris where he has been living in hiding for a few years. Really? Really? What kind of crap intelligence agency would let this book be published, or not track down their supposedly greatest asset when he is careless enough to publish all the clues you need to get at him? Seriously. If a homicide detective were better than the combined powers of the CIA and the NSA, then their entire personnel rosters would have been eliminated a long time ago.

Problem Three is misogyny. It’s a little like being in a modern James Bond movie, where all women are either useless or evil. There are one or two good competent women we don’t see much of, but the rule is that women are not to be relied upon. I should probably throw homophobia into the mix here, because there’s a killer lesbian (no gay men, sorry). She outsmarts Pilgrim, but she’s unremittingly evil. The book is largely about relationships between straight men, lots of father-son mentoring stuff and never-leave-a-man-behind-unless-he’s-dead values. The phrase “I love you man, no homo” practically drips from the pages.

Number Four is with the ethnocentrism I mentioned earlier. Pilgrim has a fairly extensive education, which normally has a tendency to decrease the belief in superiority based on nationality, but no luck for him. He then spends his adult life living abroad, and contact with other cultures also usually has a tendency to make people think better of them, but again, no luck.

These were the same guys Carter had described as garbage wrapped in skin.

He points this out not to contest it, but to agree that all Saudis are worthless. I’ll admit that his portrayal of Saudis angers me the most, because I’ve spent the last two years living among them and despite the systemic injustices, I’ve seen that they’re really very kind. I don’t think any person is really garbage; we’re all a mixture of good and bad things. Saudi men have been raised in a culture that values adherence to tradition over critical thinking, but that doesn’t make them bad men. They benefit from society without putting any thought or effort into it, much like white American men of the upper middle class (and by that I mean Protagonist Pilgrim). When you take into account the assumptions about the world that they have never thought to question, I think most of them are actually more worthwhile than their Western counterparts. Seriously, America/Europe: stop judging the rest of the world for not sharing your cultural ideals.

Another bit that’s kind of funny, but shows that the guy we’re reading is a bit of a dick:

On one particular evening he left a message while I was attending one of my regular twelve-step meetings. By this stage, I had switched my patronage to AA – as Tolstoy might have said, drug addicts are all alike, whereas every alcoholic is crazy in his own way. This led to far more interesting meetings, and I had decided that, if you were going to spend your life on the wagon, you might as well be entertained.

The Moriarty to this American anti-Holmes is called The Saracen. He’s a conservative Saudi disgusted by the laxity of Jeddah and Bahrain, so as a teenager he fights the Soviets in Afghanistan. He becomes a doctor too, then works for the advancement of his people. He’s very much like Pilgrim, only he has a family and faith in God. Unfortunately, those loves in his life lead him to engineer a vaccine-resistant strain of smallpox and unleash it on the United States, to weaken the enemies of Allah, obviously, but also to weaken the power of the al-Saud family, who had his father publicly beheaded. He wants to get back at them for what they did to his father and, in his eyes, what they continually do to weaken the nation’s devotion. He’s an extremist with a personal vendetta that involves killing entire continents full of people. He’s not typical, but despite comments like

At last the West had encountered an enemy worthy of our fear,

there aren’t any counterbalancing characters. The Saracen is compared to the guys who performed the September 11th attacks, but any typical Saudis/Arabs/Muslims are seen through his eyes, so Hayes can represent them as weak and compromising. Or through Pilgrim’s eyes, when they’re either comic relief or incompetent and corrupt.

Hayes seems to see corruption everywhere. I suppose there’s more of it than I imagine, but I don’t choose to believe that it’s the only constant in the world. Here’s the highest level of American government (only six or seven people are in the room):

The only thing they agreed on was that there should be no change to the nation’s threat status: it was at a low level and, in order to avoid panic and unwanted questions, it had to stay there. But in the two hours that followed, the atheists and the God-botherers took to each other’s throats on almost every idea, then suddenly teamed up against the president on several others, split among themselves, formed uneasy alliances with their former opponents, returned to their natural alliances and then sallied forth on several occasions as lone gunslingers.

Okay, so that isn’t the best example of corruption, but it doesn’t make the government look particularly effective or praiseworthy either.

Even when Hayes is writing about a concept I like, like love, he manages to make it seem bad.

People say love is weak, but they’re wrong: love is strong. In nearly everyone it trumps all other things – patriotism and ambition, religion and upbringing. And of every kind of love – the epic and the small, the noble and the base – the one that a parent has for their child is the greatest of them all.

That doesn’t seem bad, but love is the tool that Pilgrim uses to manipulate people. He’s a bit like Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin – to bring down your enemy, strike at the heart. Pilgrim doesn’t just use it on his enemies, though; he uses it on his friends and colleagues too. Love is strong, but it makes people vulnerable, and vulnerability can be exploited by an unscrupulous covert agent. It doesn’t affect him as much because the people he loves are dead. He’s loveless and cruel, but with a sarcastic sense of humor and an exciting story that keep us reading.

I suppose one of the baselines for the love of books is, Would you read it again? I don’t think that I would. I just don’t want to spend that much of my life in Pilgrim’s violent, corrupt world where America is everything and the rest of the world is only important in its interactions with the United States. Once was good, but once was enough.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s