This week, I did something big: I admitted that the book I’d been reading was not doing it for me on any level. I almost renewed it for a third time, but then before I could stop myself, I grabbed it off my nightstand and shoved it in the return-to-library bag, along with our much-beloved Little Golden Book rendition of Frozen, which had also worn out its welcome. I have instituted for Ros a new rule: she gets one princess book from the library a week to take home, and then we get a lot of other kinds of books, too. Just like we eat a wide variety of foods every day, I told her, we need to make sure we don’t only read the same kind of book over and over. I am a little surprised that she has consented to this without much of an argument (the flip side is that I basically let her take out as many books as she wants, as long as only one is a Disney princess book). We can let ourselves gravitate to the things that jump off the shelves at us, the things that our culture puts in our path and insists that we must read, but we also have to practice a little bit of intentionality around our choices in books. That, at least, is what I am imposing on my daughter. I’m also going to impose it on myself.
I’m a little sheepish about the fact that I chipped away at John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy for…let’s see…two months and even got 3/4 of the way to the end before throwing in the towel. I should have seen the signs much sooner that I was wasting my precious reading time with The English! The Americans (ugh, no class, those Americans)! The wives and their prattle! The Czechs! What’s the deal with Pym anyhow - is he running away because he’s sad about his father or because he’s been double-crossing the English and spying for the Czechs, or has be been double-crossing the Czechs the whole time, or is he really only loyal to the one Czech guy, the father-figure who loved him the way his asshole of a real father never could? Magnus Pym writes through all of this, addressing himself to his own son, but is he really a reliable narrator? WELL? IS HE?
The British spy-man intensity of the narrative is beautifully executed, sure. I don’t need to tell anyone that Le Carré is a great writer within this genre, possibly even the best. I had never read a novel of his, and I was looking for something suspenseful, an engaging story written by a truly good writer that would keep me coming back every night. A 2014 article in the New Yorker called Perfect Spy Le Carré’s greatest novel: “actually a meta-fiction … about a man writing his life—in effect, writing a novel—and the text that Magnus produces is frequently coy and unreliable, which makes the complexities of the book staggering.” Yep, I got that much. He’s more than just a genre writer! He’s been wrongly pigeonholed (has he, though?)! Spying is the human comedy and a great “fiction-maker” and what have you. Reader, I tried. I wanted to like it, because I felt like I should, but I was tired of it before the first chapter was over. Before we fully understand what is happening with the unfolding plot, the main character’s “staunch and frightened wife, Mary,” in the New Yorker’s words (so fun to be a woman in a British spy novel, isn’t?) might have gotten raped by her husband’s best friend and handler Jack Brotherhood in the book’s opening, but how about we avoid being terribly clear about that and/or acting like it matters whether she secretly wanted it or not? Later, we’re treated to the inevitable part of the male coming-of-age story where we steep ourselves in distress over sex and how to get it. By way of apologia for Le Carré’s total lack of interest in women as anything other than providers of sex and maternal love, the New Yorker article says in an aside that “It’s very unlikely that Susan Sontag would have been interested” in his novels. Chuckle, chuckle, who cares, right? Before I forget, Perfect Spy was also called Le Carré’s best novel by none other than Philip Roth, may he rest in peace.
So, I am done with this stuff for a while. In fact, I just decided right now that this year is going to be the Year of the Woman in fiction for me. I had plans to read more James Baldwin, but he’s gonna have to wait, too. Part of me thought, in picking up A Perfect Spy for holiday vacation, that I had been missing out on some big part of the literary world in not reading any Le Carré up until now, particularly since Little Drummer Girl has recently become a highly-acclaimed TV series. I am not missing out. I often think these days of a comment on Jezebel in response to an article about the collective mourning in some circles about what a loss it would be to banish Louis C.K.’s comedy from the earth:
Le Carré (probably) isn’t a douchebag, but the commenter’s point still stands: it’s not like I’m going to punch myself in the face for 15 minutes before bedtime every night instead of reading novels that want me to be as obsessed with maleness as they are. I actually have a lot of other great choices, and I don’t have to read anything that I don’t want to. I do not find this surprising. With due respect to both dudes, I’m putting them down for a while. I’ve got plenty to read that women are writing and right now, I’m a whole lot more interested in how they tell stories. I’m excited.