Jun 18, 2008

Book Review: Devil May Care By Sebastian Faulks

My primary misgiving going into Sebastian Faulks’s much-hyped Centenary James Bond novel Devil May Care was the whole "writing as Ian Fleming" thing touted on the front cover. Pastiche is tricky ground to navigate, and sure enough, Faulks’s attempts to emulate Ian Fleming’s style fall vastly short. But I don’t want to read copycat prose anyway, so I was glad when I realized that Faulks’s prose had a style of its own, and wasn’t just bad imitation Fleming as I’d feared. Ultimately, the major problems with the Cold War-set Devil May Care don’t lie with the author’s successes and failures at mimicking Ian Fleming. They lie in a far more unexpected place for a novelist of Faulks’s reputation: in his basic storytelling.

James Bond is never proactive in this novel. M doesn’t give him much of a chance, saddling him with his vaguest assignment ever: basically, he says, "we know this guy Julius Gorner is bad. Find out what makes him tick." That doesn’t sound much like a mission for a 00 agent to me. Nevertheless, that is what Bond is given to work with. Moreover, this simple "find out what makes him tick" assignment is inexplicably treated by M and by others with the very highest importance. Later we learn that Washington even thinks it might be "the big one." What, ticking?

To the end of finding out what makes Dr. Julius Gorner tick (why another Dr. Julius, by the way? Hasn’t Bond already fought enough of those?), 007 sets off for Paris, where he’s confronted by a beautiful woman, Scarlett Papava, in his hotel room. Handily, she tells him where to find Gorner, and Bond is off to the tennis club for the traditional sports or gaming showdown with his nemesis. This tradition, of course, goes back to Fleming, who managed to write about cards with the same excitement with which he wrote gunfights.

After reading Casino Royale, I felt like I could play Baccarat. It’s a good thing there wasn’t a casino nearby (well, not one with Baccarat, anyway), because I’m sure that I would have been soundly disproved, but I definitely felt that way. At his best, Fleming teaches the reader the game he’s describing. By doing so, he manages to make a game of Bridge thrilling in Moonraker, even to a reader like myself who’d never played Bridge in his life.

In Devil May Care, Faulks doesn’t teach the reader the rules or scoring of tennis (perhaps because he feels most people know it), but he does write the scene in such a way that it isn’t necessary. I was never lost during the tennis match (unlike in the golf game in Fleming’s Goldfinger, an occasion in which he failed to suitably educate the reader), but I also didn’t finish it feeling like I could score a real game of tennis, either. That’s alright though. By this point, I wasn’t expecting things to be the same as Fleming did them, and the exciting tennis match is probably the high point of Faulks’s novel. It’s a good confrontation. Except...

Once again, Bond is as passive as one can be whilst engaged in such an intense physical competition. Like most villains, Gorner is cheating him. When Hugo Drax or Goldfinger tried doing that, 007 smartly found them out and beat them at their own game. In Devil May Care, Bond remains utterly oblivious to the fairly obvious deception. Suddenly, his luck changes, like that of the clueless Mr. Du Pont, Goldfinger’s favorite rube. Scarlet has played the Bond role, catching onto Gorner’s cheating and putting an end to it unbeknownst to Bond. Bond wins the match on skill, never realizing why he had such a rough time of it at first.

With the game over, it’s time for the plot to advance, so M cables Bond and tells him to go to Tehran. Why couldn’t Bond find some sort of clue that put him on that trail? If only he did something proactive, I would feel more like I was reading a James Bond book. But instead the winds of convenience blow him there. In Tehran, once again a beautiful woman shows up and points him in the right direction, giving him the address of a warehouse to check out. Once again, Bond does nothing to earn this information, but merely goes where he’s directed. There, he’s captured by the bad guys, and transported to his next necessary destination by them, never in control of the situation, never making his own choices.

Faulks does provide some good Flemingesque travelogue bits about 1960s Tehran, and I appreciated that. Unfortunately, he doesn’t really integrate the travelogue with the plot the way Fleming always managed to, and it becomes quickly evident that he’s merely alternating action with travelogue, rather than combining the two.

I suppose I’m going to venture slightly into spoiler territory here, but honestly you can’t really spoil this stuff. What happens next is what always happens next in Bond films, only not executed as well. After a more intriguing red herring plot to destroy Britain slowly by flooding it with cheap heroin and poisoning its youth, Gorner declares that he doesn’t really have the patience to see that one through, so he’s just going to go with that old standby of Bond movie villains (note that we’re more in film territory than book territory at this point) and launch two nukes at Russia in an attempt to provoke war between the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. One of those bombs is on a hijacked airliner, along with 007. The other is on an astonishing piece of hardware called an Ekranoplan, a huge, Soviet-built, jetliner-like hovercraft that skims the cushion of air between the surface of the water and the underside of the wing at speeds of up to 250 mph.

The Ekranoplan is a great vehicle for a Bond story, a fantastic futuristic relic of a jet age past. Faulks was right on the money including it... but he doesn’t figure out how to use it! After a lot of build-up, the Ekranoplan ultimately amounts to nothing at all, and here’s the real shame: 007 never even sets foot on it! James Bond on this vehicle should have been a setpiece so good it writes itself, but instead Bond’s stuck on a regular old airplane for a recreation of The Living Daylights’ finale while a trio of RAF bombers impersonally deal with the Ekranoplan.

The main plot more or less resolves itself (with little thanks to James Bond) with some forty pages left to go in the book. Bond and Scarlett (whose secrets the reader will see coming a mile away) are stranded in the Soviet Union, with a very long drive ahead of them. But this is Her Majesty’s top secret agent in the heart of enemy territory; surely there must be some excitement ahead, right? Like the nail-biting suspense of Moneypenny’s visit to Moscow in Samantha Weinberg’s Secret Servant? Well, no. Basically, there’s just that long drive (briefly interrupted by a rote encounter with a henchman), followed by an unnecessary coda in Paris.

It appears that Faulks saw his task akin to Michael France’s in scripting Goldeneye: create a "best of" James Bond story to reintroduce 007 to the public after a six year absence (now as the hero of his own adult novel; then as cinematic icon). France and his co-writers succeeded in that task in 1995. We may have seen the setpieces before, but they fit together well, and Bond was still proactive. In Faulks’ attempted reintroduction of the character, we get plenty of references to Fleming’s stories (and, in a nice surprise, one to Charlie Higson’s Young Bond) and plenty of repeated "classic" moments, situations and even characters, but they all come off as mere shades of the vibrant originals. Bond is again put through an obstacle course like Dr. No’s, only so much less so. (Nary a squid in sight.) Bond escapes his cell only to be recaptured and have guards stationed inside it, ala the film of Goldfinger. Even the book’s best new character is simply a Persian version of the memorable Fleming creation Darko Kerim Bey from From Russia With Love, obviously doomed to Darko’s fate in whatever way Faulks can shoehorn that in, even if it doesn’t arise organically from the story he’s telling.

Another favorite Fleming character, Felix Leiter, gets to return in his own skin, but ultimately pointlessly. The reason readers love to see Felix pop up in Fleming’s novels is because he serves as a wonderful foil to Bond; they work well together and usually engage in some very entertaining banter. But Faulks’s Felix never even crosses paths with Bond! Likewise, his most successful take on a Fleming character, Rene Mathis of the Deuxieme Bureau, only gets a single scene to interact with 007.

In another misguided nod, Faulks seems to have based his structure largely on Goldfinger, which is an odd choice because Goldfinger is structurally one of Fleming’s weakest novels, thanks to its over-reliance on luck and coincidence and its hero’s lengthy incapacitation. As in Goldfinger, James Bond is captured by the villain at the midpoint, and as in Goldfinger the villain inexplicably keeps him alive... so Bond can work for him. (Is the henchman market really so bad that villains are frequently forced to employ their most dangerous enemies?) In Goldfinger, at least 007 manages to ingeniously convey a message to the CIA detailing his captor’s dastardly plan. In Devil May Care, he doesn’t even manage to convey the intelligence he’s gathered! Instead, the CIA just happen to hear about it on the intelligence grapevine.

That happens constantly–and infuriatingly–in Faulks’s novel. Again and again, heroes and villains alike obtain crucial information "off-screen," so to speak, with a throwaway explanation along the lines of, "this is intelligence. There are always leaks and moles." Thus is Bond denied not only his usual heroics (he has nothing whatsoever to do with the thwarting of the more exciting nuke on the Ekranoplan), but also his basic vocational function, intelligence gathering.

Faulks later completes his utter castration of the character by also depriving him of his more famous function, his license to kill the primary villain! (I won’t say how it happens, but the task is taken out of his hands, and not in an exciting, bathing-beauty-with-a-speargun, Thunderball sort of way, but one much less satisfying.) This impotence is unfortunately not limited to the realm of the metaphorical, either. Bond is also repeatedly denied sex throughout the book, whether because he (shockingly) turns it down, or because he’s interrupted, as happens in one of the novel’s best scenes, a love scene incongruously lifted directly from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Whether on the battlefield or in the bedroom, by the end of the book, Bond has been through a lot, but actually accomplished almost nothing.

Is this supposed to be a commentary on Britain's modern place in global politics? I hope not, because a James Bond continuation novel isn't the place for such grandstanding. But if it's not, then it's simply bad storytelling, which I certainly wouldn't expect of so esteemed a writer as Sebastian Faulks.

Were it a commentary, though, it wouldn’t be the only one. Wherever possible, Faulks applies contemporary analogies to the Cold War setting. Bond finds himself (and, by extension, Great Britain) threatened by a crass American CIA agent who says Washington feels Britain isn’t doing its part in the "War On Communism," since it hasn’t committed troops to Vietnam. Using that turn of phrase (which I don’t think I’ve heard before) and the topical Iranian setting, Faulks heavy-handedly evokes the obvious present-day applications. Unfortunately, in doing so, he fails to use his actual time period to any effect! I loved the way Samantha Weinberg worked historical events like the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kim Philby’s defection into her Bond novels; Faulks does nothing of the sort (other than an out-of-place reference to The Rolling Stones' Redlands drug bust). I suspect that this is because even "a literary novelist of Faulks’s calibre" (as Ben Macintyre gushes on the British jacket) has the same ambitions as lesser mortals: to see his work on film. Knowing that it would have to be updated were his book to be picked up by EON, Faulks has made that an easy task by forsaking the most interesting aspect of this whole experiment, crafting a vaguely timeless story instead of utilizing a fascinating historical time period. All this while overlooking the film Bond’s need to occasionally take action!

Ultimately, this Centenary novel (which flacks assured us early on had caused a publisher to exclaim that it could have been mistaken for a lost Fleming manuscript) is a big disappointment, which is really too bad. Faulks has said again and again that he wrote the book in Ian Fleming’s six-week schedule, but did he take into account all the rewriting Fleming did after that time was up? It doesn’t seem like it. Devil May Care reads like a first draft. Faulks is a talented prose writer, but his plotting falls infinitely short of previous continuation writers like John Gardner or Raymond Benson, which is a shame. I actually hate not liking a new James Bond novel, but despite a few highlights like the tennis match, the aforementioned love scene, a henchman named Chagrin and a merciful lack of torture (one of Fleming's conventions I've never really much cared for), there was simply too much wrong with Devil May Care for me to feel otherwise.

Luckily, there are other avenues to turn to for quality Bondian fiction these days. In the same month as Devil May Care came out to such fanfare, Charlie Higson’s latest Young Bond opus, Hurricane Gold, was released in paperback, and Samantha Weinberg’s final Moneypenny Diary, Final Fling, debuted in England in hardcover. I never would have predicted it five years ago, but Faulks was actually at a disadvantage compared to those two talented writers. Both Higson and Weinberg got to write Bond novels with unique gimmicks (Bond as a boy) and new points of view (Bond’s world through Moneypenny’s eyes), whereas Faulks was tasked with just writing an ordinary Bond continuation story, as so many writers have done in so many mediums since Fleming’s death. I’m sure that one day a skilled author will pull off even this feat once more (and I look forward to it), but in the meantime, readers seeking intelligent adult fiction about James Bond would be much better off tracking down Weinberg’s Moneypenny Diaries trilogy.

4 comments:

Ted said...

I was more enthusiastic for Devil may Care right after I finished it, but your observations about structural weakness and a passive Bond are spot on I find myself thinking less of it.

I still enjoyed reading it fast and once, and there were moments when it felt right.

You were let down by tthe overall shape of the thing, and I fixated on the details. It could have been much worse, that's what I'll say if anyone asks me.

bish8 said...

My wonderful wife bought this for me for Father's Day (along with the two season set of The Magnificent Seven television series). However, I am loath to start reading.

Right from the beginning I was dubious of Sebastion Faulks. I mean, who is this guy -- some pretentious literary writer nobody has ever heard of. Secondly, when interview he seemed to have distain for the project (the whole, "I'm only going to write one Bond novel" thing).

Charlie Higson has done far more for Bond than Faulks will ever get credit for. I think the whole thing is a massive misfire -- a bestseller becasue it's Bond and for no other reason.

Tanner said...

Ted, you're absolutely right: there were definitely moments in DMC that I enjoyed, even if I really didn't like the "overall shape of the thing," as you put it so well. The tennis match, for sure, and Chagrin and his backstory. In fact, after the slow start, I was really with it throughout most of the first half... until 007 got to Tehran and everything really went off the rails. I enjoyed a lot of the little references (especially the Young Bond one), but some of them verged on being too cute.

Not all the details were right though. Little things bothered me like the fact that Faulks didn't seem to realize that SMERSH was defunct by that point in both Fleming's world and the real world, or that Bond HAD been to the USSR before--to be brainwashed.

I really do wish I could have enjoyed it more. But I certainly don't wish to hamper other people's points of view. There are bloggers and a surprising amount of mainstream critics who seem to have enjoyed the book a lot, so I wouldn't want to discourage you from enjoying your father's day gift, Bish! (And if you don't, at least you've got the Ron Perlman Magnificent Seven to fall back on; Ron's awesome!) Maybe you'll like it more than I did. There are certainly small things that anyone will enjoy, even if the big picture is tougher. Please let us know what you end up thinking! (Plus, it's definitely a fast read; it's got that going for it.)

I do agree that Faulks put his foot in his mouth a lot in interviews, and whether he felt that way or not, he certainly made it seem like he saw Bond as beneath him, which was unfortunate. Still, I was fully prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt... and he let me down.

Anonymous said...

'I mean, who is this guy -- some pretentious literary writer nobody has ever heard of.'

Good heavens above. Is this a witty pistache of an idiot, or have you genuinely not heard of him?