January 2005

Damien Weaver

fiction

Tremor of Intent by Anthony Burgess

What is it that leads high-brow, high-concept authors to dabble in genre? Are their efforts a populist gesture or simple overreaching? Are they satisfying their own curiosity or paying loving tribute to a form they admire? Whatever this dire impulse, the impulse that leads awesome authors like Martin Amis to write irredeemable crap like Night Train, it took hold of the prolific Anthony Burgess long enough to provoke The Tremor of Intent, a spy novel written by someone who revolutionized sci-fi but clearly fancies himself above spy novels.

Tremor of Intent centers around Denis Hillier, an English spy carrying out one last mission before retirement. He's disguised as a typewriter technician on holiday and is to find and kidnap a fellow Englishman named Roper, a scientist who's defected to the USSR and will be attending a conference in Yugoslavia. Hillier, though he admits to "a life ruled by gluttony and satyriasis," is a likeable character, world-weary and introspective, a decent man and a loyal agent of the Crown. His failures as a spy -- everyone seems to be onto him as soon as they meet him -- give him a sweet hangdog quality, though it's hard to imagine how's Hillier's lasted as long as he has in the brutal cold-war climate of Eastern Europe.

Hillier and Roper knew each other from early childhood, which we learn by means of a flashback to Roper the precocious schoolboy, flummoxing his instructors with a byzantine hopscotch argument splicing molecular science into Biblical numerology, a wild, intellectual dick-slapping riff on the atomic composition of the eucharist which may be titillatingly blasphemous for recovering Catholics or substantively intriguing to those of scientific bent but struck this reviewer as shoehorned in, a bravura demonstration of cleverness unrelated to the novel at large. This flashback is the first of many abrupt changes in narrative voice, tonal inconsistencies so jarring that a reader ends up noticing the book's texture more than its text. The opening of Tremor seethes with slang and superspy acronyms, but the flashback is more like a parody of Nabokov, long sentences built around twenty-cent words.

There are several lengthy flashbacks: Roper's questioning of Catholicism marks the beginning of a lifelong iconoclasm that leads him to question Britain's declaration of war on Germany. Both Hillier and Roper serve Britain in World War II, and when they run across each other after the war we are treated to a fascinating conversation that has both philosophical resonance and blistering real-life impact. Hillier has joined the intelligence service, mind, body and soul, and with his edges sheared off by dogma he lives his spying job full-time. Roper, a (then still English) military scientist, is at base a Nazi apologist. Both men have seen the death camps and understand the stakes of war, so their discussion of moral absolutes cuts much deeper than would that of two students arguing abstracts in a dorm room.

What follows is the book's longest, best and most rewarding segment, a first-rate run of British suspense writing. Burgess ladles on rich characterization and the best kind of paranoia in this series of chapters aboard a cruise ship with only a handful of passengers and staff, a claustrophobic Agatha Christie environment where everyone is up to something and proper manners mask nefarious intent. Especially worthy of mention is a gruesome eating contest Hillier engages in with a fellow glutton. When Burgess sets himself a mark, he hits it, hard enough for the reader to feel and remember. Tremor's failure is in its larger effect, or lack of effect. Late in the book, Burgess the Joyce scholar finds diagetic excuses -- delirium, drug use -- to churn the text into passable but recognizably mid-Ulysses stylee cacophony, fragmenting phrases and words with punctuation, building elaborate homophonic pun games that are respectable accomplishments on their own terms but do the novel that contains them a distracting disservice.

There's no crime in having fun with a worn genre's expectations, and it leaves plenty of room to write an excellent book tackling a serious subject. To see this done right, pick up Hugh Laurie's stellar The Gun Seller, or almost anything by living grandmaster John LeCarre. In more than one of John LeCarre's novels, the (invariably male) central character begins the book afraid of his growing disillusionment and proceeds to swing between poles of simplistic cold-war loyalty before transcending moral dualism, West Good East Bad, and reaching a greater truth, either leaving everything he's known and flinging himself into wild idealism -- joining an Eastern European ethnic minority in armed revolt -- or abandoning his shaky rationalizations and yielding to the process for its own sake, living the game of spying. In Tremor there is a catharsis, but it isn't a transcendence so much as a Big Crunch; the whole universe is sucked down into the personal, into a few characters, compressed and squashed beyond what the limited cast can contain so that the last few chapters feel like a dream allegory, bristling with meaning and yet slippery, uninformative, lumbering and yet conveying nothing, contracting finally into wakefulness, and the book's ending, and Burgess's being done with his genre dalliance.

It's like a TV series that runs for too many seasons; we watch the characters undergo so much and variously embody so much that it becomes impossible to take empathize with them or take them seriously as real people with recognizable lives. The characters in Tremor speak openly of the process, further diluting its impact. When the novel's characters show less and less interest in daily living, instead discussing the strange shared journey they're undergoing and the strange ways they're behaving, the reader may wish Puppeteer Burgess would quit flaunting the strings.

Burgess delights in pulling the rug out from under the novel's events, so dissipating tension that the major force left shaping the narrative is the dead weight of the inevitable, the millstone of the obligatory. Some of the genre's conventions are apparently too satisfying to defy, and a cliché provides its own excuse. When our horny hero encounters an exhaustively described nubile barely-illegal, cynical readers will immediately suspect the young lady's in for a serious fucking from the aging but still-virile male protagonist before the book's end, possibly even a distastefully equivocated fucking which she initiates and which the blameless aging male protagonist provides only after establishing for the reader that this sort of thing isn't really what he's about at all, but what the hell, with the narrative collapsing he might as well give her what Burgess adorably calls "the phallic experience."

With so many terrible writers writing so poorly it seems perverse to denigrate Tremor, which consists of a good writer by and large writing well, but the classification "satire" does not excuse ungainliness, authorial sloppiness does not render satire "rollicking," and the half-assed trappings of genre convention don't qualify a book as "deconstructive," "subversive," or "genre-busting." Still, those who've suffered through more egregious examples of the above -- by, say, Andre Codrescu or Kinky Friedman -- and wondered what the fuck the author was thinking may be reassured to discover such drivel has provenance, or at least a milder precedent.

Tremor of Intent by Anthony Burgess
W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN 0393004163
256 pages