Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: Carte Blanche: The New James Bond Novel, by Jeffrey Deaver

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011, pp. 414.

Jeffrey Deaver's new James Bond novel Carte Blanche makes an interesting contrast with the last Bond novel, Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care (2008). Where Faulks wrote his book "as Ian Fleming," picking up the series right where Fleming left off in The Man With the Golden Gun, Deaver offers a complete reboot.

Deaver's James Bond is not a veteran of World War II fighting the Cold War, but a veteran of Afghanistan, who saw combat with front-line ground units despite his rank in the Naval Reserve. (How exactly this happened is not actually explained.) He is recruited by the Overseas Development Group, which we are given to understand is a revival of the World War-II era Special Operations Executive (though the ODG's missions in no way parallel those of the older organization), and we meet him early in that career. Where Faulks attempted to write in Fleming's mode, Deaver does not try, his clear, competent prose all his own.

Additionally, where Faulks kept his book relatively slender (in line with Fleming's books), Carte Blanche runs to four hundred rather packed pages. Its complicated structure also reflects the demands of such a length, the story involving not one, but two, separate (if intersecting) villainous plots, as well as a third storyline revolving around a related vendetta, and a mystery regarding the death of Bond's parents.

The story is also heavy on the kind of bureaucratic game play that comprises an increasing share of the spy thriller's content these days, even when the villains are the old-fashioned external ones. Bond was always clearly part of an organization, but the sense of this is rather more prominent now, not least because he spends much of the first third of this book in and around headquarters. The analytical side of intelligence work is also far more prominent than before. (Indeed, we learn that Bond has himself been an analyst, before recruitment into the ODG.) And it might be added that MI 5 has never before given Bond such grief, or for such poor reasons.

To his credit, Deaver does as good a job of juggling all these storylines as one might hope, but I felt that the book suffered from a slow start, for the aforementioned reasons. Fortunately, the pace picks up when Bond finally arrives on foreign soil, pursuing his investigation in Dubai and South Africa.

The resulting adventure is packed with action and skullduggery. However, these are rather grounded in comparison not just with the films, but with the Fleming novels themselves, which had their share of over-the-top bits of action and plot: Bond's final confrontation with Mr. Big in Live and Let Die, or his racing against the clock to stop the Moonraker missile's launch, for instance. And when the intrigue gets cleared up, the villains, well-drawn and innovative as they may be, not only seem rather small-time compared with their earlier counterparts, but almost a parody of them – a demented garbage man in love with refuse the way Goldfinger loved gold (picture Shirley Bassey singing that theme song: "He loves only garbage/Only garbage"), a scheming NGO functionary, a lovelorn engineer insecure about his feet (yes, you read that correctly).

I suppose this reflects Deaver's earlier writing about serial killer-types in novels like The Bone Collector, rather than the extravagant madness of Fleming's villains. It also reflects the scaling-down of the military-spy game since World War II and the Cold War (as villains go, terrorists are no match for Large Peer Competitors, especially LPCs with a competitive ideology to sell), and of Britain's role in world affairs (2011 a long way away from the pretensions current circa 1953).

It also reflects the tilt away from escapist fantasy and toward "gritty realism" going even beyond what we have seen in the most recent Bond films. This time around we see Bond operating as part of a world of extraordinary renditions and state-sanctioned torture, of government plants of misinformation in the media and open, even gloating disdain for civil liberties, and I have to admit that I didn't care for it. Of course, I sometimes found Fleming's politics jarring too, preferring the films' tendency to play down the Cold War, but I also don't remember Fleming touching such hot-button issues in his books, or Fleming's Bond being so uncritical of the uglier parts of his business - his misgivings about his assignment in the short story "Quantum of Solace" a particularly striking example of this aspect of the character. (Frankly, where Bond's attitude toward his work is concerned, Deaver's versions of the characters appears underdeveloped and shallow next to the original.)

We also see this tendency in the predictable concessions to the New Puritanism regarding smoking, drinking and sex, and to feminism as well. Of course, this did not begin with Deaver by any means. In John Gardner's first effort with the series, License Renewed (1982), we learn that Bond has cut back on his alcohol intake, and switched to low-tar cigarettes. Apparently he is no longer carrying on liaisons with three married women at once, instead pursuing more socially acceptable (monogamous, long-term, conventionally romantic, etc.) relationships, and his early scene with Q section engineer Ann Reilly reads like a taunt of those holding traditional expectations about where such bits go.

Nonetheless, the concessions are rather larger now. Deaver's Bond still enjoys good food, and good drink, but is an ex-smoker now, who actually admonishes colleagues for their smoking and drinking while on the job. Back at headquarters Moneypenny (now identified to us as a Royal Navy lieutenant) "keeps [Bond] in his place," their relationship friendly rather than flirtatious, and the same might be said too of Mary Goodnight (not his secretary, but his personal assistant now, with much made of her competence). Bond does not act on his attraction to his engaged colleague Ophelia Maidenstone, even as he pines for her so much that he is actually thinking of her when he is with the only character who reads like a classic Bond girl (suggestive name and all), though even she turns out to be something quite different from what fans of the classics might imagine. Bheka Jordaan represents a new mark in the ever-increasing prickliness level of Bond heroines. And then, when the story comes to a close, Bond's association with the woman with whom he is dining is strictly Platonic. Bond even goes out on lousy dates, at the start of the book feeling some relief at being given an out from listening to a beautiful artist go on about how underappreciated she is when the office calls, a bit which struck me as more appropriate to an independent film about (much) lesser mortals.

The term "postmodern conservatism" nicely sums up this blend of right-wing thinking with political correctness, but that is not the entirety of the change. While Deaver handles the travelogue and the luxury well, he simply can't bring back the old romance of travel. This 007, flying aboard Air Emirates, guesses that he is enjoying the "quality service that typified the golden age of air travel fifty or sixty years ago" (164). The old Bond wouldn't have had to guess, because we watched him actually living it, and that's part of what's lost in making Bond a child of Generation Y: he can no longer be romanticized as a representative of an earlier, more sophisticated generation which truly understood "lifestyle," a thing now attributed to monkeys, birds and dinosaurs, apparently. (And speaking of misused terms and expressions, I was dismayed to see Deaver employ the phrase "Back in the day" in the course of the narrative. Run into the ground by adolescents with limited vocabularies and absolutely no sense of the past, it has no place even in the thoughts of this book's hero.)

The result is that while Carte Blanche is in many respects a competent espionage thriller, it left me unsatisfied as a Bond novel. Indeed, Carte Blanche might be said to have done for the novels what Casino Royale did for the films – reimagined Bond for today's market while eliminating much of his personality in the process.

An updated James Bond, it seems to me, is not really James Bond at all.

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