For me, John le Carré is something of a literary miracle: both a highbrow literary novelist and maybe the best genre writer ever. Only a tiny handful of authors can stand astride the wide—and sometimes fake--chasm between the “popular” and the “literary” (and for those that do, that kind of recognition doesn’t often come until long after they’re gone.)
I recently felt that twinge of the miraculous in le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, published in 1986. In this autobiographical novel, le Carré mines both the exteriors of his own life, and the interior soul to tell the story of Magnus Pym, a successful operative in British intelligence and a great betrayer. Genre writers surely draw on their experience, usually done as research, but none draw as deeply from their own inner lives and personal experience like le Carré, one himself a spy long ago.
Magnus Pym is bred to deceive like royalty is bred to rule. He learned his tricks from a master—his own father, Rick Pym, a most devious and “successful” con man and head of a roving criminal family. A silky, blustery monster, Rick occasionally oozes his way into the upper strata of British society, even running for parliament, all the while sowing tragedy and misery in his wake.
Caught in this treacherous, his only son Magnus has never known stability, as he rides waves of great wealth and deep poverty. In his struggle to stay afloat, he’s learned quite a bit from this baddest of bad dads. The only road map Rick provides for Magnus is the one marked “deception.”
Magnus grows up to form a shell of British ease and politeness that hides his chaotic inner self. Deception becomes second nature, until it defines his every move. He lives two lives, neither of them real. His awareness of his dilemma pings quietly in his psyche, making him a desperately lonely man.
It’s a porous wall between the secret world of crime and the secret world of espionage. And so Magnus moves easily into the life of a government spy. As a young man, he’s recruited to betray Axel, the closest thing to a best friend he’s ever known, to the security authorities. Into the vacuum left by Axel’s departure, steps his recruiter, named Jack Brotherhood, who becomes Magnus’ mentor, helping the young man up the intelligence ladder, until he becomes the “perfect spy.”
And then Rick Pym dies. His passing cracks open Magnus’ shell and he, too, vanishes. Alarms sound all through the intelligence community. Has Magnus crossed over the Iron Curtain? If so, what secrets has he taken with him? The search is on, winding, convoluted and set with narrative traps as only le Carré can set them.
The way I see it, literary fiction tends to look inward while genre fiction tends to look outward. Put another way, genre fiction is about our actions and their consequences in the world. The best genre fiction surprises you with the costs of “doing stuff”, and when it’s really good, it forcefully dramatizes the impact of those actions on the human soul as well as the body of both individual and society. A Perfect Spy does it nearly perfectly (though I might quarrel with the end).
Over his long career, Le Carré has time and again fused these categories, no more so than in A Perfect Spy. In his fiction, conversation is the action: the talk, rich, eloquent and witty—and above all stealthy--becomes a matter of life and death, even the simplest words. His characters take actions and pay for them—and nobody pays the price for their actions quite like spies pay.
There’s also the matter of style and le Carré’s style is extraordinary: fluid and poetic far beyond what anyone expects of genre writers. In A Perfect Spy, the reader is not only entranced and absorbed by this style, but, also, by the author’s unique way of weaving in and out of Pym’s point of view, maybe as a way of portraying his confusion about himself and the two worlds that so cruelly entangle him.
Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield