smiley's nipples: a liveblog (sort of) (feat.SPOILERS)

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I promised I'd liveblog SMILEY'S PEOPLE except actually i kinda failed, bcz I read it all over two days while nowhere near a keyboard. So actually I already finished, and this is going instead to be "SOME THINGS I THINK ABOUT SP as and when they pop into my silly head"

1: will be IT CERTAINLY HAS PAGE-TURNABILITY, proof by actual science and promise-breaking

mark s, Wednesday, 21 September 2011 12:22 (six years ago) Permalink

2: i said on the tinker thread that i think this book is a FANTASIA. By this I mean a book written because the author enjoys writing certain characters and certain scenes, and threads the results together into a "novel" without enormous concern for the demands on form that a novel ought to make. The recent classic in this category is Thomas Harris's HANNIBAL.

I'm not against fantasias at all: they're a product of commodification really, the requirement that -- in order to be ready to be put on sale -- a book has to be of a certain extended length and finished-ness (you couldn't just publish the connie scene). Which means they almost always have problems with closure, if not with endings.

mark s, Wednesday, 21 September 2011 12:26 (six years ago) Permalink

3: actually not so much a product of commodification as a protest against it: this is certainly true of hannibal, which is harris's revenge on all the creepy dicks who made themselves fans of "silence of the lambs"

SP is also a "revenger's book", but it's smiley's fantasy revenge more than it's john le carre's

mark s, Wednesday, 21 September 2011 12:28 (six years ago) Permalink

4: as in TTSS, the exposition of necessary backstory is lamentable, and hence -- because JLC is (a) bad at it and (b) hates this fact and wants it known -- passed off onto VERY DISLIKEABLE CHARACTERS. In TTSS, this was one Roddy Martindale, gossip and fathead. In SP, it is Lacon and Lauder Strickland, the latter especially whipped into a froth of mean, sour unpleasantness, just so he can tell Smiley things Smiley already actually knows. Obv we don't know them necessarily -- some are in TTSS but others (such as the fact that Smiley is now once again OUT) aren't.

mark s, Wednesday, 21 September 2011 14:18 (six years ago) Permalink

5: like TTSS, SP begins (a) in medias res (ie we're thrown into an event without explanation); (b) in medias nowhere, more or less ; (c) in the heads of people who aren't g.smiley (tho SP takes care to note that all this stuff will link to smiley <-- he is noted as the relevant centre, which he isn't in TTSS (where his importance to JLC's mythos is not yet established)

bill roach gets the POV treatment in TTSS, as does guillam: there's a bit of sly technique going on here, as both are also phantoms of smiley himself, when a lonely schoolboy, and when a youngish agent (guillam is also -- more overtly -- a phantom of haydon; his role is the represent the way even smiley has let himself be shaped by haydon)

but in SP, the POV treatment is reserved -- aside from a very brief return to guillam late in the book -- for two quite minor characters; neither quite bystanders, but not people with any investment in smiley's worldview (people he will actually have to question, in fact). And -- tellingly, as a marker of JLC's limits as a novelist -- people he is invoking purely instrumentally. The first -- Mme Ostakhova -- is a foreign caricature (a widow in exile and near poverty in paris, deemed an anti-soviet traitor-minnow by moscow, except suddenly they are interested and even kindly towards her?); she may be halt and elderly, but she has spunk -- i don't really believe in her inner life, but her exploits are fun to read. The second is Villem, a youngish Estonian DP living in London, not political himself but pressured into running an important mission he doesn't understand -- and completely a cipher, I feel. You know -- on reread especially -- that JLC has no enormous interest in these characters above and beyond their role in the plot; because they never have an implied relationship with smiley outside the book, they never quite come to life on the page. (Maybe Ostakhova does: her sections are cleverer writing, certainly more enjoyable, and she does -- somewhat implausibly -- end up as someone that guillam and his french wife will end up visiting after the book is done...)

Anyway, the beast seems to put out legs into the wider world, but -- like The Thing -- they're some kind of pseudo-palp, actually performing an entirely different function, and can be snapped off and chucked away w/o damage to the life of the book. (I don't mean the story doesn't need them: I mean the book's sense-of-truth only seems to be using them in the name of truth-feeling; actually they perform quite a different function...)

mark s, Thursday, 22 September 2011 10:04 (six years ago) Permalink

6: so here i am i talking about "The Thing" and "entirely different functions" -- we seem to have got off track. But we haven't: one of the tricks played by fiction is that of seeming lifelike. It tells stories we get caught up in -- as if they're happening to or round us -- when they're just made up; peopled by phantoms. Smiley's People is an excellent story-telling machine: it's a relentless pageturner, almost perfectly fashioned to get you too far into the next section to choose to close the book and go to sleep. It also creates -- or more accurately really expands on - characters you are already fond of and want to spend time with: partly of course because JLC enjoys writing them, and wants to find reasons to spend more time with them himself.

This is tricky territory: outside non-realist fiction, people end (they die or dump you or leave for New Zealand), and "spending more time with characters", in this type of novel above all, streaked with betrayal and violence, means allowing or requiring them to come to harm; to hurt one another; to stop being the feel-form you enjoy spending time with. Loving them = setting them free to turn on you, or at least on your initial conception.

But of course all fiction is, if not non-realist, non-real: "realism" is a cluster of techniques, not a claim that something you invented actually happened. And this cluster of techniques is where "The Thing" comes back in: where apparent function (description of place or person) performs a different role. Not life, but lifelike.

So how are Ostrakhova and Villem more lifelike pseudo-palps than legs down into the real? The main tell is right in front of us: both meet a character JLC actually calls "The Magician", an elfin goblin with hair flicked up into horns, spiked eyebrows and a vim for sin. We never encounter him alive, only in the recounted stories of others. And he has a role in the plot -- the plot which bring the old team back to its most perfect glory, reversing fortunes and righting wrongs.

The fragment of possibility this Magician brings Smiley affirms the point: "The Sandman is creating a legend for a girl" <--- SP is not (technical genre-term alert) magical realism; what it is is fairytale procedural. And the instrumental purpose of Ostrakhova and Villem is not to root us in this world, but to walk us through to the world of wish fulfilment.

mark s, Friday, 23 September 2011 11:49 (six years ago) Permalink

7: wish fulfilment for who? Readers, yes (we like these characters, this tale, perhaps want a "rewarding resolution" for the hero); and author yes (ditto really: plus TTSS was a different kind of critical success for him, drew him a different and perhaps quite flatterting level of respect). But Smiley?

Smiley not so much, at least not right away: "...the moment he heard Lacon's voice, he had the feeling of being hauled from a warm and treasure place, where he wished to remain undisturbed forever." Buffy, end of season five: Smiley is being called back from the dead. The General is dead; the dream of the General's political group, of exiled Estonians, are trapped in a dead dream (or a dream the post-Smiley circus has firmly declare dead). The policemen who greet Smiley are told "they "never saw him and it was two other blokes"; Lacon insists that he recognise he belongs to the past not the present; the Superintendent -- an overtly religious man, quite an unusual detail in JLC -- at the close of the encounter shines a torch in Smiley's face to fix the memory -- the reality of a supernatural moment? -- in his own mind...

And yet of course the actual concrete procedural facts of the encounter could not be more horribly real: Vladimir with his face shot off, in a wet pre-dawn reach of Hampstead Heath that you can pretty much identify to the inch from the description even today.

mark s, Monday, 26 September 2011 15:58 (six years ago) Permalink


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