PLOT: Destroy a motel for insurance and take out Viviene Michel in the process. Novel presented from Michel`s point of view.
REVIEW: This is Fleming`s most experimental Bond novel. The novel`s heroine, Vivienne Michel, narrates the novel in the first person and the first 36% is about her childhood, her background, her first sexual experiences, two unhappy love affairs and an abortion. The villains only appear 46% of the way through the story, and Bond at the 61% mark. However, it`s arguably one of Fleming`s best novels and a fast and exciting read: it`s much better paced than most of his other works.
Fleming`s characters tended to be cardboard cutouts, but not here; the characters are almost all three-dimensional. Chapters 8 through 10 are possibly Fleming`s best sustained, most exciting bits of writing; there are so many great moments – the whole section is brilliantly thought-out. Bond`s entrance is one of these great moments; it`s an exhilarating audience-pleaser that also emphasizes the book`s fairy-tale aspects.
Fleming sets it up well. Chapter 9 ends on a high point with Vivienne pinned down. Deciding where to begin a chapter matters; not only does ending in mid-beat make a difference but moving to a new part enhances it. The reader knows that a new beginning is around the corner, which makes it even more exciting; also, the title “Him” suggests intrigue and mystery.
So too is Horror and Sluggsy`s arrival: compare the contrasts. The two gangsters are caught in the middle of the rain and Horror politely asks to come in. He plays on her sympathy; they`re soft, quiet, though Sluggsy giggles. They take their rain jackets off and Vivienne knows she`s in danger. The elegance of Horror`s clothes, not at all an expendable detail, adds to the tension and characterization. Horror and Sluggsy are great villains. They`re living, breathing people. Horror is as subdued as Sluggsy is hyper. There are many subtle, but crucial touches and Fleming deftly mixes the quiet with the sinister. Notice Horror`s indifference, how blase he is. Horror isn`t interested in Sluggsy`s sexual interests, telling him to lay off. Think how less effective it would have been had both men been sexually interested in Vivienne.
Bond is much better drawn here than in any of Fleming`s other novels. He`s more elegant, more fastidious, and even has a sense of humour. It`s easily Fleming`s strongest portrayal of Bond, and oddly, more like the Bond in the films: “He turned to the Englishman. “Hey, limey. What`s your name?”
“Bond. James Bond.”
“That`s a pretty chump name. From England, huh?”
“That`s right. Where`s the registry? I`ll spell it out for you.”
“Wise guy, huh?””
He`s also much smarter, perhaps because Fleming wasn`t burdened trying to reveal Bond`s thoughts – which arguably weakened Bond into a cardboard dummy – instead portraying him objectively (compare how badly drawn and dopey Bond is in the next novel, the extremely flawed “On Her Majesty`s Secret Service”).
He`s also more human. Count how many times he smiles – at least 16 times in Chapters 10, 11 and 12 – approximately once every other page, and these aren`t “smiles” for the sake of it, like some annoying Gardner tic, but are dramatically relevant and they shade his character, such as when he`s reassuring Vivienne. Some of the writing is brilliant – I`d forgotten just how vibrant Fleming`s writing could be. In Chapter 12, Vivienne notices the red fleck in Horror`s eyes that she had seen once before – Fleming is clever and doesn`t say where (in Chapter 9, when Horror beat her).
Horror tries to be friendly about breaking it up for the night. Bond asks about the motel`s viability; Horror is on the defensive wanting to know where`s that pal of mine, trying to put the attention elsewhere. Consider this passage from Chapter 15: “Those were the last words he spoke to me. When I woke up the next morning he was gone. There was only the dent down the bed where he had lain, and the smell of him on the pillow. To make sure, I jumped out of bed and ran to see if the grey car was still there. It wasn`t. It was a beautiful day and there was heavy dew on the ground, and in the dew I could see the single track of his footprints leading to where the car had been. […]
The ruins of the motel were black and hideous and a ghostly wisp of smoke rose straight up into the still air from the remains of the lobby block. I went back into the cabin and had a shower and began briskly to pack my things into my saddle-bags. Then I saw the letter on the dressing table and I went and sat on the bed and read it. It was written on motel paper from the writing desk. The writing was very clear and even and he had used a real pen and not a ball point.”
This is an excellent detail, and not detail for the sake of detail (which Fleming was sometimes guilty of). The following passage later in the chapter is breathtaking: “I watched the wreck of the black sedan, that had by now been hauled up the cliff, being towed over the lawn to the road. There the ambulance was driven over beside it, and I turned away as a wet bundle was carefully lifted out on to the grass. Horror! I remembered again those cold, red-flecked eyes. I felt his hands on me. Could it have happened?”
It`s brilliant. It has the same hypnotic quality that slow motion sometimes does in movies, and the paragraph is cinematic. (Fleming also accurately captures how a person might act under the circumstances.) Fleming is often psychologically skilful: Vivienne doesn`t want to get too close to Kurt (because she`s still wounded from Derek? Because it doesn`t pay to sleep with your boss?) so she invents friends, but this means sitting in some lonely cinema after a lonely meal with all the nuisance of men trying to pick her up. But Kurt remains so *korrekt* and their relationship on such a straightforward and even highminded level that her apprehensions come to seem idiotic and more and more she accepts a comradely way of life that seems not only totally respectable but also adult in the modern fashion. (In Chapter 8, Vivienne eats alone out of tins, creating an untenable situation). Her reasons for becoming involved with Kurt (Chapter 5) are well thought out.
Involved with Kurt, Vivienne realizes that, for women, where there exists intimacy, attachment then follows. She considers it inevitable that they become lovers after growing so close. She listens for the sound of his steps on the stairs, worships the warmth and authority of his body, and is happy at all times to cook and mend and work for him, and envisions herself six paces behind him on the street like some native bearer.
The Phanceys are cold to her until they hatch their plan. They`re nice until the last day when Mr Phancey grabs at her and uses coarse language even when his wife is within earshot; this reflects on Mrs Phancey as it raises interesting questions about her, her feelings towards sex – it`s not surprising that they`re childless. The entire sequence is excellent psychology since people do act this way in real life, though it`s marred by Fleming`s “gee-whiz” writing style. After Sluggsy finds her in the woods, Vivienne reflects how minor her past troubles really were. Later, Horror`s beating relaxes her; the pain being so much greater than the tension of waiting for it, unravels her nerves and puts her at ease and she also realizes how much the simple pleasures of life mean at such times. In Chapter 9, Sluggsy reprimands her like he`s the stern parent, and she`s the bad child. Later in the chapter Sluggsy lectures her, shaming her about his hair condition and how it also kills the hairs inside his nose.
Now that Bond`s with her, she becomes bolder with Sluggsy and Horror (when deciding which cabin Bond will have) – she`s no longer the centre of attraction and finds safety in numbers. Bond prepares her for the worst and gives her his code number; she rationalizes why he invoked bad luck – it`s excellent neurotic psychology. Moreover, her former life and its troubles seem almost years away – the here and now is all there is and all that matters (which is excellent when considering how long ago and far away her past troubles are – the here and now is all there is).
There are also so many wonderful human moments and sensitive details. In Chapter 4, Len Holbrook tells Vivienne that above all she must write about people, something Fleming does. Wallace Stevens wrote in his preface to William Carlos Williams`s “Collected Poems 1921-1931” (1934) that “Something of the unreal is necessary to fecundate the real.” The reverse is also true – and was crucial to Fleming`s success. Umberto Eco once wondered aloud why Fleming spent so many pages on realism in the novels. It wasn`t, as Kingsley Amis also agreed, to give the reader a break from fantasy; the reader gets that by putting the book down. It was to give the fantasy a basis in reality and make it resonate. As the critic Martin Seymour-Smith once remarked, no writer who cannot convey a sense of the real can be major. In Chapter 14, after sex, Bond tells Vivienne that she screamed when she climaxed – she hadn`t known; it`s an excellent detail. Fleming could be a sensationalist, but not here.
His handling is sensitive and realistic. Later, Vivienne thinks, “I suddenly had an impulse to wake him up and ask him: “Can you be nice? Can you be kind?” Vivienne watches Bond naked and contemplates that people should be nudists. Until they`re forty. Then asks him never to get fat. Later, she asks him “what`s a bimbo?” It might have been bad – in John Gardner`s hands it probably would have – but here it isn`t. The details, the sensitivity (“Now, that`s enough questions. Go to sleep.”) make it work.
At the end of Chapter 13, Bond and Vivienne gradually come to a consensus about sleeping together. It`s good (though not great) writing because it`s so simple – they don`t discuss the problem, instead, the conversation gradually works around it. Bond`s letter (Chapter 15) has so many wonderful touches; his occasional formality (since others will see the letter) makes it even more affectionate: leaving a c/o address, the sense of camaraderie, the PS. about her trye pressures being too high for the South. Try Guerlain`s “Fleurs des Alpes” instead of Camay! His making sure that Vivienne gets treated like a princess: “The lieutenant took off his cap and produced a notebook and pencil and pretended to go through his notes to give me a chance to get started on a doughnut. […]
“But what`s worrying me is that radio just hasn`t left me alone since then. Had to cut down my speed the whole way here from Route 9 to keep on listening to instructions from the station – that Albany was interested in the case, that even the top brass in Washington was breathing down our necks. Never head such a load coming over the air. Now, miss, can you tell me how it`s come about that Washington`s mixed up in this, and within a bare couple of hours of Glens Falls getting the first report?”
I couldn`t help smiling at his earnestness. I could almost hear him calling over to O`Donnell as they roared along, “Hell, we`ll have Jack Kennedy on our tails any moment now!” […] “But that`s more or less all I know abut him, except that – except that he seemed a wonderful guy.”
“So he was a commander. It was the only rank I liked the name of.”
The fairy tale story Bond tells Vivienne makes the novel even more cohesive; Bond asking that Vivienne promise to forget his involvement is a wonderful human moment and makes Bond a three-dimensional person. There are other wonderful details: Bond and Vivienne agreeing about the idiocy of espionage (though he doesn`t want her to spread her ideas too widely or he`ll find himself out of a job, which is phrased so exactly that Bond sounds sympathetic, he doesn`t mean it seriously, but he wants to draw her in); Bond asking if he`s boring her, wouldn`t she wouldn`t rather switch on the tv, he smiles, oh no, go on – this is clever writing and shows that she`s interested. The bedtime story ends on a special note: it`s clear that the odds were monumentally stacked against Bond ever appearing at the motel, which makes the reader contemplate what would have happened if Bond hadn`t: “good that I came something told me you were at the end of the road.” The way Bond discusses Horror and Sluggsy: “how did you get mixed up with those two?” is soft, sympathetic and human; like a warm man, reassuring her. Unfortunately the “bedtime” story slows the book down and the novel never achieves the same high peak of tension. The pace deteriorates in the last third, and there`s some soggy writing in these sections, (e.g. Stonor`s speech in Chapter 15). Bond`s inability to kill in cold blood was always a soggy concept in Fleming, but here it weakens the story; it`s not clear why Bond doesn`t kill Horror and Sluggsy first chance he gets – especially since the story slows down – instead of waiting until later that night. Why don`t they kill Bond the first chance they get? Likewise, why do Sluggsy and Horror let Bond and Vivienne go out together to the car? Why were they prepared to give Bond a hand with the car, wouldn`t that have allowed Vivienne to escape, or did they intend to kill Bond then and there? Such logic loopholes weaken the novel.
However, the childish writing style mars the book and prevents it from being a minor literary classic. It`s like an out-of-tune piece of music, though so consistently out-of-tune so that the reader eventually adjusts. The breathless “girl`s-own-adventure” writing style makes Vivienne sound like a dingbat; in Chapter 2, she mentions that her hair is “a dark brown with a natural wave and my ambition is one day to give it a lion`s streak to make me look older and more dashing” which makes her sound stupid, vapid, like a 9 year old girl (though it`s conceivable that in real life she`d be this way). This sentence says it all about the book`s writing:
“WOKO announced forty minutes of `Music to Kiss By` and suddenly there were the Ink Spots singing `Someone`s Rockin` my Dream Boat` and I was back on the River Thames and it was five summers ago and we were drifting down past Kings Eyot in a punt and there was Windsor Castle in the distance and Derek was paddling while I worked the portable.”
Six “and”s in a 64 word sentence; for those who care this has some of Fleming`s longest sentences, the passage in the same chapter where Vivienne tells about the “idiotic joint dance” runs 97 words.