Review- Littell, “The Company”

Robert Littell, “The Company” (2002) – You know, the right work could make me eat my words, but I feel confident in saying that eight hundred pages is too long for a spy novel. I picked this book up because of the name- Jonathan Littell wrote a great book called “The Kindly Ones” and I was curious if Robert was related. He is- Jonathan’s dad, and an experienced spy fiction writer and journalist. I bought it because I am interested in the history and culture of the CIA, and like a good spy story. I guess it boils down to a long-term interest in the ways in which culture informs strategy. The CIA had (to an extent, has) a weird WASP-y culture, the kind of guys who care about abstract expressionist painting while also having relatives on the United Fruit board. Spy agencies in the Anglo world are basically where rich establishment families drop off sons who are too dumb for the family business, too weird for politics (back when that was a consideration), and too hyper for the Protestant clergy. A subculture worth examining!

Well… I think Littell tries, on both the cultural end and the genre goods end. A generous reading would say he falls between the two stools, but I think that’s a little too generous. For one thing, he definitely buys the supposed pathos of the Cold War-era CIA. Smart, soulful men (and the occasional woman), seeking truth via a mission to expand freedom, getting their noses rubbed in the grim realities of politics and espionage and waxing lyrical about it over the inevitable cocktails… give me a break.

The funny thing is, Littell could not convincingly get across the idea that his characters were that smart. He accidentally undermined his own premise, but not enough to save the novel. The closest to a main character we get is Jack McAuliffe, recruited into the Company off the Yale rowing team in the fifties. He’s a dashing, horny Irish-American who’s portrayed as a natural spy but who actually fucks up a lot and is poorly-written to boot. His WASP and his Jewish friend — covering the bases — aren’t much better, as spies or as characters. Harvey Toritti, a pastiche of various real spies, is maybe a little better — not quite as motivated by his dick, as various tedious schools of mid century pop psychology insists men, especially men of action, are — but is also a ludicrous spy, a swaggering Falstaffian gunslinger and whiskey swiller who is also magically right about nearly everything. But Littell clearly thinks of them as tragic heroes. They’re not. They’re farcical goons. You could make a good story out of that — the Coens did, in “Burn After Reading” — but not if you don’t see them for what they are.

The plot is basically the Cold War’s greatest hits, except skipping over a bunch of the stuff that would depress someone who sees the Cold War as basically noble, like the Vietnam War. The characters all take part in things like the exposure of the Cambridge spy ring, the suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, the Bay of Pigs, the attempted coup against Gorbachev, etc. Littell gets some stuff right, like the Kennedys as feckless dilettantes, some stuff crashingly wrong, like when he has Dulles refer to Mossadegh as a “Muslim fundamentalist.” The CIA seeing the progressive modernizer Mossadegh as a fundamentalist… well, they could get facts that wrong, but in the fifties, the CIA would be about as scared of a Muslim fundamentalist as they would be of a vodou houngan, probably a little less. And he gets more stuff just silly, mainly as the rest of the world becomes a reflecting pool for sad American men. The Hungarian uprising is a good example. A tragedy, no doubt, bound to end badly- Imre Nagy, the socialist reformer, probably would have gotten it in the neck from Magyar fascists if the Soviets didn’t brutally crush the whole thing. But it’s played mainly as a heroic, last of the Mohicans stand that makes one spy big sad.

To the extent the Russians feature, it’s as a mirror to the Americans. There’s a KGB spy who’s kind of an alternate-universe McAuliffe, an adventurous nomenklatura fuckboy being played around by forces bigger than him as he seeks meaning through action. Russians can be tragic, too. Except all the Russians are ordered around by an antisemitic (of course) pedophile (you know, so you know he’s bad) master spy. Russia’s “natural” authoritarianism allows them to play the long game, you see, so this dude weaves various generational plots to bring down the CIA, the shield of America, etc etc. One way he does that is by encouraging the paranoia of James Jesus Angleton, a real guy and a real freak. Again, it could be kind of funny and interesting, but played for tragedy — and without dynamic enough action to keep it interesting on that level — it just does t work. Especially not for eight hundred damn pages! I might try one of Daddy Littell’s earlier spy novels, I’m told they’re slimmer and faster, but this one was pretty bad. **

Review- Littell, “The Company”

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