07 November 2008

Book Review: The Spy Who Loved Me

The Spy Who Loved Me (1962)
By Ian Fleming

I needed to read an Ian Fleming novel after completing SeaFire. I had to have the great, true James Bond back.

And yet, I picked up The Spy Who Loved Me from my James Bond bookshelf (underneath my Chinatown poster), the 007 novel with the least amount of James Bond per square inch. Why did I do this?

I did it because, even though I have re-read the Fleming novels over and over since I first zipped through them at age thirteen, I have probably read The Spy Who Loved Me the fewest times, tied for that dishonor with The Man with the Golden Gun, the worst of the lot. This book needed me a bit more than the others.

Unlike The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me isn’t a poor book. But it is a strange one, and has much less of what readers usually enjoy about 007 novels. It got a lukewarm reaction when published in 1962 (the year Dr. No hit theaters), and still sparks debates among Fleming fans today.

Before any readers plunge into The Spy Who Loved Me, they need to know three important facts about it:
  • It has nothing to do with the movie. You won’t find super tankers swallowing nuclear submarines, sexy Russian spies, underwater laboratories rising from the ocean, or enormous ski jumps off cliffs into eternity. The action of the book occurs entirely in a motel in the Adirondacks. Fleming sold the film rights to the book’s title, not its plot. The original tepid reaction to the book made him reluctant to share it with film audiences. (By 1977, when the film came out, EON productions was accustomed to tossing out Fleming’s plots wholesale anyway.)
  • The story is told in first-person from the POV of the female lead. All the other Bond novels are told in third-person, with Bond as the viewpoint character the majority of the time. That the first word of the book is “I” immediately signals that Fleming is up to something different.
  • Bond doesn’t appear in the novel until the last third. Page 100 out of 164 in my new Penguin copy. Bond isn’t even mentioned until this point. Although the character doesn’t appear for about the first third of From Russia, with Love, the entire focus of those chapters is a plan to assassinate Bond. The Spy Who Loved Me saves up Bond for the finale, and all that comes before has no connection to him at all. Essentially, the first two thirds form a prologue to a Bond novel.
Facts clear, record set straight. Now we’re set to look at Fleming’s most experimental novel.

The Spy Who Loved Me has such a simple plot that I’m going to throw it all at you without considering it a spoiler; you can figure it out just from the dust jacket blurb. Vivenne Michel, a beautiful French-Canadian girl, is alone in the Adirondacks closing down a motel for the season. Two gangsters, Horror and Sluggsy, arrive to torch the establishment for the insurance money—and Viv along with it. Fortunately, James Bond gets a flat tire outside the hotel, kills Horror and Sluggsy, saves the girl, and rocks her world in the sack. The End.

That’s the plot. But that’s not the story. When I taught reading to junior high and high school students, I emphasized the difference between those concepts. A plot is a narrative of events; it’s “what happens.” A story is what you are told by the narrative voice. It’s all that happens before, after, and between the plot. The Spy Who Loved Me is filled with “story.”

The first section of the book, titled “Me,” gives us Vivenne Michel’s life through her introspective flashbacks as she closes down the Dreamy Pines Motor Court on a stormy October 13th. The motel is entirely empty, the telephone is shut off, and the nearest folk are miles away. Can you sense where this might lead? Vivenne tries to unwind with a reminiscence on her personal history, principally her two love failures during the time she lived in England. First comes the school boyfriend Derek Mallaby, who takes her virginity clumsily and then dumps her when he goes to Oxford. Next, Vivenne tumbles into a relationship with her German boss Kurt Rainer after his fiancée breaks off their engagement. This primarily sexual affair concludes when Vivenne gets pregnant, Kurt sends her off to get an abortion in Zürich, and then shuts her out of his life. Viv decides she wants out of a dead-end life in London, buys a cool Vespa scooter, and set off on a cycling tour of North Cornwall trip along the East coast of North America.

I have to wonder what first-time readers in 1962 thought of this section. Were they bored out of their minds, frustrated with this romantic True Confessions melodrama about a girl’s unsuccessful love life when they expected a spy thriller? Or did they feel intrigued, drawn in by Fleming’s vivid prose and wondering when Bond would make his stunning entrance? Judging from the weak sales, I would guess most felt the former.

My appraisal is that Fleming half-succeeds at this most treacherous and risky section of his experiment. His writing brims with his usual attention to detail and knack for making ordinary objects and places seem temporarily extraordinary. He certainly knows how to project the banality of American motor lodges. Every sense gets treated, every description sparks a response. (I love, for example, the lengthy passage on how much Viv hates pine trees. I’ve never heard them described with such precise loathing.) The emotional content of Vivenne’s story is often powerful, and Fleming gets to revel in interesting life-reflections:
Painters, writers, musicians are lonely people. So are statesmen and admirals and generals. But then, I added to be fair, so are criminals and lunatics. Let’s just say, not to be too flattering, that true individuals are lonely. It’s not a virtue, the reverse if anything. One ought to share and communicate if one is to be a useful member of the tribe. The fact that I was so much happier when I was alone was surely the sign of a faulty, a neurotic character.
Ian Fleming, is this you talking? I suspect that it is. I have often felt this way as well. Writers are indeed lonely people.

But Fleming never pinpoints the female voice to my complete satisfaction. I’ve written books with female protagonists, but never in first-person, so I don’t know how difficult it is to make this gender viewpoint switch, but I imagine it has many pitfalls. Fleming tumbles into a few, projecting masculine wish-fulfillment into Vivenne’s mind so that in places, especially dealing with physical intimacy, her voice turns noticeable tinny. Fleming certainly has Derek nailed down, but Viv’s reactions to his adolescent aggression don’t feel as natural. Kurt Rainer seems like the author throwing out his opinion of Germans as icy machines. But these two characters exist as strawmen, so “Real Man” James Bond can completely blow Viv’s mind when he shows up. The foreknowledge of the hero’s appearance means that readers will have a painful awareness of what Fleming is doing with the two other affairs of Vivenne Michel’s life.

Also, it’s hard not to feel rushed during this early section. Yes, Vivenne’s life has interesting moments—the near date-rape in the back of the movie theater carries enormous shock, and remains one of the strongest memories I have of the novel from the first time I read—but let’s just get on with it. We know Viv’s life will be endangered, we know Bond will arrive as her savior and kick some serious butt, and we want to get there as soon as possible. Would the Bavarian journalist who likes precision sex just please get out of the way?

Thankfully, nobody can make pages fly past like Ian Fleming, and after the ups and downs of “Me,” we reach the three scary chapters of “Them.” No, giant ants do not show up. What does show up is darn ugly, however.

Sal “Horror” Horowitz and Sluggsy Malone. They’ve come to clean up the motel for owner Mr. Sanguinetti of Troy, NY. Which means burning it to the ground. The brutality starts almost immediately. Horror is a corpse-like meticulous torturer, and the brutish Sluggsy clearly wants to rape Vivenne from the moment he sees her. Like most Fleming villains, these fellows have gross physical deformities. Horror has gray, lifeless skin, a mouth “like an unstitched wound” and silver-capped teeth. Sluggsy has a medical condition that makes him completely hairless. These two thugs can’t match the Doctor Nos, Auric Goldfingers, and Hugo Draxes of the 007 world, but they are pros and for a short confrontation they’re great adversaries. Maybe they lay on a bit thick with the gangster-ese, but even this has an odd charm.

Vivenne, although outmatched against these two professional killers, shows enormous resolve and brute toughness. This is where she really earns readers’ admiration and Fleming’s experiment using the female viewpoint starts to pay off dividends. Viv’s escape attempts, however, bring on one of Fleming’s famous bouts of sadism:
And then slowly, almost caressingly, he began to hit me, now with his open hand, now with the fist, choosing his targets with refined, erotic cruelty. At first I twisted and bent and kicked, and then I began to scream, while the grey face with the blood-streak and the black holes for eyes watched, and the hands sprang and sprang.
Ian Fleming isn’t an author who plays nice when it comes to illustrating his monsters. The sexually-tinged language accents the demented nature of Horror and Sluggsy, for whom violence plays as a sexual outlet. Also, it shows that after her experiences with Derek and Kurt, Vivenne associates sex with pain and unhappiness.

But have no fear . . . James Bond is here! Welcome to the third part, “Him,” the moment for which we’ve all waited. The white knight in the dark overcoat rides into the gloomiest part of the fairy tale, deep in the haunted woods with ogres about to eat the damsel in distress, and proceeds to vanquish them and administer justice with a blazing Walther PPK.

Once Bond enters the story, the rest of the book is a tough suspense ride filled with fire and firefights. And we at last get that shivery thrill we’ve waited for since page one:
[Sluggsy] turned to the Englishman. “Hey, limey. What’s your name?”

“Bond. James Bond.”

“That’s a pretty chump name. From England, huh?”

“That’s right. Where’s the registry? I’ll spell it out for you.”

“Wise guy, huh? What’s your line of business?”
Heh-heh-heh. Sluggsy, you are so dead.

Oh, by the way, what is Bond doing up in the Adirondacks in the first place? He provides the long answer in a story he tells Viv, which cements The Spy Who Loved Me into the chronology of the other books. Bond was following up on the events of Thunderball, tracking SPECTRE agents. His assignment took him to Canada to prevent a SPECTRE agent from murdering a Russian defector. While taking the scenic route down to Washington to file his report, he got the flat tire that sent him on his rendezvous with Viv’s destiny. His story of the SPECTRE assassination attempt is the only true “Secret Service” action in the novel, and it’s a pleasant aside and reminder that the next book will resume with Bond on the trail of SPECTRE and that Ernst Stavro Blofeld bloke.

The inevitable lovemaking between Bond and Vivenne sways between erotic and silly. This is the point where Fleming gets to tell us how super-awesome his hero is in bed from the girl’s perspective. Yes, the author overstates this, but even Vivenne admits she’s wandered into a fairy-tale world with the heroic knight. Bond vanishing in the morning leaving behind only note (complete with advice for inflating the tires on the Vespa) fits in with the idealized whirlwind romance.

The coda features a reality-check from the fantasy, and it’s a moment that stands out for me this reading, but which slipped under my radar before. Captain Stonor, the police officer who comes to clean up the mess left behind from the duel-to-the-death in the night, gives Vivenne a fatherly speech. She has just stepped into the world of the secret war, he tells her, and that all the men of this war, regardless of side, are men to avoid. At heart, they are all killers. Vivenne brushes the idea aside and rides off with her grand romantic notions intact.

But Captain Stonor is right, and Fleming wants us to know, regardless of what Viv thinks, that he is right. Bond appears gentler here than in the beginning of the series, Casino Royale, where he brushed off the love of a women with the icy phrase, “The bitch is dead now.” But Bond remains a dangerous person whose job will never let people from the normal world, Vivenne’s world, stay around him long. In Fleming’s next book, his masterpiece On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond himself will learn the truth of Captain Stonor’s words. Avoid loving this man—his job is death.

Vivenne is one of Fleming’s most independent and strong-willed female characters, and since she’s the narrator, we know more about her than any other Bond girl. But The Spy Who Loved Me remains a masculinist book, a fantasy about the heroic male and the unfulfilled maiden who gives herself to him and blooms because of it. Bond books are all fantasies, of course, and in The Spy Who Loved Me Fleming has reversed the view of the same male wish-fulfillment found in the other books. From the standpoint of its theme, the book isn’t experimental at all. The structure and execution are where Fleming changes his tactics—and for some readers it was and still is too radical a shift. Too much soap opera, no world-conquering villains.

However, we get to see Bond through another set of eyes. That alone makes The Spy Who Loved Me worth reading. Add to it Fleming’s remarkable style and a great suspense finale, and I can overlook the occasional fumbling with the new point-of-view and the rambling first section. I don’t recommend it as a first Fleming read, but The Spy Who Loved Me stands as one of its author’s most intriguing and personal works.