The Literary Review, a quarterly publication by Fairleigh Dickinson University, dedicated their Winter issue in 2015 to fiction and poems that the editors felt in some way invoked the writings of John le Carré.
Minna Proctor, the issue’s editor, refers to the issue as an experiment, and as such, I’d mark it as an interesting yet unsuccessful one. The stories, essays and poetry don’t quite hang together as a group and the quality of the choices vacillates wildly. Perhaps I’d be more forgiving if they had just pegged it as an issue exploring themes of “spying”, “lives undercover” or “betrayal” but by explicitly saying it takes its inspiration from le Carré it also reveals what I would call a rather simplistic view of le Carré’s work.
The editor says they looked at “plot-driven poems, narrators who are broken and gone dark, Eastern European cities, stories of betrayal, and many, many literary permutations of the double agent.”
While all of those things appear in le Carré stories, they also factor into almost every spy story and overlook what makes le Carre’s writing so different. His dialogue always bounces, he has a sly sense of humor, his work almost always comes from a place of outrage, he’s at his best writing about men, and an ongoing theme in his work is the father/son relationship.
On the critical end you could say he has a blindspot when it comes to writing women, and find stories or poems that would provide a counterpoint to that. His lesser works can verge on the edge of didactic and leave the reader feeling unfulfilled by the resolution. He uses spying as a way to tell stories about the human condition; so perhaps a collection of poems or stories that take a typically maligned genre and use it to tell a human story without many of the thrills normally seen in that style of story. Any one of these would be a legitimate theme or themes to hang your hat on. In the end it seems they went for the most obvious, highlighting the view of many critics that he’s work is “genre” and not “literary.”
They also did the mildly irritating thing of labeling some stories “Fiction” and others “Story.” It’s the kind of snooty move you can only get away with in a literary magazine and knocks my nose out of shape.
I’ll highlight some of the high and low points of the collection with the knowledge that this is written as a reader and not someone with a doctorate in English literature. I’m not opposed to stories and poems that require a deeper read and analysis but they should also engage you on a first read. I’ve found that even the most obtuse poems with many deeper meanings still hold together on a surface read before delving into any literary examination.
“Bernardo” by Rowan Ricardo Phillips is a bit of a prequel to Act one, Scene one of Hamlet. It has Bernardo talking to Horatio about the ghost they saw the night before. It’s a fine poem, more so if you’re familiar with Shakespeare and Hamlet, but I couldn’t say how it fits this theme. Le Carré’s writing is “Shakespearean”? The poem is “plot driven”? The editors just like this poet?
“Manus” by Anjali Sachdeva is bizarre, in a positive sense. A science fiction story grounded by glimpses of mundane work life and the “go along, get along” attitude that permeates much of modern American middle class life. This was one of the few stories that felt like it had a larger societal point to make and did a good job of creating a strange new world to explore. By placing itself more in the category of “weird tales” it is able to look at a type of regime of fear seen in the Cold War but in a modern American setting.
The poem “Prelude to Assassin” by Christa Romanosky is probably the piece that cuts closest to a spy theme. It’s a poem from the point of view of a sniper watching his targets but to me reads like a flash fiction story that the author pulled out every third word to turn into poetry. The descriptions feel like a more generic “exotic” setting than any real place and as such, I’d label it an unsuccessful attempt.
“A Week of Abalone” by Jennifer Acker is probably the most enjoyable of the stories. It has nothing to do with spies, but it does have great writing which is enough for me. The narrator examines his relationship with a friend over the decades through the prism of one week in their youth before shifting to the present day. As the narrator describes that time, the author captures the feeling of youth. How you can feel you have all the time in the world, little knowing or caring what triumphs and failures lie ahead.
Studies have shown that men have difficulty keeping friendships over time but bonds made early in life are strong, staying fresh even after years apart and this story brought that truth home.
I could see why, years later, when Carlos ejected from his burning plane over the Sea of Japan, he pulled out his camera and filmed his descent, trying to capture the vast patchwork of waves. It must have been then, during those moments of free fall, touching no one and nothing, that he overcame mortal fear; when he knew that pain was worse than death. Flying, like death, is sensationlessness. When I watched that motion picture, when we’d both been delivered home alive, I was seized, if only for a moment, by the thought that perhaps it was not Carlos himself who was remarkable but the circumstances and landscapes of our time.
If you are looking for the most “le Carré-esce” setting, the story “The Rise and Rise and Rise of Thomas Sardis“ by Tamas Dobozy fits the bill. It follows the life of a man who defects in 1950 from Canada to Hungary. As the situation in his newly adopted country changes, he goes from a place of great respect at the height of the Cold War to living on the streets and stealing whatever he can manage in order to survive. It’s the story of a man coming to terms with one poor decision that changed the rest of his life.
“The Several Ends of M. Aubert” by Bruce Ducker is an urban legend gussied up in literary writing. It’s enjoyable enough while reading but the ending is plainly obvious from the beginning and greatly diminishes any effect the author was trying to achieve. It seems more like a shaggy dog story better told around a campfire than in this collection.
There are many additional pieces beyond what I’ve mentioned here, but these were the ones I found most interesting and/or relevant to the topic.
Working through the various pieces in this book, I do wonder at the selection process. In reading the introduction it seems as though the editor didn’t have a strong criteria on why these particular stories/poems/essays belonged in a collection titled “John le Carré” and the issue overall suffers for it.
All that being said, any fiction that makes you think and inspires discussion is positive in my book. You can find an ebook copy on their site or on Amazon for $4 to read all the selections or a few are available for free on their website. So go read up, make up your own mind and let me know what you think.