Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Front List / Back List: The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel and The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene

Two thrilling tales that speak as much to our need for entertainment as to our need to be aware of the darker happenings in our world.

From The Front List

The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel. Fiction. Unbridled Books. Hardcover. 287 pps. ISBN: 9781936071647. $24.95.

We stand in need of something stronger now: the travel book you can read while making your way through this new, alarming world.

-Michael Pye, The New York Times, June 1, 2003. Used by Mandel to open her book.

Anton wants a normal life. He wants to have a family and a desk job. He doesn't want to run an illegal business like his parents and cousin Aria do. The latter of which he helped start. He doesn't want to be a part of bringing potential terrorists into the country. He's tired of doing things that he thinks are immoral. He is tired of being a coward.

Anton Waker gets what he wants, more or less, with a bit of subterfuge involving a diploma and his conman's nerves.

In no time he is ensconced in middle management at a water logistics company.

You can't just walk out on the family business though. Sometimes you know too much. Sometimes you're too useful. Sometimes the lies get piled so high that the only way to truly get out from underneath them is to let them come crashing down around you.

Let me start by saying this: You will have no trouble finishing this book. Emily St. John Mandel's book is exactly what her first was, which is to say a carefully wrought and thoroughly thoughtful page-turner.

Now let me split some hairs.

Mandel has set for herself a large task of blending genres and the difficulty of this is evident in The Singer's Gun. There is no truly riveting moment of action. There is no point where the protagonist's horrific revelation is shared by the reader. Lastly there is no "ah ha" moment where several clever threads come together in a spectacular bow.

In her attempt to walk her story far enough away from genre cliche she may have lost something of the spark of those modes of storytelling. On the flip side, by keeping away from it she walks closer to more conventional fiction which somewhat doesn't mix with the implication of the cloak and dagger plot.

Hairs split, let's talk about why you're going to want to inhale this book.

In her debut novel (published last year) Last Night In Montreal she introduced us to her remarkable command of the language, plotting, and in particular to her ability to draw incredibly lifelike character portraits. Readers also were introduced to her wonderfully refreshing approach to story, which lives in a half-world composed of literary fiction and crime/thriller genre plotting techniques.

Think fast plot, withheld information and the foreshadowing of potentially violent conflict combined with extended passages where the characters engage in critical and existential analysis of desire, longing and other more unique insecurities. Like I was saying, Mandel's first novel lives in a half-world and does so quite successfully.

In The Singer's Gun she takes it one step further and this is why I say she has set for herself an immense undertaking. Not only does it take one step further into the realm of genre fiction it does so toward the cold-sweat misdirection of the realm of cloak and dagger. That's right, I'm saying that essentially Mandel has taken her second book into the half-light realm of international crime, espionage and political intrigue thrillers.

Like her first book it does not go openly into this realm. Instead it grasps firmly to more conventional literary fiction in order to become grounded in a reality that most readers will find something in common with. At the beginning of the novel Mandel uses the above Pye quote (there is more of it) to declare her intentions and she uses its theme admirably. The Singer's Gun is about the vast personal and social effects of the immigrant desire to fit in and become American. It is also about the hazard of doing so illegally and the lucrative businesses surrounding immigration.

The excitement, the genre aspect if you will, is housed within the illegal activities of the protagonist, his parents and his cousin. Anton Waker's folks deal in high-end antiquities and works of art procured by dubious means and Waker's cousin Aria (practically sister) deals in near-perfect forged documents, namely Social Security cards and American passports. Anton is her business partner, in the sense that he gets a fare shake of the proceeds and is the face of the operation, doing the exchanges himself.

He is also her dupe, in the sense that he is never fully allowed to know how she gets such perfect fakes, who she has as contacts or even how she lines up clients. Kind of precarious for young Anton.

The Singer's Gun unwinds wonderfully as the bubble-world Anton has built for himself bursts both from within and out. Further revelation would certainly be impolite to potential readers.

While I don't think it is a "new" form like the Pye quote somewhat naively calls for, it is a wonderful and important update that has been sorely lacking in the fiction genre.

It is a daunting task but Mandel seems to be working towards something very special. In The Singer's Gun she has produced a page-turner that succeeds in demonstrating the exigency of the topics addressed within. It is a novel of our times and one that will find a willing audience nearly anywhere.

As with her first novel, The Singer's Gun will leave you waiting for the next.

From The Back List

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene. Fiction. Penguin Books. 208 pps. ISBN: 0140185380. Out-Of-Print.

If we lived in a world, he thought, which guaranteed a happy ending, should we be as long discovering it? Perhaps that's what the saints were at with their incomprehensible happiness - they had seen the end of the story when they came in and couldn't take the agonies seriously.

-from The Confidential Agent

How is this book out-of-print? I truly hope it is merely between printings because for a novel like this to go without a place on retail bookstore shelves is truly wrong.

Since Emily St. John Mandel made exigence her goal with The Singer's Gun I decided to align such a noble goal with a classic thriller with not only relevance but near prescience.

Written in 1939, Graham Greene's The Confidential Agent is a brilliant spy novel of plotting, realism and real-world foreshadowing. Incidentally it was written while Greene was working on The Power And The Glory and in time Greene began to obsess over it more than his eventual masterpiece (with a capital M). Later Greene admitted, somewhat puzzled, that it was among the few novels he wrote that he personally enjoyed rereading.

The novel is set in the 1930's during the build-up to World War II. The protagonist has journeyed from his civil war torn country to England to procure a contract for coal that will help his faction's cause greatly. His name is D., and he is a somewhat unlikely agent in the deadly games played by spies during wartime.

D. is an expert on Romance epics and in particular The Song Of Roland. He is a bookish man who has lost much due to the horrors of the war, including his beloved wife. He has seen much death and dealt it himself. Greene uses a unsettling metaphor for D. as a man carrying an infectious disease (the war) with him to this peaceable kingdom.

While never explicitly stated in the novel, Greene later admitted that the agent's war torn country was Spain. The Spanish Civil War turned Spain into a proving ground for Nazi military equipment and while sleepy England looked the other way the storm that would eventually come crashing upon them gathered strength.

When Greene wrote The Confidential Agent the blitz had not happened yet. The cities of England were not yet in ruins. Greene darkly augurs this though in the flashbacks of D., who is haunted by the realities of his poor homeland. Whether the nightmare of being burried beneath a house worth's of rubble or the vision of the countless dead, D. brings these things with him wherever he goes.

D. however is not alone in England. The opposition has sent an agent, well connected and quite talented, to thwart D. in his efforts. First he is bribed, then he is beaten up and still D. plugs along his way to meet with the coal magnate. Of course stronger measures are then called for.

The Confidential Agent is amazing for the nature of its protagonist. He is noble, forthright, and yet clever enough to succeed in a deadly trade. Greene creates a sort of metaphor for civility through comparing D. to the knight Oliver from The Song Of Roland and in turn barbarity and the war itself to the blind pride and powerful anger of Roland himself.

Like all of Greene's spy books, it contains a series of political realities and commentaries that apply uncomfortably with modern times. Like his other thrilling classic The Quiet American, you can't help but be disconcerted in your entertainment while you read The Confidential Agent.

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