Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ian Fleming's 007 as Gary Stu

I have previously remarked here about the limitations of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels as fantasy, his original conception of 007 as a Gary Stu (or Marty Stu). Certainly 007 was such a figure for Fleming, clearly modeled on him (in his Scottish ancestry, Eton education, wartime Naval intelligence work, etc.), but doing what Fleming himself could not--have adventures in the field instead of doing staff work at headquarters. It is clear, too, that the Bond novels also worked this way for the audience, with their travel and luxury, their adventure and sex (less overwhelming than in the films, though certainly there), giving readers a comparable sense of transport. But Bond was also a fallible, vulnerable, at times even helpless figure, most of the time a "pursed-lip civil servant" (Simon Winder's phrase, here) out of his time and out of his depth, who spends most of his working days dealing with tedious paperwork and mundane office headaches, tormented by doubt and self-doubt when he has a moment in which to think. On many an occasion he suffers significant defeats, with painful consequences.

Consider the first Bond novel, Casino Royale. Here Bond gets bankrupted at the gaming table and has to be bailed out of his hole by Felix Leiter's money. This enables him to defeat Le Chiffre, but he is then tricked into a chase which turns out to be a trap that leads to Bond's capture. Then, "puny and impotent," he is tied naked to a chair and bashed in the genitals with a carpet-beater by Le Chiffre as he demands the return of the money Bond won. Bond does not free himself from this situation, or get personal satisfaction in avenging himself on his torturer, but is saved when an enemy SMERSH agent shows up and kills Le Chiffre instead--and cuts a signifying mark in Bond's hand before letting him go. Afterward he goes through a lengthy recovery from his injuries in hospital, and watches the romance between him and Vesper Lynd die slowly, concluding finally when she kills herself and leaves a note telling him how she betrayed him--something she did for the sake of another, previous love, a whole other layer of betrayal.

This is all very far from the stuff of personal fantasy (for most of us, anyway), and such things happen again and again and again in the books. Bond getting stomped on by football-cleated Wint and Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever. Bond getting poisoned by Rose Klebb in From Russia With Love. Bond seeing his bride killed right after the wedding and going to pieces and getting brainwashed by the KGB and betraying the Service and winding up in a mental hospital being subjected to electroshock therapy to break him of his mental conditioning in the story arc that unfolds through On Her Majesty's Secret Service, You Only Live Twice and The Man With the Golden Gun.

It was one reason why the books so utterly failed to grab me the first time I looked at them, and even now I find myself comparing Bond not just to his later screen incarnation, but to other fictional figures in this regard--not least, Robert Howard's Conan, perhaps as much a Gary Stu as a character can possibly get.

One may as well start with the character's extraordinary autonomy. He is without a past, family, country or superstition (his god, Crom, is conveniently distant), and admits no master, joining this leader, this army, that crew, only where it serves his own purposes, and only for so long as it does so--and able to go on acting that way because of his utter competence and adaptability. Conan is not merely an able fighter, but one strong enough to fell an ox with a single blow, and fling a lance like a javelin--and to boot, an able military strategist, skilled sailor, talented linguist, canny thief, charismatic politician, and just about everything else his diverse adventures can possibly require him to be in order not only to survive them, but to become top dog wherever he winds up, be it a pirate crew, a tribe of hillmen, or the elite of an ancient metropolis, in any corner of the rough and tumble Hyborean world. Even the setbacks serve to show just how formidable Conan is. Being betrayed in "A Witch Shall Be Born", for instance, proves an occasion for him to show his fearsome prowess in battle as he takes on a hundred attackers and kills them until they lay "strewn in heaps thigh-deep about him" before their comrades get a hold of him; his extraordinary endurance when he is crucified (Conan still able to tear the nails out of his feet, mount a horse and ride ten miles when his rescuers find him); and exact a like revenge on his enemy (who does not survive the treatment).

Conan's barbarism is a considerable asset rather than a disadvantage in this respect. Not only is it held to be the source of his physical strength and endurance, but also his cleanness of soul, and his clarity of mind. That he is uninhibited by civilized men's mores about such things as property and social distinctions lets him see the world more accurately than those who would look down on him--as well as go after what he wants with a clean conscience, and sense of honor intact (able as he is to abide by his simpler ethics). And Conan's wants are not small ones, be it a taste for adventure or an eye for loot. In contrast with Howard's earlier, womanless heroes, like Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and Solomon Kane, Conan is not only a sexual being, but in his proclivities and successes--well, rather like we think of James Bond being. Ultimately he winds up the crowned head of a Hyborian kingdom, Aquilonia--and while on its throne, even proves himself an exceptional ruler, not least because he is so utterly self-made.

The wish-fulfillment in this narrative can hardly be more complete.

Granted, Bond was, is, a creature of the modern world, of large organizations and high technology; there is simply no room in such a milieu for a figure like Conan, a fact that Howard escaped by going back to the antiquity-before-antiquity that was the Hyborean Age. Reflecting on the two characters there seems no question that there was a profound difference in the attitudes of these two authors to their creations. Fleming was conflicted, ambivalent, ironic toward Bond (as, one supposes, he was toward himself), and this shows in his writing, the inconsistency rather consistent. Reading Howard, however, I have never sensed anything of the kind; instead he appears to be in full fantasy mode.

Perhaps the difference in the respective ages of these authors was a factor. Neal Stephenson remarked in Snow Crash how until the age of twenty-five men on some level hold hugely deluded ideas about how tough they could be, given the incentive or the chance. ("If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge.") I imagine some recognize it for what it is earlier, and a good many others never quite let the notion go. Fleming was already well into middle age when he sat down to write Casino, but Howard still in his twenties'--and as it happened, exceptionally gifted at expressing this aspect of himself.

My Posts on James Bond
Review: Blood & Thunder: The Life & Art of Robert E. Howard, by Mark Finn
Of Mary Sue and Gary Stu

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