Company men

Richard Schickel is the author of many books, including "Elia Kazan: A Biography." His next book, "Film on Paper," will be published this spring.

Here’s an idea: Write a spy novel in the currently fashionable minimalist mode -- no long descriptions of places, clothing, meals or characters, very little psychological or motivational probing, and dialogue that is mostly flat and banal. To this rather unappealing manner, author Joseph Weisberg, who once worked for the CIA, offers a conceit that, to my knowledge, is wholly original. He pretends that his manuscript, per regulations, was submitted to the agency’s publications review board, which is charged with making sure “there is no currently classified material in the text.”

As a result, “An Ordinary Spy” appears with “redacted” words, sentences and paragraphs blacked out on virtually every page, which naturally make its minimalism even more minimal. Other than when the two spies whose stories it relates are in the United States, you cannot possibly identify the country, or even the continent, where the action takes place.

That brings us to the real question: Is this a good idea? The masters of the modern espionage novel have all conceded, in one way or another, that there is an element of the absurd in the stories they tell. Whether we are talking Graham Greene, John le Carre or their many imitators, most of their fictions end in futility. The world is not saved or even greatly threatened by their doings; a lot of dangerous exertions are expended on activities that produce results of no large consequences either for the spies or their masters. The best of these novels end with a weary existential shrug, an acknowledgment that the game produces more burnt-out cases than clear-cut winners or losers. We read these tales, those of us who are addicted to them, for mood and atmosphere, for their creepy evocations of suspenseful unease. The very best of them are inherently maximal fictions -- the opposite of what Weisberg has attempted here -- in that they are richly characterized, dense with detail, imaginative in the often subtle and suspenseful development of menacing atmosphere.


Real-life inhabitants of the secret world naturally tend to sneer at their fictional counterparts. They are often quoted in the press and in nonfiction books (and, for that matter, on this book’s jacket), saying that the best intel derives not from derring-do but from patient analysis of publicly available documents or from the careful cultivation of low-level sources. Certainly that’s true in “An Ordinary Spy”: Young Mark Ruttenberg is a C/O (case officer) assigned to his first job in an unnamed, not particularly savory, Third World nation. At a party, he encounters an attractive woman, a secretary in an embassy, begins an affair with her, gathers some useful information from her. She is given the code name “cshelicopter” -- the CIA is obviously not romantically inclined -- and when his bosses learn that he is sleeping with her (Who knew the CIA was so prudish?) he is immediately sent home and cashiered from the service. He is not even allowed to say goodbye to her, although he says he’s in love with her, which is hard to imagine, given the low wattage of the book’s single sex scene.

Mark gets a job as a schoolteacher in Chicago, receives a mysterious postcard -- doubtless from William, his cultivated mentor at the CIA -- giving him enough clues to put him in touch with Bobby Goldstein, another forcibly retired C/O who had an experience similar to Mark’s. It turns out that Bobby was running two agents, a nerdy economics expert named Ralph and Tom, Bobby’s houseboy, who was also employed by a mysterious local general (Tom had a servant’s access to the general’s meetings with other officers). Bobby develops warm paternal feelings for Tom, but both his agents end badly -- Ralph spectacularly so -- and Bobby finds himself at a dead end in New Hampshire, also teaching school. Mark and Bobby meet, swap stories and -- courtesy of the author -- eventually have happyish, slightly implausible endings. End of book.

If nothing else, these pat resolutions prove that a CIA career is slightly less interesting than one in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As Weisberg presents it, life in the agency is antagonist- and menace-free. Bad things happen to sources, but neither names nor faces are attached to the causes of their misery. The CIA agents dutifully practice their tradecraft. Pages are devoted to their execution of elaborate surveillance detection routes, which, more plainly put, consist of driving around and around, making sure no one is tailing them. They have their dead-drops and their safe houses, none of which is ever compromised. In Weisberg’s world, there are no identifiable enemies or potential double agents -- there aren’t even any characters that might give a twist or two to the plot down the road.

At a certain point, the reader begins to wonder whether “An Ordinary Spy” might possibly be an extraordinary act of disinformation. Might its author still be a CIA employee, charged with portraying the agency in a benign light -- not exactly bumbling, but incapable of, say, water-boarding or extraordinary rendition? To hear Weisberg tell it, an American secret agent’s chief concern seems to be defending his retirement package. For example, the biggest menace Mark can imagine -- the thing that gives him a sleepless night or two -- is the routine polygraph test the agency administers every few years. At this point in the story, the fact that he’s sleeping with his source is still a secret. But what if the lie detector uncovers the truth? What effect will that have on his career?

Oh, please, the reader groans. Surely a bright lad like Mark could figure out a way to game the gizmo. And besides, the encounter with the polygraph is four years in the future. By that time, will anyone care about his sexual past?

“Truth,” particularly in genre fiction, is a greatly overrated commodity. It is the business of spy novels -- or, for that matter, detective stories, sci-fi epics and Western adventures -- to create persuasively absorbing alternative universes, places to which we can repair without feeling like perfect fools while the airplane idles away its gate hold.

That’s why the best of these novels tend to be more stylishly and energetically written than most popular fictions; why, indeed, they deploy many of the more interesting devices of the classic novels (you can nearly always find trace elements of the great 19th century novelistic tradition in them); and why the murky choices they impose on their protagonists, the heightened suspense and the shadowy settings sometimes engage our moral intelligence in ways that more soberly intended novels do not.

If you rob a spy novel of its classic mechanics, of its well-executed conventions, to favor reality, and if you present that reality with Weisberg’s thinness and lack of detail, the reading experience is remarkably free of traction. I’m not suggesting that he needs to evoke Fu Manchu, but if we are going to explore an espionage bureaucracy, we need to find a George Smiley -- troubled and complex -- at the center of its web, and we need that web to be tangled, entangling and touched by menace. Otherwise, all we have is a failed experiment that neither the genre nor the increasingly restless reader requires.