Saturday, August 28, 2004

The Spy Who Left Me Cold

The Defection of A.J. Lewinter: A Novel of Duplicity, by Robert Littell, Read by Scott Brick, 2002

For a book billing itself as a spy thriller, The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, has a palpable lack of thrills. At no point throughout this novel did I ever once feel my excitement rise, my pulse quicken, or a grin spread across my face at the audacious lightning-quick plot.

That's because the book lacks all those elements that would make it a thriller. And yet, it is considered a classic in the genre. The story revolves around Augustus J. Lewinter, a ceramics scientist at M.I.T. who is also working on missile nose cones for the Defense Department. One day, rather abruptly, he defects to Russia. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, spies try to figure out his motivation and whether or not he's a real defector with real information.

Spy books and detective books often have characters with names like Max Power or Trent Strong or that kind of lazy metaphoric nomenclature. This book is no different, our "hero" (if that's the right word for a book in which no one is really pleasant enough to be a hero nor unpleasant enough to be an "antihero") sporting the subtle handle of Leo Diamond. Diamond is an ex-CIA Department of Defense intelligence operative who, of course, bucks the system and is considered by some a roguish element in the spy game. I wonder how many spy books feature by the book pencil pushers as their protagonists.

Because that's basically what everyone in the book, at least on the American side, end up being. At least ninety percent of the book is people sitting around talking about what they should or shouldn't do, what someone should or shouldn't have done, or whether someone is or isn't a spy, a risk, or a successful operative. There are as many characters in this book who are desks, tables, or assorted furniture as there are human beings.

Normally, a fast-paced thriller with a large cast is confusing, the inter-agency feuds and backbiting having a soap opera-like quality. Not so Lewinter.

There are many, many characters that pop up in the book for brief periods of time. This presents a multi-faceted perspective of the character of Lewinter, but far too much time is spent doing this. We meet his ex-wife, though she's not very helpful; ditto his new girlfriend; ditto some psychologists who discuss the mental processes of Lewinter; the agents who interview these people. While this may be an interesting view and a more accurate version of how investigations take place, it comes off as overstuffing a novel that might need a few more car-chases for excitement purposes. The picture is Rashomon-ish with people contradicting each other about him not having a head for details or having a photographic memory, about him being involved in radical groups or being uptight. But none of it is terribly interesting.

Meanwhile, when we follow Lewinter in Russia, where there is very little time spent with debriefing or investigations, the book actually becomes far more interesting (to the readers and, we suspect, to the author). At least, the narrative never grinds with committee meetings and transcripts of interviews, instead following Lewinter to a party with Zeitzev the chess master and Pogodin the intelligence operative where intellectual issues are discussed and Lewinter is presented as a curiosity. There we meet writers, ballerinas, publishers, and all sorts of Russian intelligentsia. We are told the interesting story of a Russian writer hanging himself in prison, of the ballerina being blacklisted because her husband is a homosexual, and other facets of Russian life.

Where the two stories mirror each other is in the bureaucratic inertia surrounding the Lewinter matter. Some American agencies want to write Lewinter off as a man with very little information to give the Russians, because this would reflect badly on them and would spur them into reorganizing action. Some Russian politicians are worried about the status quo they've established and choose not to act on anything they might get from Lewinter. The book is heavy with this kind of should-we-shouldn't-we torpor.

By disc six of an eight disc set, I began to wonder when the thriller part of this so called "spy thriller" was about to kick in. Certainly not all undercover operations ever taken involve cloak-and-dagger men in trench coats smoking cigarettes and screwing silencers on to their pistols. But this thriller doesn't even feature one. Instead it's people sitting around talking, mostly about bureaucratic procedure, and the battles seem to only involve personal fortunes and ambitions. There is plenty of sitting around and talking during Dr. Strangelove but the nuclear stakes underscore every word, every minute spent bickering over parliamentary procedure. It's only half way through disc seven that the actual thriller part of the plot kicks in with a plot to fake an assassination attempt on Lewinter.

The game being played by the American spies is to try to convince the Russians that Lewinter is a fake spy, and they plan to do this by trying to convince the Russians that he's a real spy, knowing that the Russians will believe any attempt to prove his legitimacy only proves his illegitimacy. It's like that comedy routine where someone says "I know what you know and I know you know that I know that you know that I know this." But the plot never picks up, it just creeps so slowly forward that I kept waiting for the "thrill."

The assassination attempt, when it fails, happens off screen and the book picks up after that and so the most thrilling, dangerous part of the book isn't actually in the book. Yawn.

The reader, Scott Brick (himself possessed of a thriller/action name) has a nice tenor and gives his Russian accents a slightly deeper, gentle twist never overplaying his hand. He has such a fine reading style that this dull thriller is at least vaguely entertaining the first time through. I kept expecting some thrills to come down the pike, and Brick was kind enough to almost tiptoe to the edge of promising me something, at some point, maybe.

However, the CDs commit the gravest sin of consisting of one hour long track, each CD one big long bit. Why do people do this anymore? I can understand maybe back in the early days of audiobooks on CDs, but come on, people. Really. The ability to multi-track a CD is so common you can buy a disc burner for under two hundred dollars that lets you pull this trick off. Surely a publishing company can shell out the jack for that kind of thing. Let's get with it. Track every three to five minutes, just for shits and giggles, and slide the scale based on chapter beginnings and endings. It's not all that complicated.

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