Posts Tagged ‘spy’

Stop Thinking, Start Living (Richard A. Carlson)

This is the recent rebranding of Carlson’s first book, You Can Be Happy Again! The premise is that all you need to do to be healed of your clinical depression and anxiety is to stop remembering that you have them. Well, actually, he starts by saying that all you really need to do is have an epiphany, but you can’t force yourself to epiphanize, so everything after the first few pages is an effort to guide you into a purposefully serendipitous experience.

For ages now I’ve been going back and forth as to whether depression is something that is inborn and I just have to put up with, like coeliac disease, or whether it’s something that is done to me, like a respiratory virus. Carlson introduces a third option – it’s something I’m doing to myself. Of course I don’t like this option because it means that I have to change, and I don’t like change.

Fortunately, Carlson gives me a lot of reasons not to listen to him. First, he attacks his entire profession. If all you have to do to cure depression is quit thinking about it, then nearly all psychotherapists are selfish gold-digging charlatans. Second, he attacks his readers as well. He keeps calling us who are depressed and seeking help for it silly and ridiculous, and he blames us for all our mental problems. Third, and clearly the most important, there are no double-blind tests or any other efforts to do quality scholarly research. Nor is there any secondary research. His points are seldom backed up by any evidence, and what evidence he presents is purely anecdotal. There is no reason for anyone with a modicum of critical thinking skills to believe anything he says. Fourth, it’s so repetitive that eventually you start to believe him just because he keeps saying the same thing over and over again.

When you stick with it and get close to the end, things get better and he starts to acknowledge that there are some traumas that really do need professional attention, and maybe some people have problems that need more than purposeful ignorance. Because, you know, it’s not always the best thing to just ignore problems and hope they go away on their own while you’re waiting for your epiphany.

This came out way bitchier than I intended. Sorry about that. This is what happens when people blame me for my problems, however justified they might be.

In the Ring (James Lear)

This author usually writes his gay porn as James Lear, and he has a real name that he uses for more reputable work. And normally I don’t write here about the erotica, but the Dan Stagg series starts to drift away from the strictly porn. Lear is focusing a lot more on story in this book, and First-Person Narrator even desists from describing a couple of sex scenes because he thinks we must be bored of reading about him fucking (we’re not). This is the third in the series – in The Hardest Thing, he was hired as a bodyguard, and in Straight Up he was solving a mystery for some of his military friends. This is much more James Bond-ish, with Stagg hired by the CIA to go undercover in a boxing/organized crime thing. Yes, there’s still some graphic sex with super-muscle-y athletes and spies, but it’s seriously de-emphasized. So, more of an action novel than a gay sex romp, but still a good quick read with some scenes that make me happy.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Marlon James)

This book is amazing. It’s a graphically violent horror-fantasy, so a bit Tolkien and a bit Clive Barker, but instead of being based in British mythology, it’s all Africa. So there are spirits that do all sorts of mystical stuff, sometimes called demons, and there’s some vampire content, and people turning into animals. Quest narrative with a nonstandard ending, doors that appear in midair, government corruption, evil creatures who walk on the ceiling, a girl made of blue smoke, a man who becomes a leopard, and a tracker with a powerful nose and an eye that’s borrowed from a wolf (he’s the first-person narrator).

Someone has already purchased the film rights, but I wonder. One of the main thrusts of the book is to normalize QBTIPOC, and it’s hard for me to trust people. Is he planning to make a film of this, with all the gay sex between Africans who haven’t been corrupted by nonexistent Europeans, or did he buy the rights to stop anyone else from making the movie? Just to be clear, most of the main characters are gay men, but there’s a lot of homophobia too. I mean, it’s not like American homophobia, where they call us a bundle of kindling which means that the best thing to do with a gay man is light him on fire. They just call them boy-fuckers, which is at least descriptive of what they actually do. There’s also some of that internalized homophobia where tops get more respect than bottoms, but if you look at their abilities and nonsexual actions, there’s really no difference in masculinity. As he says close to the beginning, blaming a man for which way his dick points is kind of like blaming a compass for pointing north.

People who are religious are advised to turn away, because there’s a lot of profanity, and Tracker’s favorite way of swearing is to say Fuck the gods. There’s all sorts of wishing for the gods to go get fucked, which I enjoy but you might not.

Seriously. I loved this book. It’s gripping and adventurous and paranormal and awesome. It’s supposed to be first in an upcoming trilogy, so that’s going to be great. I recognize that it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.

Sacred Paths for Modern Men (Dagonet Dewr)

This is sort of like a pagan man’s Wild At Heart, the Christian book about how we should all be Braveheart. Instead of the one archetype, Dewr gives us twelve, pulling examples in a Golden Bough fashion from the classic mythologies, Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Norse, Hindu, Tolkien, and a splash of Judeo-Christian. The result is an examination of the nontoxic bits of masculinity that have always been a part of our culture but that we’ve ignored. It’s good to know that the pagan world has inspirational nonfiction, and I enjoyed this bit of it. I’m looking forward to reading more, as a sort of gearing up for the deeper study of what this community believes, searching for what I believe.

Each archetype has a couple of rituals, one for private study (often with arts and crafts projects) and one for groups. I haven’t practiced any of them yet, but it’s good to know that they’re there when I’m ready. I’m very interested in symbols, so rituals are very meaningful for me.

It’s a good book, about possibilities. The author spent a lot of time at the ManKind project, so he plugs it rather frequently. One of the things that interests me the most is that he refers to his flavor of faith as Storytelling Wicca, and that is definitely a concept I want to learn more about.

In this book, Lawrence finally addresses directly some tendencies I’ve been noticing in his career after World War I. For example, the lack of action:

Chapter follows chapter, and nothing doing. But man is a thought-adventurer, and he falls into the Charybdis of ointment, and his shipwrecks on the rocks of ages, and his kisses across chasms, and his silhouette on a minaret: surely these are as thrilling as most things.

To be brief, there was a Harriet, a Kangaroo, a Jack and a Jaz and a Vicky, let alone a number of mere Australians. But you know as well as I do that Harriet is quite happy rubbing her hair with hair-wash and brushing it over her forehead in the sun and looking at the threads of gold and gun-metal, and the few threads, alas, of silver and tin, with admiration. And Kangaroo has just got a very serious brief, with thousands and thousands of pounds at stake in it. Of course he is fully occupied keeping them at stake, till some of them wander into his pocket. And Jack and Vicky have gone down to her father’s for the week-end, and he’s out fishing, and has already landed a rock-cod, a leather-jacket, a large schnapper, a rainbow-fish, seven black-fish, and a cuttlefish. So what’s wrong with him? While she is trotting over on a pony to have a look at an old sweetheart who is much too young to be neglected. And Jaz is arguing with a man about the freight rates. And all the scattered Australians are just having a bet on something or other. So what’s wrong with Richard’s climbing a mental minaret or two in the interim? Of course there isn’t any interim. But you know that Harriet is brushing her hair in the sun, and Kangaroo looking at huge sums of money on paper, and Jack fishing, and Vicky flirting, and Jaz bargaining, so what more do you want to know? We can’t be at a stretch of tension all the time, like the E string on a fiddle. If you don’t like the novel, don’t read it. If the pudding doesn’t please you, leave it, I don’t mind your saucy plate. I know too well that you can bring an ass to water, etc.

So, if you’re not fond of books with a lot of ideas and very little action, Lawrence says that that is not his fault, and you’re welcome to run off and do something else. This very polite Fuck You to his critics comes at the end of a lengthy comparison of himself to a fly in the ointment – he’s somehow gotten himself stuck in the sticky mass of humanity, but being there only highlights how unfit for the location he is, how disagreeable to all of humanity he feels himself to be.

The key to his elitism, as I’ve called it before, is in his treatment during World War I. This section of the book is considered autobiographical, so let’s consider it as such, assuming that his protagonist R. L. Somers is a stand-in for himself, D. H. Lawrence. Before the war began, he married a woman of German parentage, so perhaps the government was already a little distrustful of him. They were living in Cornwall the first time he was called in to the draft board; he was weighed and measured and found wanting. I assume this to mean that they pulled out their calipers and measured his muscles and bones, especially since he spends some time talking about his skinny little legs. In any event, he was rejected by the army as physically unfit. However, they sort of assumed he was a spy, and the local constabulary kept a harrassful eye on him and his friends. After a while the army was getting desperate and called him in again, this time labeling him a C3, which is not quite rejected but still not good enough for active service. The harassment continued, so he left Cornwall and moved to Derbyshire. His examination by the war office here was even more demeaning – one of the doctors literally pulled the conscripts’ cheeks apart to stare into their buttholes. As I consider this action, the only purpose I can come up with is that they were checking for homosexual activity (or at least trying to). I mean, actual health problems almost always have some other, easier means of verification than a visual inspection of the anus. For Somers, though, this is the last straw, especially since this inspection only moves him up to C2, noncombat duty. So, he spent four years being told that he wasn’t good enough for his own country, while at the same time being hounded for alleged spywork for the enemy. It’s a weird stance, because if his own government considers him unfit, why would a foreign government see him any differently?

So, overwhelmed by rejection, he flees humanity. Like Lawrence, Somers spends some time in Europe before going to Australia, to get away from all these people. For Lawrence, World War I was the time when the lower classes upended society and bullied the educated and the wealthy simply because they finally could. He may have had some sympathy for the coalminers he grew up among before the War, but afterward, he has no fellow feeling for anyone. Humanity as a mass is malignant and unpredictable – the only safety is in very small numbers, and even individuals can be shockingly frightening.

The first third of the book is about Somers’ growing friendship with Jack Callcott, a white supremacist. From the moment of Somers’ arrival in Australia, Jack befriends him and grooms him for joining the Diggers’ Club he’s a part of. There’s something very Fight Club about all this, sports clubs as a front for political maneuvering, possibly leading to violent revolution. Somers thinks that the government needs to be run by ‘responsible’ people, which in his British mind originally meant the aristocracy and the educated, but given traveling experience, it now seems to mean white people. As if persons of any other race, African or aboriginal Australian or Indian or Mediterranean or Russian, are incapable of caring sufficiently about government to do it properly. Those of us raised in the American South are probably thinking about the Ku Klux Klan at the moment, and there are strong parallels. There’s a strain of suppressed eroticism in their friendship, as if all this political business is really just a sublimation of their desire to fuck each other. After all, they keep their women out of it.

This scene was too much for Jack Callcott. Somers or no Somers, he must be there. So there he stood, in his best clothes and a cream velour hat and a short pipe, staring with his long, naked, Australian face, impassive. On the field the blues and the reds darted madly about, like strange bird-creatures rather than men. They were mostly blond, with hefty legs, and with prominent round buttocks that worked madly inside the little white cotton shorts. And Jack, with his dark eyes, watched as if it was doomsday. Occasionally the tail-end of a smile would cross his face, occasionally he would take his pipe-stem from his mouth and gave a bright look into vacancy and say, “See that!”

Even watching a football match, maybe especially while watching a football match, the homoerotic desire keeps peeking out, only to be forced back in. Somers even thinks of sleeping with Jack’s wife because he thinks Jack won’t really mind, though I think he would. He might not supervise her every move, but he does seem possessive.

Act One culminates in Somers meeting Kangaroo, the secret leader of all these alt-right revolutionary clubs. He wants Somers to join their cause and write for their publications, but Somers won’t do it. For one thing, Kangaroo is Jewish, and that’s a problem for racist Somers. For another, Kangaroo talks explicitly in terms of love: like many right-wing leaders, he sees political activity as an act of paternal love for the poor innocents who can’t manage their own communities. He’s less explicitly racist than Callcott, but doesn’t correct the racism of others. I guess he recognizes that he’s not as white as the others, and his position is therefore a bit precarious. Another reason for Somers’ resistance is his decision about what his relationship with Callcott ought to be. What kind of mate does he want to be? Is it possible for someone like Somers to have friends, or to belong to groups at all? He feels so far outside of humanity that it’s hard for him to join in, even when he has such a clear invitation.

Act Two deals with Somers’ decisions as to Kangaroo and Callcott, but Callcott has also introduced him to Jaz, an unsocial little Cornish guy. His lack of outward friendliness makes him a better fit for Somers, and he introduces Somers to Kangaroo’s archrival, Willie Struthers. Struthers is trying to lead Australia into Communism (remember, this was the 1920s, and the arguments in favor were very strong. In my opinion, they still are). Somers is just as incapable of joining the far left as he was the far right, even though they seem equally assured that he belongs to their side. I suppose, when you hold yourself aloof from all groups, each group sees you as potentially one of theirs simply because you are clearly not on of their opponents’.

Act Two climaxes with the story about Somers’ life in World War I, explained above. It’s like a Gothic novel, only instead of having a mysterious house and a conspiracy plot, the only mystery is why Somers is so antisocial. Like a good dialectical novel, Act Three shows what happens when the Diggers show up at a Communist rally, with the appropriate explosions and violence. Callcott accuses Somers of being a spy, which is what people seem always to say when you investigate their group and then decide it’s not for you. Some people just don’t understand informed decision-making.

While all of this political stuff creates some intense drama, there are two other important things going on in Somers’s life. The first is his relationship with his wife. Their marriage suffers when he has too much “boy time”, ignoring her to go to political meetings and such. Callcott’s wife doesn’t seem interested, but Harriet Somers has the intellect and the interest to engage in politics, but the misogynistic prejudices of the men keep her from her natural success in that arena. She’s strong and capable, but limited by her society. Lawrence seems fully aware of the restrictions laid on women, but Somers doesn’t fight against them. I guess if you see all society as stupid and unjust, then more specific injustices don’t bother you as much. Or in other words, he identifies himself as a victim and is uninterested in ending the victimization of anyone else. Society doesn’t want him, so he’s not going to solve its problems.

The other strain in the book is travel writing. This is, after all, a book about two people who come to a new country. He portrays the land and sea as congenial (we’re talking about Sydney and its environs), and the people as unusually friendly and informal. That being said, there are occasional storms, so life in Australia is not as safe as it seems.

It was a clear and very starry night. He took the tramcar away from the centre of the town, then walked. As was always the case with him, in this country, the land and the world disappeared as night fell, as if the day had been an illusion, and the sky came bending down. There was the Milky Way, in the clouds of star-fume, bending down right in front of him, right down till it seemed as if he would walk on to it, if he kept going. The pale, fumy drift of the Milky Way drooped down and seemed so near, straight in front, that it seemed the obvious road to take. And one would avoid the strange dark gaps, gulfs, in the way overhead. And one would look across to the floating isles of star-fume, to the south, across the gulfs where the sharp stars flashed like lighthouses, and one would be in a new way denizen of a new plane, walking by oneself. There would be a real new way to take. And the mechanical earth quite obliterated, sunk out.

He also mentions the accent a few times. It’s sometimes hard for me – there are some pieces of dialogue in Strictly Ballroom that it took a few viewings for me to understand, and I actually do better with the Spanish than I do with some of the English. I once had a coworker from Australia, and he was telling me someone’s name that was unfamiliar, and I just couldn’t understand the vowel, not even when he spelled it aloud. It could have been A, E, or I, and I’m still not sure which was correct. Logically, that part should have been easier for me than it was because I grew up in a place that tends to conflate the pronunciation of the same vowels, but my Southern childhood confusions over pin and pen did not prepare me for the Australian confusion between Liz and Les.

In some ways, this is a clearer novel than Aaron’s Rod or The Lost Girl. It’s still a bit elitist, but the elitism is explained in a way that makes sense to me. I know that my experiences in Saudi Arabia and Texas do not really compare with Lawrence’s during the War, but I recognize the PTSD and the inability to join groups from my own experience. I finally understood him, and saw in him a mirror of my own life. Lawrence/Somers doesn’t see healing as an option, but I do. I’d like to be able to walk through a crowd without panicking one day, and I don’t think it’s an unreasonable goal to strive for. I hope one day to trust the world like I used to. I believe I can be free from the trauma and fear that holds me back, that keeps me from the full unfolding of my personality. I don’t think it’s necessary to stay on the defensive all the time, and I believe it’s possible to work past it.

 

Anais Nin is not best known for her male readership, but I try to read at least something by well-known authors, so I tried it out. Her writing is beautiful, though it’s not in a style or about a subject that will immediately appeal to most men these days.

Jay could not retain any sequence of the people she had loved, hated, escaped from, anymore than he could keep track of her very personal appearance as she herself would say: “At that time I was a blond, and I wore my hair very short,” or, “this was before I was married when I was only nineteen” (and once she had told him she had been married at the age of eighteen). Impossible to know who she had betrayed, forgotten, married, deserted, or clung to. It was like her profession. The first time he had questioned her she had answered immediately: “I am an actress.” But when he pressed her he could not find in what play she had acted, whether she had been a success or a failure, whether, perhaps, (as he decided later) she had merely wished to be an actress but had never worked persistently enough, seriously enough except in the way she was working now, changing personalities with such rapidity that Jay was reminded of a kaleidoscope.

He sought to capture the recurrence of certain words in her talk, thinking they might be used as keys, but if the word “actress”, “miraculous”, “travel”, “wandering”, “relationship” did occur frequently, it remained impossible whether or not she used them in their literal sense or symbolically, for they were the same to her. He had heard her say once: “When you are hurt you travel as far as you can from the place of the hurt,” and when he examined her meaning found she was referring to a change of quarters within fifty blocks in the city of New York.

She was compelled by a confessional fever which forced her into lifting the veil slightly, only a corner of it, and then frightened when anyone listened too attentively, especially Jay whom she did not trust, whom she knew found the truth only in the sense of exposure of the flaws, the weaknesses, the foibles.

As soon as Jay listened too attentively, she took a giant sponge and erased all she had said by an absolute denial as if this confusion were in itself a mantle of protection.

Sabina manages a number of love affairs, some of them very well-described for the 1950s. Her husband is the most important and yet the one who appears the least. Her relationship with him reminds me of many people’s relationships with God: he is the foundation of her life, the one thing that she can’t survive without, the one person whose opinion she values the most, and yet she doesn’t let his opinion of her behavior influence that behavior. She does what she likes and hides it from him. The lies she tells heap up around her and twist over each other in uncomfortable ways, and Jay’s experience in listening to her talk is a mirror for the reader’s experience with the novel. It’s not clear when things happen, so maybe all the affairs in the short little book are happening concurrently, or maybe she only does one at a time. This tangle of detail is where the title comes from.

It was when she saw the lives of spies that she realized fully the tension with which she lived every moment, equal to theirs. The fear of committing themselves, of sleeping too soundly of talking in their sleep, of carelessness of accent or behaviour, the need for continuous pretending, quick improvisations of motivations, quick justifications of their presence here or there.

It seemed to Sabina that she could have offered her services or been of great value in that profession.

I am an international spy in the house of love.

I’ve sometimes thought I could be a spy, but I don’t have Sabina’s talent for deceit. But this tension she experiences seems similar to what I went through when I was married. I reached a point where I could no longer hide from myself that I was gay, but I wasn’t ready to tell my wife yet. So I avoided her when I could and avoided talking to her when I couldn’t, and got into the habit of clearing my web browser history all the time. I knew that if we had any sort of serious discussion, I was going to tell her and she was going to leave me, and I didn’t want that, so we didn’t discuss anything. She accused me of being distant, and I was, but I wasn’t about to explain why. I didn’t feel at home in the places we lived, like I was always a foreigner, an intruder, a spy.

The core, where she felt a constant unsureness, this structure always near collapse which could so easily be shattered by a harsh word, a slight, a criticism, which floundered  before obstacles, was haunted by the image of catastrophe, by the same obsessional forebodings which she heard in Ravel’s Waltz.

The waltz leading to catastrophe: swirling in spangled airy skirts, on polished floors, into an abyss, the minor notes simulating lightness, a mock dance, the minor notes always recalling that man’s destiny was ruled by ultimate darkness.

This core of Sabina’s was temporarily supported by an artificial beam, the support of vanity’s satisfaction when this man so obviously handsome walked by her side, and everyone who saw him envied the woman who had charmed him.

Yes, it was like dancing toward a bottomless pit, but only I could see it. When she was young, her parents took her to the Grand Canyon. Their first afternoon it was too foggy to see anything, so she and her brother ran along the trails just as they did here in Pisgah National Forest. Their parents kept telling them to be more careful, but they couldn’t see the danger. The next day it was clear, and her heart caught in her throat when she saw how close they had been to plunging to a certain death. The last couple of years of our marriage were like that.

I could see how much she relied on me, and it was very flattering to have a woman so beautiful so dependent. When we walked through a parking lot into a store, I’d see other guys nudge and point as we walked by, sharing the joy that the sight of her figure brought. After she had our first son she dropped a few dress sizes, and it’s pretty close to ideal in our society for a woman to be a 34C up top and still a size 4. When she put in her contacts, our friends often compared her to Anne Hathaway (Now that I think on it, this is sort of ironic, considering the role she played in Brokeback Mountain). I used to say that if she wasn’t the perfect woman for me, there was none. And, well, I was right.

Sabina doesn’t just show how easily men are cuckolded; she reduces her lovers to a feeling that she gets from them or a few key traits, just as men have been doing to women for centuries. She chooses them as one does items on a menu: pick what you’re in the mood for tonight, and tomorrow night pick something else.

The music stopped, he came to her table, sat down and gave her a smile mixed with a contraction of pain.

“I know,” he said. “I know . . .”

“You know?”

“I know, but it cannot be,” he said very gently. And then suddenly the anger overflowed: “For me, it’s everything or nothing. I’ve known this before . . . a woman like you. Desire. It’s desire, but not for me. You don’t know me. It’s for my race, it’s for a sensual power we have.”

He reached for her wrists and spoke close to her face: “It destroys me. Everywhere desire, and in the ultimate giving, withdrawal. Because I am African. What do you know of me? I sing and drum and you desire me. But I’m not an entertainer. I’m a mathematician, a composer, a writer.” He looked at her severely, the fullness of his mouth difficult to compress in anger but his eyes lashing: “You wouldn’t come to Ile Joyeuse and be my wife and bear me black children and wait patiently upon my negro grandmother!”

Sabina answered him with equal vehemence, throwing her hair away from her face, and lowering the pitch of her voice until it sounded like an insult: “I’ll tell you one thing: if it were only what you say, I’ve had that, and it didn’t hold me, it was not enough, it was magnificent, but it didn’t hold me. You’re destroying everything, with your bitterness, you’re angry, you’ve been hurt . . .”

“Yes, it’s true, I’ve been hurt, and by a woman who resembled you. When you first came in, I thought it was she . . .”

“My name is Sabina.”

“I don’t trust you. I don’t trust you at all.”

But when she rose to dance with him, he opened his arms and as she rested her head on his shoulder he looked down at her face drained of all anger and bitterness.

Paradoxically, there’s something freeing in this sort of commitment-phobic attitude toward love. No one man has to be everything to her. The English fighter pilot just has to be the complete PTSD-ridden ex-soldier (who is really hot), and she’s satisfied. The drummer can be as serious as he likes; she’ll accept him as he is, and get what he can’t supply with someone else. Bacon and eggs are truly wonderful, but no one wants to eat them three times a day every day for the rest of her life.

They also elicit different things in her. She feels like she has this multiplicity of selves, and she has to be a different one for each man she’s with. Donald wants a maternal figure, so she cooks for him and babies him and feels like her mother. Other men want someone to listen, or to watch spy movies with, or to fuck in all the positions their wives don’t like. She remakes herself every time, becoming the woman that every man wants her to be. None of them really know her, not even Alan, and she doesn’t really know herself either. At the end of the book she realizes that she wants to know herself and be whole, a unified personality, but she doesn’t seem to know how to become this, and I don’t think she succeeds. Nin collected this with four other interconnected novels, so maybe Sabina reaches wholeness later; this book is about realizing that her promiscuity is a quest for unity of personality. In this sense, it has some similarities to the final portion of Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

In this discussion, it’s probably seemed that I value promiscuity over fidelity, but my feelings on the subject are a little complex just now. The ex and I were very possessive of each other, which belied a great insecurity in the relationship. I’d like to be confident in the love of my partner. I don’t see the value of celibacy, so I’m going to continue to try people out until I find someone who wants to hang onto me, but serial monogamy fits my personality better than random promiscuous activity. I don’t understand the impulse that Sabina follows, stacking up guilt upon guilt until she telephones a lie detector who may or may not exist. If you’re with someone who expects faithfulness, give him that. If you’re going to keep a string of lovers on the side, be honest with him and them. Secrets are a poison that diseases the consciousness. As for me, it’s been almost six months since the last time a man told me that he loves me, then stripped me down and beat me without actually fucking me, so I’m ready to try dating again. After one of those experiences, it takes a while for the loneliness to outweigh the risk. I’m really hoping I find someone genuinely nice this time, or at least more upfront about what he wants to do to me.

Nin mentions misogyny once or twice, but generally she ignores the systemic difficulties that women faced sixty years ago and focuses on the specific experience of one woman.

Above all he possessed a most elaborate encyclopedia of women’s flaws. In this gallery he had most carefully avoided Joan of Arc and other women heroines, Madame Curie and other women of science, the Florence Nightingales, the Amelia Earharts, the women surgeons, the therapists, the artists, the collaborative wives. His wax figures of women were an endless concentrate of puerilities and treacheries.

“Where did you find all these repulsive women?” she asked one day, and then suddenly she could no longer laugh: caricature was a form of hatred.

I can’t tell you how much I hate the sentence, “You have to admit, that’s funny,” nor how many times I have heard it. No, I do not have to laugh at a comment that dehumanizes me or any group of people, whether I belong to that group or not. As Nin points out, such comments ignore the best (and even the typical) aspects of human experience, highlighting the worst in all of us and blaming huge groups of people for the faults of a few. Telling jokes that rely on the gender of the people involved is sexist. Differentiating between gay men and real men is homophobic. Joking about your ignorance about Islam is offensive. We don’t have to laugh when you are actively involved in hating us or the people we love.

Anais Nin writes beautifully, and this book is rather sexy. I should have liked it more than I did. Throughout, there was some ineffable barrier between me and the writer. I don’t know if it was cultural (I’m American, she’s Cuban-French) or just that being a man makes it hard for me to connect with the material. But it’s not even 120 pages; I should have had no trouble knocking it out in an afternoon, but it took me almost a week. Maybe it was Sabina’s unhappiness, her lost-ness, her inability to resolve her conflicts. Maybe it was something else. I’ll need to read another of her books to see if this was an exception or the rule.

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.