A confession. Just the one.
There are abundant others, but I need an optimum time to unleash those (Christmas dinner, can’t fail). In context, the big ‘un for the mo is that I don’t like spy fiction.
Not as Earth- nor family-shattering as […not telling] but in the context of a series of increasingly egregious pieces about increasingly egregious James Bond books, it’s a contemplation that causes me to pause, even if it only causes you to skip this bit and try to find this one’s strained euphemisms for genitalia.
Perhaps it’s part of ageing but I find my patience - never flabby - worn intervention-level anorexic by the overly – and ostentatiously – complex. My tolerance for nuance wanes and the only grey areas to bother with are those abundantly a-sprout from m’noddle and m’nostrils. Perhaps this is a confession that I am nowhere near as bright as I should be and am, bottom line, too stupid to understand most of the genre.
There is a school of thought - not a very good school, and I defer to your greater knowledge of such establishments - that the web-of-intrigue-and-deception stuff is designed deliberately to alienate the reader, to distance them from a world of deeds and people unfit for admiration. One’s interest is piqued as in watching snakes in the zoo; if interested in writhing masses of seething toxicity, they compel, but there’s no desire to jump in alongside. How appealing, say, is the world of Smiley and his ilk and how grinding is it to keep being warned paternalistically about such milieux?
Le Carre’s output is a case in point. Mentally and spiritually depleted, flawed men pottering around for three hundred pages, and frequently presented unto one, lazily and excessively sniffily, as the antidote to Bond, or even the anti-Bond. I don’t accuse that author of deliberately setting out to do this, although It intrigues me how (and why) Smiley’s faithless aristocratic wife happens ever-so- coincidentally to be called Ann. The dour intellectual, suppressed romantic George as deliberate, cheeky counterpoint to the technicolour, anti-intellectual idealised romantic Ian?
I claim no expertise here, having only trudged my way through a few Le Carre books. However, even in their (undeniable) atmosphere, a narrative quality shared with the original Bonds, the intricate drabness strikes as just as heighted a reality (lowered a reality?), as knowingly arch, increasingly routine and formulaic as Fleming banging on again in language as florid as his drunk old nose about hibiscus, gypsies, barracuda and cures for lesbianism. How many times one can tolerate being told that espionage operatives are double-dealing, failed and venal depends on how many times one can tolerate being told than binmen empty bins. Such espionage works may well be exercises in exploration of displeasing human truths hidden in tales of dockets and duffel coats but sometimes all the truth one needs is how nauseating the scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are at a point past one’s bedtime. I accept that in conflating something I’m not keen on – spy fiction – with something else that I’m not keen on – the Le Carre back catalogue – I have promulgated the doubtless erroneous view that they are one and the same, but it’s a method that wins elections, so hey ho, let’s Make Adventures Grate Again.
Where this ill-advised critique is going is to deliver an equally formulaic observation, although I don’t claim it as uniquely mine: with several books, and The Man from Barbarossa in particular, John Gardner writes James Bond as a spy.
Which James Bond is not. Never has been.
Ian Fleming, it is said (possibly by himself), wanted Casino Royale to be the spy novel to end all spy novels. He failed miserably (or, more positively, never actually started) because it’s just not a spy novel. At all. Bond is a disruptor agent, a professional cage-rattler, cruelly riling mischievous foreigners into exposing their exploitable disabilities and their nefarious schemes, than he is a shuffler-about. Gathering intelligence and not being seen are tasks he considers hateful and boring. Bond is immensely visible. His position is post-spying, unleashed once the reports are done. Consider in how many Flemings there is an early dossier on a villain and, on the same occasions, how little more Bond finds out about their nature (other than having it play out before him) before inflicting flamboyant, visceral and downright noticeable death upon them. Would a spy behave as Bond does in Diamonds are Forever (say) where he brings attention to himself to alleviate his boredom (and ours). An agent provocateur, a wind-up merchant, an agitator let loose once the investigation is largely done (or, in the case of Moonraker, instead of an investigation – I remain of the view that the initial charge against Drax is thin and Bond is aimed at him because he has had the temerity to rile people whose gundogs even have a lineage considerably longer than we mere ordinaries).
True, Vivienne Michel considered Bond a spy, but she was thick and “spy” is a monosyllable so was the best she could do, poor mite. I don’t deny there are occasions when Fleming’s Bond “spies”, or adopts a disguise, but these are infrequent and, more often than not, unsuccessful. Consider the following of Goldfinger to Switzerland and using the “Homer”. All he needed to do was establish where Goldfinger’s Swiss factory was, public knowledge, rather than waste his time – and ours – for a chapter or so. Likewise, that business with “look American” in Live and Let Die; this goes nowhere and is immediately seen through, and undermined by an author at pains to point out its absurdity rather than its necessity. Bond’s most successful bit of spying that comes to mind is on behalf of Mr DuPont, rather than the state. Doubtless there are others but one reason they don’t latch onto the retained memories of “James Bond incidents” is because they’re just not the point, and on many occasions the rooms in which Bond performs any such deed yawn at him. I think yet again of Goldfinger, although it’s common practice to think of Goldfinger and yawn.
These were fantasy novels and have as much to say about espionage as The Hobbit does about medieval subsistence farming. It is blunt storytelling at a heightened level of authorial yearning – and these are stories, not documentaries – and its association with “spying” is misconceived. On every occasion the Security Services launch their latest recruitment policy – they let women in now – the reports of such initiative always – always – comment that “prospective James Bonds need not apply”, missing the point that Bond wouldn’t apply because he’s not interested in (or competent at) a job that offers him little opportunity to be the indulged centre of attention all the bleedin’ time. He’s not really such a wonderful spy, but winning lots of money and a gal, he’s a fabulous guy.
Even within the prevailing tone of the current films as “serious-minded” (…yeah, right), the espionage skill on display by all, and Bond especially, strikes one as feeble at best and rampagingly incompetent at worst, all brute force and ignorance – and ill-judged coincidence – than anything resembling what one would hope those engaged in such activities would do. Popular, though, and probably as compelling as evidence in their own way that Bond as a concept speaks rejection of “spying” as are the last forty whacked-out pages of Dr No. The delicate political background of 7777’s mission in You Only Live Twice is brushed aside, to engage instead with tales of fugu, landscapes and death by shrubbery and even the ostensible veracity of the opening of From Russia with Love, as close as Fleming got to “espionage”, finds itself enhanced with an Irish werewolf and a neuter toad-hag. Otherwise it would just be So Much Chatting. A phrase that stands as a shorter, and considerably less spinelessly bitchy, summary of The Man from Barbarossa.
This book might be good spy fiction (don’t know/care), but it’s rotten James Bond. On the back of my copy, there’s the statement “Ian Fleming would not be displeased”. Of course he wouldn’t – books like this make his repressed-tease eroto-atomic schoolboy juvenilia look fantastically alluring yet again. Might treat myself to yet another set of them; doubtless there will be a reprint issued shortly, tends to happen every six months. I have one copy of The Man from Barbarossa. That situation will prevail.
The banal comment “rotten James Bond” reflects more upon me than upon its author, as it reveals me to be underimaginative swine, hemming in creativity with demands that something must remain fixed to please me and, in the context of Bond novels, a staggeringly uninformed bleat given how much Fleming experimented with structure, scale, authorial voice even. One perspective of his books suggests that for something of such popularity, the Flemings are under-appreciated for their novelty, the individuality inter se, particularly the first five. A rejoinder would be that the real popularity of James Bond came with the films and note how they started with one of the most linear “beginning, middle, end” stories in Dr No, reshaped From Russia with Love to do the same and exploded with the dead-straight down the line uncomplicated Goldfinger. The far more bread-and-butter structure of the films neutered that James Bond was wide open to narrative mucking-about; presumably adopted to stave off louche ennui.
Why, then, decry this book, which seems to have developed a (small) reputation as underloved and underloveable? If written Bond is fluid, and fluidity is a praiseworthy quality, surely trying something new must be respected objectively, even if the execution is harder to admire subjectively? Fair enough, but even with The Spy who Loved Me, the weirdest Bond ever produced, James Bond is ectually in it. Here, amidst the many characters (in inverse proportion to the amount of character any display), the corkscrews of convenience, the maddening “I’ll tell you later, but I never do” briefings, the glued-on ending about hijacked nukes that does its worst to remind us and the author that it was “a James Bond” that was commissioned, Bond is muted, then lost. I’ll alert you to a spoiler – be alert! – but when Bond “dies” two-thirds through (not ectually a spoiler, given the chapter title), that only reminds that a male with the name James Bond was occasionally present. Oh, right, it was a Bond, wasn’t it? So much of a bit-part player is 007 through everything that happens prior, this potentially impactful moment is underweight, as meaningless as any of the other deaths of the million-and-one other folks and their million-and-one double identities. In such uncertain times, even James Bond can die an unremarkable death and, one perceives a point; why on Earth should he die any better that anyone else? Notably, with Bond “dead”, Mr Gardner continues the story. A smidge of a giveaway. This is a John Gardner book in which James Bond intermittently appears, for contractual reasons, and the story can carry on without him because it didn’t need him at all. The silliness of my Ken Spoon conceit aside, here one really could scratch out Bond’s name and it’d flow just the same; arguably, better because we would be spared the frustration of trying to understand why 007 is involved at all, and the ending which plays to a corrupted perception of what Bond “is”.
Another distancing removal of anything James Bond – including the Gardner vision, beyond tangible reluctance to do much else than a professional job of turning out a book on time – is that M has an emotive reaction to the Fake News of Bond’s death; another good idea squandered. The Gardner M has been so appalling to Bond from the off, farming him out to other agencies, regularly putting him down with literary snobbery, abhorring him at every given opportunity and, here, giving him a mission that’s never explained and doesn’t need James Bond, but a spy, to handle, that any emotion on his part other than gleeful hand-rubbing satisfaction clangs hollow.
This isn’t to suggest that the book is absent ideas, but its merits as James Bond and the ideas it engineers in the name of James Bond, feel off, semi-detached. Perhaps the book needed more space to let things breathe. Even putting the inexplicably brief showdown aside, it comes down to a lot of foggy chatter and then some rushing about without any semblance of an explanation why. Perhaps that’s what’s spying’s like: how dreadful. Despite all the sinister adjectives John throws at puffing up the threat, I still have no idea. I accept that the narrative requires matters to be urgent, the story expressly taking place from the end of 1990 to the outbreak of the first Gulf War in mid-January 1991. Things are therefore fated to whoosh by; maybe that’s what starting a war is like. I wouldn’t know. Honest. Explanations are the luxury and responsibility of reflective history but even twenty-plenty years on, I still don’t know what this book is about.
On reflection, the ending may be explicable – it has to be brief to avoid explaining anything leading up to it. Too many chapters here adopt a trick that Mr Gardner flirted with in Scorpius and Brokenclaw: concluding with Bond being briefed about other, more deadly matters about which we are never told, or informed that things will be explained to him later, be it by SIS or the Russians or whoever else. Fine; what ostensibly happens, happens against the backdrop of a larger, murkier circumstance meriting the involvement of James Bond in a minor Russian domestic concern, a wider game justifying highest-level foreign involvement in the scrabbling for power in the breakdown of the Soviet Union. It’s a point worth making, but just once. The routine is too helpful to the writer at the expense of his reader: were any of these things presented to us, we might pick more holes. Just bat on through, suggest other stuff’s afoot, don’t explain, so never get caught out. Plot by suggestion, misdirection and reluctant whisper rather than by infliction of Giant Squid, carrrrddds and cat-eating Koreans, may work for the style of tale this does appear to want to try to aspire to be; perhaps a style of tale, given other works, suiting Mr Gardner to write at the time, an exploration of the purpose of James Bond the man and James Bond the concept when villainy is less easy to pick out of the parade. The safety net of suggesting other stuff going on around Bond, without revealing what it is, creates the aura of danger without ectual disclosure of these dire threats, lest exposing them creates narrative blind alleys and inconsistencies upon which one has to come good. The trouble is, so relentlessly is the technique used in the opening chapters, that one is moved as a reader from asking what is going on, to why it might be going on, to why one is tolerating it. Although Fleming was more subtle a writer than he is given credit for, the easy targets of his views distracting sympathetic critical evaluation, his plots are, of themselves, blunt and basic suiting a leading character of similar attributes. Removing these pillars – direct if stupid story and direct if brutal lead - and replacing both with aspects more nebulous, risks – and achieves – collapse.
Perhaps, though, this is the ultimate Gardner Bond, dismissing the hero to an “also starring” role and demonstrating the fallacy of the “I, Bond” of Fleming where, by a book’s end, everything menaced within it is sewn up, or strangled, or shot, hurrah for 007. There was still a Gulf War. There was still unrest in Russia (I recall reading this on the very day Gorbachev was temporarily displaced, more evidence of Mr Gardner’s wizardry). There were still people being ineffectual. No-one really had a grasp on what would happen in the collapse of the Soviet Union and therefore we are presented with a story impossible to clutch. Save for the silly conclusion, James Bond is as unnecessary in the book as he would be in real life. Point made. A high/low of the (playful?) attitude, albeit this time a hand overplayed and not so much deconstruction as destruction. One could suggest that The Blessed Holy GoldenEye tries the same thing – an uncertain place for Bond in the uncertainty of Soviet collapse – but then it realises that such a notion would make for an even more appallingly boring film than it already is and ends up being a undernourished haircut fighting a scarred villain under a lake, or whatever it was. Even though it’s a blunt and juvenile answer to the question “Is James Bond relevant” to go “Yes, he is, see the explosions”, it’s a clear statement of intent. This, in remaining confused and confusing, and giving Bond a mission well beneath his means and purpose, suggests he is ill-fitting, past it and redundant and M is just scrabbling around trying to find something for 007 to do because otherwise the payoff and final salary pension will cripple the budget.
In passing, odd (ish) how muchhere chimes in GoldenEye: kickback to a WW2 atrocity for villainous motivation, albeit screwing up the age of the leading characters; Russian powerplays and corrupted Generals; Bond on the sidelines for a fair chunk of it; M unable to disguise the contempt; fake acts of domestic terrorism inside Russia; something about arms dealing with reference to the Gulf War; Bond presented as out-of-place and time; total abandonment of ladled-thick theme in favour of a could-be-any-Bond conclusion. Mr Gardner’s preface to Licence to Kill suggests it didn’t take long to bash out; novelising GoldenEye must have been dead easy. Most of the beats he had already played.
This book might break Bond. If such a melodramatic observation stands, patently there needs to be articulation of what a “whole” Bond is, to recognise where broken. It’s not in the tiresome supporting cast – all here, all those tedious bastards, including several of Mr Gardner’s devising and, of course, Moneypenny who is subjected to such a clumsy incest “joke” from “Bond” that one realises that the tone is as vacillating and changey-facey as all the characters and storylines, the narrative atmospherics clattering about like plimsolls in a washing machine. It might (might) be clever and deliberate rather than rushed and deadline-desperate.
It’s not in the absence of “action”, either. Although a depressingly high number of chapters have the word “briefing” in their title, and there is much sitting and cross-talk (where Bond and M are concerned, prissily grumpy pensioner talk) – but there are “action scenes”, although those have never really been a hallmark of stronger Bonds. Casino Royale has spit-spots of activity, but most of it is sedentary, even the torture, and I’d be amazed if Bond got near his 10,000 steps a day during Moonraker.
Where this struggles, for me anyway, as “James Bond fiction” is in its baffling (wilfully perverse?) lack of engagement of the senses. When the series has started by dripping onto us the atmos of casino life and concluded in a mangrove swamp described in such a manner that one may sniff the words from the page, whatever undulations and flamboyantly careless inconsistencies of character, story and motivation infect the Flemings, one struggles to deny the care in allowing us to share the experience. Diamonds are Forever, for example, may not be credible, but it’s borderline edible. Fine, no-one since “is” Fleming but Mr Benson definitely gave the atmospherics a try, severely misguided on far, far too many awkward occasions but a noble try nonetheless, and Solo is a work of sustained world-building, even if that world doesn’t have an actual story taking place in it.
This, though, is so massively offhand in people and place and – with all the underexplained threads – plot that I can’t even go down the cheap route and suggest that it does indeed appeal to the sense of smell by being a stinker. It’s not – as an exercise in written Bond it doesn’t make itself sufficiently interesting even to repel. Its seduction is neutral, probably neuter, inert. More succinctly, not a book I would have bought without the misrepresentation that it was “James Bond”. It’s probably jolly good Ken Spoon, arguably the masterpiece, but the expectation of Bondy sensory overload smacking me about so unfulfilled, it does make me wonder if I have died.
I suspect part of my frustration here is the open-goal opportunity to do so much more with “James Bond ectually goes to Russia”; even leaving aside the Flemings and what this would have meant given the perpetual menace he narrated, Mr Gardner’s own Icebreaker – if I understood the plot (fifty-fifty) – relies on the threat of Bond being captured and hauled to Moscow as a prize, as does (I think – don’t know, and won’t be checking) No Deals, Mr Bond. It’s deucedly odd that in Icebreaker 2 (which this is – all “the” Mossad and frail teamwork and Arctic Circle and multiple identities and fake terror thingies and nothing villainy) so little is made of it. OK, so Bond has been to Russia before, in Devil May Care… um… but not giving us anything of the place and that it’s James Bleedin’ Bond there, be it deliberate choice or failure to contemplate any significance in it, is weird.
It may be design: that one’s expectation of a Bond would be several pages about how Moscow is replete with the sallow-faced holed up in their ghastly tenements (although even Fleming at the height of his powers would have been challenged to distinguish that from Sunderland), and here, as has been a theme in his books, Mr Gardner undermines our expectation, pulling the rug out from underneath us again. On this occasion, it’s the rug’s last thread, and it may have been a tug too far. One sees a retrenchment into “Bond” tropes in his remaining books. If one accepts that there is some plan to challenge “The Reader of James Bond” out of their preconceptions, the game may just have reached its limit. Fine, the notion allows one to demonstrate a greater flexibility that the perception of “James Bond” permitted, but ultimate anything that flexes reaches a point that it snaps. The joke may have run its course. It’s possible that we were building up to this. “Possible”.
Talking of which. the 007th Chapter, a concept described by an anonymous online chum as “the unreadable in pursuit of the, well, also unreadable”, was initially conceived as an attempt to establish, by isolating one part of book alone, what the core of a “James Bond” novel was, the hypothesis (my, aren’t we posh?) being that even a snapshot might exemplify something either new or reconfirmed on the list, whether these are characteristics to the good (Live and Let Die, say) or the more questionable (every grim syllable of the seventh chapter of Goldfinger).
The Man from Barbarossa might have broken this, too.
How cruel your cheering. How cruel.