Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Double O Nothing

Live and Let Die, by Ian Fleming, Read by Richard Whitfield, Blackstone Audio, 2000

Ian Fleming was a racist jerk. There is simply no reading Live and Let Die and not coming away with this perspective.

Certainly one could make a case that racism was a bit more common in the 1950s and we shouldn’t judge the art of yesterday by the standards of today, but I don’t think that’s adequate. By the mid-1950s, ideas of the inferiority of blacks had been exploded left and right and were being heavily discredited throughout America. Ignorance of these “novel” ideas could only be deliberate in someone who considered himself as cosmopolitan as Fleming.

Which is funny, because the characters pass far less racist judgments, or at least less overt ones, than the author himself. When Bond or his American sometimes-partner Leiter express any opinions about African-Americans it’s always in the style of the Lenny Bruce sketch “How To Relax Your Colored Friends At Parties.” This style is an ignorant sort of patronization (“That Bojangles, boy could he dance.”). When the author discusses black people, he is dismissive, patronizing, and out and out bigoted.

The language the black characters use is straight up minstrel show, the actions are same, and the descriptive passages Fleming devotes to blacks individually and in groups is barely disguised contempt.

And it’s right there from chapter one when M and Bond casually discuss how blacks are typically honest people, but, my, those darkies are hell when they’re drunk. Then they dismiss black crime before now as all petty, since the black races having finally started showing some promise in the arts (in 1950, at last, at last, that whole Harlem Renaissance thing having passed everyone by in secret), haven’t really put forth a black mastermind.

But all that has changed with the appearance of Mr. Big. Mr. Big, the criminal genius of Harlem and the Caribbean, is only considered a clever criminal because he is described as having some “French blood” (read “white”). He has risen to power by trading in on other black’s eye-rolling fear of voodoo and by capitalizing on the help of those white devils in Moscow. Now he runs a plot smuggling in gold pirate treasure to be sold in pawn shops then the money sent to Russia. It doesn’t seem to brilliant or clever to me; it sounds like a time consuming pain in the ass.

But chapter two is where things really gets rolling when Bond and Leiter go to Harlem to check it out. Here we discover that blacks are primitive minded and genetically tied to the jungle, their bodies writhing uncontrollably to the tom-toms, their voices a subhuman jabber. When our heroes visit one restaurant, the service is lauded as “civilized.” Later patronizing a dance club, Fleming describes the room as filled with the “...sweet feral smell of two hundred negro bodies...” This dance clubs is also considered macabre because it has colored lights.

This scene in Harlem has an unexpected bit of comedy in its audio incarnation. The careful British reader Robert Whitfield adds extra special hilarity to the scenes of dialogue between two black bar patrons. Imagine Prince Charles playing Step N Fetchit.

Without the movies, I wonder if James Bond would be quite the icon he is today. The books are rather ham-handed; the suspense is about as razor sharp as a peanut butter and pickles sandwich; the “romance” is tepidly portrayed, hardly sexy (consider these H-O-T lines “...feeling her hard breasts with their pointed stigma of desire.” Yummy, eh?); and Fleming’s style smacks you with the cornball with both mitts. Here’s another taste:

“He listened with all his senses.” Really? With his sense of taste too? Maybe he should see a good ears, nose, and throat man. But how would that resolve his listening with his eyes?

Then there’s sensitive James. “The first tears since his childhood came into James Bond's blue-gray eyes and ran down his drawn cheeks into the bloodstained sea.” Now that's poetry.

There is missing from the novel that sense of cheery suavity that is the hallmark of the cinematic Bond. In its stead, we are given a slower, more thoughtful Bond who is more human than his filmic counterpart, but less interesting for all that.

And boy is he stupid. Twice he wanders by himself into the hands of his enemies. Why is it always only Bond on his own? Surely if he were taking down gold smugglers in the Caribbean, gold smugglers connected to the Soviet Union, he’d get some help from more than just the area chief and a local, right? And surely after once walking into Mr. Big’s hands, he’d be more cautious and not just go right up and do it again, right?

No. What the Bond books and movies have going for them is stupidity. Villains explain their dastardly plots and ingenious methods of murder then leave before seeing it done. Not even minor characters are simply dispatched with a quick bullet to the head. When Bond discovers how the gold coins are being smuggled into the country, he and the coins’ guardian have a shoot-out with the guard dying. Does James call in the police to round up the hundreds of thousands of dollars? No, he’s afraid that would tip off Mr. Big that he’s on to them.

Yes, the body is just some minor inconvenience Mr. Big wouldn’t ever, ever, ever, connect to Bond. Bond risks the money getting into Soviet hands because he thinks that little matter of the dead guard wouldn’t be a clue.

The company that produced the book, Blackstone Audio, doesn't really understand the pacing issues necessary for an audiobook. The reader is flat and rarely demonstrates even the slightest emotion or excitement. His voice is cool without sounding smooth and elegant. His stabs at accents are across the board transparently horrendous, and he never draws the listener in.

Further, the disc tracks at odd intervals approximately every three minutes whether or not there’s a nice break or a chapter change coming up. Thirty-two seconds into one track, the chapter ended. Couldn't that last half minute been tacked on to the previous track? It might seem a small issue, but paralleling track starts with chapter starts is terrifically helpful for your average audiobook listener who typically doesn’t listen to a whole book in one single sitting. One chapter is even started in the last remaining minute of disc five. What's the point of this? Disc six is only 27 minutes long, so easily that last minute of reading could have gone there.

I've never actually listened to any Blackstone Audio books with any sense of satisfaction in the product they put out. Poor readers who simply happen to read in a British accent isn't enough; big names in British letters isn't enough; and the quality of the items put out is simply questionable at best. The truly awful Frederick Davidson was apparently only the tip of the iceberg. By all means, stay away from anything featuring the words “Blackstone Audio.”

And that goes double for anything bearing the words, “Ian Fleming.”


Rick said...

This IS a strange commenting system. If you click on the little "0" down at the bottom, it brings up a fresh page with that day's entry alone, and at the bottom of the new page it says, "Post a Comment". THEN, you sign in, with your blogspot password required (huh?), or you can go anonymous. That's how far I've gotten so far. We'll see where this goes. Oh, and by the way, congrats on even getting through such an appalling book.

Auntie Sarah said...

On second look, it looks like your Blogger comments are getting in the way of your haloscan comments. Go into your template and clear out the gobbledygook that says "comments." There's some at the beginning and probably some after the block quote stuff.

If you ever change commenting systems you'll probably need to remove your old comment codes first--they tend to fight with each other.