Wednesday Book Club: Moonraker

Wednesday, 16 July 2008 — 12:05am | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Moonraker (1955) by Ian Fleming.

In brief: Like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Moonraker is an inquisitive piece of genre fiction hiding behind the legacy of a title that it shares with a film adaptation so outrageously removed as to be parodic at best. Having read Fleming before, what took me by surprise was not the cynical-realist, gadget-free James Bond who doesn’t always get what he wants, but the novel’s quotidian portrait of an off-duty Bond on home soil. Ironically, the novel is at its most dreary and predictable when it turns from character-building to the series’ better-known draw, the standard plot of the megalomaniacal master plan.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Moonraker, keep reading below.)

I find it unfortunate that readers of serious fiction are likely to eschew the novels of Fleming without giving them a chance. The morass of unreadable series thrillers proliferating in airport bookshops has created a justified stigma against the genre as a whole, leading to the self-selection of authors, readers, and publishers into a plot-driven ghetto that undervalues craftsmanship to a criminal degree. There are exceptions, as always—prominent and successful ones, too—but you don’t see them outselling the Dan Browns.

Combined with the iconic might of cinema’s James Bond, the perennially underachieving, shaken-not-stirred wisecracker that has come to dominate the vision of the secret agent in the popular consciousness, a Bond novel wouldn’t strike the uninitiated as a place that welcomes passages like this one—ominous, aristocratic, and far more than just a functional mood-setting camera:

At the far end, above the cold table, laden with lobsters, pies, joints and delicacies in aspic, Romney’s unfinished full-length portrait of Mrs Fitzherbert gazed provocatively across at Fragonard’s Jeu de Cartes, the broad conversation-piece which half-filled the opposite wall above the Adam fireplace. Along the lateral walls, in the centre of each gilt-edged panel, was one of the rare engravings of the Hell-Fire Club in which each figure is shown making a minute gesture of scatological or magical significance. Above, marrying the walls into the ceiling, ran a frieze in plaster relief of carved urns and swags interrupted at intervals by the capitals of the fluted pilasters which framed the windows and the tall double doors, the latter delicately carved with a design showing the Tudor Rose interwoven with a ribbon effect.

Crackling prose, with a sharp lucidity that diverts the reader from dwelling on it: neither so heavy that it turns a shade of purple, nor so light as to shatter on first inspection and poke you in the eye. It’s a fine tightrope, and Fleming walks it with ease.

None of this is news to anyone who has already read some Fleming, of course. Like his American counterpart Raymond Chandler, Fleming has stood the test of time and earned widespread acceptance in the “literary establishment”, to the extent that such a fabled beast exists. To crow that Fleming’s Bond is nothing like the Bond of the movies is passé, redundant, a fait accompli. Everybody knows it, except for those who don’t.

Nevertheless, I am not about to sell non-genre readers on Ian Fleming based on his style; I don’t pretend that we are dealing with an unsung Michael Ondaatje buried amidst the haywire superweapons and femmes fatales. It would also be disingenuous to recommend Moonraker on the basis of its plot, its prescience notwithstanding. It’s about what you would expect of a 1955 spy novel grounded in Atomic Age hysteria—before Sputnik, before the ICBM, and emphatically before détente. The Moonraker missile is a proto-ICBM, a wolf in deterrent’s clothing, making the entire premise of the novel an artifact of a five-year window in history; but it’s worth noting that today, we’re still talking about the possibility of domestic nuclear terrorism.

The word “domestic” is not a mistake. Moonraker‘s greatest strength is its depiction of a Bond who never leaves England, a twice-a-year assassin bottled in an hourglass of pedestrian ennui. That’s right: we get a good, long look at James Bond, paper-pushing civil servant, waiting out his remaining years in the OO Section before his desk job at forty-five and drowning in a soup of briefings like a recovering wikiholic.

It’s not a simple case of pathological boredom, either: Bond hears reports come in of his fellow OO agents, missing or incapacitated in their own way, and fully expects to croak in the line of duty. The insight behind it all is that the Secret Service doesn’t go around carrying out assassinations willy-nilly: the license to kill is seldom needed, and those who hold it are fair game.

Behind the Bond series’ romantic reputation, Fleming is at his best in his odd realist streaks. Suppose there were such a thing as a license to kill, and suppose MI6 was in the business of assassination; this is how it would work, and this is how your everyman thirty-something killer would behave. What is especially interesting is how Fleming conveys all that in a book where MI6 is hardly involved: Bond spends the first act applying his facility for card-playing to a personal favour for M, and the rest of the book on a transfer assignment in Kent.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the literary Bond is his fallibility. Even though the reader knows he must triumph, the possibility of failure assumes a convincing existence. The story works because the threats actually matter, even if it’s only for a few chapters of tension at a time. Nowhere is this more evident than in the first act, the centrepiece of which is the preparation and execution of a stacked game of bridge. Bond, pumped full of benzedrine and champagne, becomes aware of his overconfidence in his plan; it leads the reader to suspect that there might be something he didn’t take into account, a literal ace up his opponent’s sleeve.

The bridge scenes aren’t as lucid as the baccarat sequence in Casino Royale—in part, because I don’t have a clue about bridge—but I would much rather have the jargon of the game wash over me at a steady tempo of emotional ups and downs, as it does here, than for the author to step out of the novel and deliver a patronizing, matter-of-fact lecture on the game mechanics. Fleming could get away with it in Casino Royale because baccarat is such a simple game, but to do it with bridge would be as ill-advised as to explain the function of the pieces on a chessboard before laying out a chess scene (speaking as someone who takes basic chess knowledge for granted). On the downside, this leaves me unable to comment on the meticulous strategic construction of the game itself, as we see it play out.

On the surface, Moonraker has a damning flaw that keeps it from being a great spy novel: the utterly absurd obviousness of the villain, Hugo Drax, and his plot to destroy Britain. I’m not spoiling anything here, even though Bond doesn’t pick up on either thread until well past the halfway mark: any self-respecting reader of novels should figure it all out right away, and spend over two hundred pages shouting at the Home Office to get its act together.

That said, I am willing to entertain the sympathetic idea that Fleming was quite conscious of the plot’s transparency, and interpret Moonraker as an ironic comment on home-soil naïveté. Here, we have a Britain so entranced by the myth of meritocratic, American-style post-war prosperity that nobody wants to believe that their self-made national hero is up to no good.

And those who see that something is out of place are caught up in national security’s legal paralysis: what do you do when you have every reason to believe that something is very wrong, but absolutely no hard evidence? The gut instinct is to pin it on a henchman and hope the problem goes away.

This interpretation doesn’t make it any more plausible for the Moonraker missile to hide in plain sight (surrounded by fifty bald, mustachioed German engineers, no less), but it makes the novel a more intelligent experience to read. Necessarily so, as it turns out, for Fleming’s novel does such an admirable job of playing outside the usual sandbox that it is a shame when it retreats into the conventional. The more we know about Hugo Drax, the more he is reduced from an imposing, yet awesome pot of boiling hubris to just another snarling caricature. Don’t we have a pejorative for that—and isn’t it “Bond villain”?

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