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Sep. 10th, 2009 @ 09:23 pm it's not easy to be illuminati
Current Mood: patriotic
Current Music: Reuben Kee - Legend of the Solid Snake
I have been reading Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost at the library. At over 1,300 pages, printed in 12 pt font on pages that could wrap a dictionary, tackling this book has been no small endeavor. I have spent about five afternoons in the library reading it and I've just barely finished the first 250 pages. I guess when you get a sixty-eight-year-old icon of contemporary American literature going on his magnum opus (which he never finished, by the way), no editor, publisher, critic, or nagging faerie of common sense is going to stop him. Mr. Mailer was going to finish that book, damn it, whether it took him five hundred pages or five thousand, and sod all cares if anyone had the patience to read it!

And it is, to be fair, absolutely epic. In a way that only a 1,300 page CIA novel written on extra large paper can be. An Amazon.com review says, in its defense, that it reads like an express train. It does--it's written in plain, vernacular conversational English; in fact, some of the finest prose in plain, vernacular conversational English ever penned by a contemporary author--but that train just happens to be the Trans-Siberian Express. Going to Awesomegrad. With transfer service to Holyshitvosk. For days and days and days and days.

And unlike other works in English of similar length, not a single word is wasted. Sure, you could write about the CIA for less--lots of authors do it. Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler do it with startling prolificness. Their pulp predecessors have done it enough to keep every used bookstore in America a fire hazard for the next few centuries. But this book isn't just about the CIA. This book isn't just about a couple of badasses, and Cold War intrigue, and conspiracies and plot twists and explosions and the usual potpourri of spy novel tropes. No, this is a deeper, more personal, more introspective look at the Agency and its half-century history, an intimate look at the peculiar variety of people who make it their way of life. It's about the American aristocracy, the tiny old-boy network of Puritan and American Revolution descendants to which the Bush and Kennedy dynasties belong, which paradoxically exercises great influence over a society their ancestors founded on the absence of nobility, and its awkward alienation from the other 99.9% of America it is sworn to protect. It's about Watergate and the Kennedy assassination and Operation Paperclip, but it's more than these things; it's not just a bunch of spies playing cat-and-mouse with assassins (there is surprisingly little of this so far). It's about living these things, making them your personal responsibility, living up to destiny and legacy and heritage and all those things America prides itself on being free from. It's more than history, it is the story of nobles in a land whose founding document abolishes nobility, the story of a colonial power exercising colonialism to defend its principles, the story of people put in the uncomfortable position of eliminating the privilege that put them in power. It is about a bureaucracy-bogged, high-minded, alternately romantic and boring Cold War era CIA that is neither good nor evil but firmly both, a far cry from the omnipotent conspiracy or society of assassin superheroes depicted in the rest of popular culture.

And it's also the story of a guy at a desk. The protagonist, Harry Hubbard, and his CIA colleagues are not core operatives. They are not badasses. Hubbard has never been outside the United States, and despite his self-defense training he can barely fire a gun. They are analysts. They sit comfortably at the office, or in their sprawling ancestral estates, under false names and false careers, sorting information and analyzing data. It's a comfortable, boring job. We get a glimpse of the secret nightmares of men and women who devote their lives to lies and secrets and never get the smallest peek at the big picture of what they are doing, the folks who push a button and read the next day that a foreign dictator has been assassinated. They participate in boring high society stuff and have affairs and messy divorces, and isolate themselves from the rest of the world in little islands off the coast of Maine. They have coded conversations over the phone with old friends and colleagues about each others' love lives. It's bizarrely mundane, for a lifestyle so alien from the rest of America that the rest of America seems alien to it. And then everything goes up in flames, and all of a sudden that mountain of privilege is an exploding trash heap, and they're sitting in a shitty run-down hotel room in Moscow (this isn't a spoiler, it's in the first few pages) crying softly to themselves...

You get the sense, with this massive tome perched in your lap, that despite the accessible prose you are reading something of the same majesty and import as an Egyptian obelisk. Like Henry V in Massachusetts English.

In the entire first chapter there is no mention of the CIA or the plot or any of the characters. There is not even any mention of Hubbard himself, aside from his narrative voice. The entire first chapter is about an island in Maine, where Hubbard's family has lived for generations, and the natural beauty of the mountain and the forests and the wildlife, and the fond memories Hubbard's ancestors and neighbors had growing up there, and the quiet, hardworking lives of ordinary middle-class Americans living along the coast. It is, in a very Calvin and Hobbes sort of way, a paean to New England, and the enchantment that led the Native Americans (and later Hubbard's ancestors) to come live there, a natural history starting from prehistoric times and moving forward until the present. It seems totally extraneous, almost Melvillian, until the first plot point comes barreling along and then bam--you realize that nothing that happens in the one hundred pages before Part One begins in earnest makes sense until you understand why Harry so loves an America he barely understands. Not until you've gone through an entire short novel's worth of context-building--something that would be tedious by any other author but is transcendently, heartbreakingly beautiful in Mailer's gently soaring prose--do you realize why it's there. And then Mailer takes everything you've read, all of this gorgeous language, some of the finest in contemporary American nature writing, up there with the works of Whitman and Thoreau, which he reveals to be a manuscript of Hubbard's memoirs, and literally flushes it down an airport toilet. And then the real story begins.

This is the kind of novel you have to be Norman Mailer to write.

Mailer writes in his foreword that he didn't set out to write a novel about the CIA--there are already too many of those. Instead, he wanted to write the novel that actual high-level CIA operatives couldn't write, for security reasons--a book about what it was like to be CIA, and the kind of person who would be compelled to make that decision in the first place. He spent a couple years doing research, reading a huge number of books (the bibliography is like thirty pages) and talking to friends of his within the Agency, to make sure that everything felt exactly right. While Mailer wasn't privy to national secrets, and emphasizes that the events in the book are fictional, he says the focus of the book is to capture the experience of being CIA. And not just any CIA employee, but one of those truly oldschool upper-crust CIA types, of living as a rich white American government type by heritage as much as by choice. Whether he succeeded or not is something the subject of his books is probably not privileged to speak about. However, word of mouth says this book is on the official CIA recommended reading list--which, considering its daunting 1,300 page size, must count for something. And while I doubt the target audiences for these two things intersects very often, if you have played Metal Gear Solid 2, it is impossible to read through this book without hearing Harry Gregson-Williams's distinctive Snake motif in your head. Though Harlot's Ghost does seriously what the Metal Gear Solid games did in over-the-top parody, and the characters have far more ordinary (for extraordinarily wealthy values of "ordinary") careers than Snake's romanticized warrior-badass Jack Bauer job, those same themes of martial heritage, responsibility, identity, patriotism, and destiny resonate quite deeply. Far more so, even, than the duty-and-honor Tom Clancy novels and movies that serve as the first two MGS games' inspiration. This is not A Few Good Men. This is something with a legacy far more profound.

If nothing remains of our post-colonial empire but this one staid, magnificent tome--look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair--I will consider it a fitting monument to all that the government of these United States has achieved.
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Date:September 12th, 2009 01:59 pm (UTC)
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Your reviews are fantastic.
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Date:September 12th, 2009 09:31 pm (UTC)
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Thank you!