I wanted a genre book. You know, just a quick zip through something exciting, and heavy on plot and action—maybe not so deep with all that poeticism and character development stuff.
My first mistake was picking a book by one of those respected genre writers. John le Carré has been around for decades, he’s written 22 novels in 50 years, and enough of his books have been made into good films (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Constant Gardener) for him to have achieved a higher plane of genre-inflected respect. He writes all those spy novels, but they’re the decent spy novels, like Graham Greene or Joseph Conrad before him. Respectable fun.
But, if A Perfect Spy was supposed to be such a light, fun novel, why is it six hundred pages long? And why is the writing so damn good?
Years earlier, I’d read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and thought it was marvelously taut and suspenseful. It’s a little gem of a novel that, despite its size, contains a complex structure worthy of study. But that book was tiny, a speck, flash fiction compared to the heft and length of A Perfect Spy.
I was skeptical but intrigued. Unsure if le Carré could pull off such a massive book. To be honest, I assumed I’d start A Perfect Spy and ditch it about a third of the way through. At some point, the plot would stop being fun, the characters would grow tinny, and I’d want to jump ship for a “real” novel.
Well you can tell from the name of this post that’s not what happened.
The eponymous Perfect Spy is the spectacularly named Magnus Pym. Seemingly better adjusted than le Carré’s most famous spy, George Smiley, Pym upends his wife and the entire British Secret Service by suddenly walking away. His father dies just before the novel begins, and after the funeral Pym simply disappears. No one knows where he is. This sets into motion a tense dance as Pym’s colleagues vacillate from supporting him and excusing him, to accusing him of being the most dangerous Soviet spy in British history. Mary, Pym’s wife, has to wrestle with the possibility, so predictably she realizes that she doesn’t actually know him at all.
Part of the reason I love this book is the audacious structure. Basically, the even-numbered chapters tell the story of Pym’s wife and colleagues searching for him. This is where the traditional spy game happens. There’s tension, wiretaps, interrogations. But the other, odd-numbered chapters are turned over to the memoir that Pym is writing while in hiding.
The biographical chapters are testament to the nerve that only a writer at the top of his game can have. Pym addresses his memoir to his son, Thomas, and sometimes refers to himself in the third person. This means that some of these long, almost densely Victorian sentences contain three different points of view:
“There were half a dozen reconstructed Pyms wandering the streets of Graz [Austria] that night, Tom, and there isn’t one of them I need now feel ashamed of, or wouldn’t happily embrace as a long-lost son who had paid his debt to society and come home, if he knocked on Miss Dubber’s door at this moment and said, Father, it’s me.”
The long, meandering style of the Pym chapters doesn’t wear on the reader because it’s so consistent, and because it’s alleviated by the pattern. Just when you’ve had enough of young Magnus Pym the focus changes in the next chapter to Pym’s wife, or the various spies searching for him.
The brilliance of the novel lies in the fact that there’s very little spying that takes place—at least a James Bond-style, pilfering vital Soviet secrets type of spying. Instead, the spying is much more personal. Pym becomes a master at spying on his family, on his classmates, and the novel turns into an exploration of one man’s tendency to infiltrate other groups and people in order to reflect back what they want to see. Pym’s personality is so malleable, and he absorbs so much from his father’s constant scams and lies, that he’s the perfect spy for every situation—whether it’s falling in love, helping (then sinking) a political campaign, navigating the hierarchy of a British boarding school, or just figuring out how to get that next promotion.
I love the novel because it’s a giant bait and switch. You go in expecting dark alleys and trench coats, but come out with British nobility, one of the most complicated friendships ever depicted in a novel, and an exploration of loyalty. Any international intrigue, and there is some, don’t get me wrong, is only there to reinforce the larger thematic concerns, and is purposefully underplayed.
Le Carré isn’t trying to write a pot-boiler, although the reader is riveted. And he isn’t trying to write a novel of the British upper classes, although he does that too. He’s not even trying to write something particularly spy-fueled, although the reader understands the mechanics and pressures of the Cold War. Instead, Le Carré wrote a novel that encompasses one man’s life.
Is it a genre novel? I don’t know and I don’t care. I love A Perfect Spy because I know Magnus Pym as well as I’ve ever known any character, and I know Pym will be with me, peering over my shoulder, trying to discern what I’m writing, what I’m thinking, for a very long time to come.