Lawyer Mom and I went to the library last night. She returned some trashy political thrillers in exchange for new trashy political thrillers; I got my expired library card sorted and grabbed two more books from the TIME Top 100 list. I finished The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in one sitting, something I haven't accomplished since I read The Painted Bird right around Christmas.
The Spy... was okay, I guess. It was (surprise!) a spy novel, a genre I don't normally read. I didn't find it any kind of outstanding or insightful piece of literature; its presence on the list confuses me. The more I work my way through the TIME Top 100 Novels list, the more books I find that seem to be included not because they're good but because they were just really popular. Insert an exasperated hipster sigh about "the mainstream" here.
(Slow down there, Hipsterina!)
This is another book that seems dated in a bad way, like Brideshead Revisited. East-West German political intrigue is just not interesting or relevant to people who didn't grow up under the specter of Communism. Wikipedia assures me that The Spy... made a great splash at the time of publication, as an intense realist counterpoint to the romantic jet-setting adventures of James Bond and the like, but now it just reads like so many of Lawyer Mom's trashy political thriller novels that to put it in the same category as Infinite Jest is a bit embarrassing.
Le Carré's writing is competent in that it doesn't get in the way of his story, but it's rather pedestrian at the end of the day. Nor does he have any great, heart-breaking characters, nuanced insights into life or "the human condition," or even truly masterful plotting. (Uncomfortably anti-Semitic as it is, Appointment in Samarra takes the plot cake so far on the list.) Nor does it touch on anything really universal or timeless or relevant, like race relations or gender roles.
I don't know what the term for a parlor scene is in political thrillers, but the one here felt forced and awkward, even though I appreciated the plot clarity it provided. On the downside, the clarity revealed that the entire story hinges on a pretty ridiculous deus ex machina that reminded me a lot of Oldboy, except in Oldboy it was actually plausible.
Ultimately, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is just an inexplicably mediocre find on the list that should have never been included in the first place.
This brings me to 67 out of the 100 TIME Top Novels list. That means I'm at the two-thirds mark! The whole list is after the jump:
4. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
11. Beloved, Toni Morrison
12. The Berlin Stories, Christopher Isherwood
18. Call It Sleep, Henry Roth
16 / 20
21. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
22. The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron
26. The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West
27. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
28. A Death in the Family, James Agee
29. The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
30. Deliverance, James Dickey
31. Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone
32. Falconer, John Cheever
33. The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowles
35. Go Tell it on the Mountain, James Baldwin
9 / 20
44. Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
46. I, Claudius, Robert Graves
56. The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead
59. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy
16 / 20
63. Native Son, Richard Wright
70. The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi
72. Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
73. Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston
75. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
76. Rabbit, Run, John Updike
78. The Recognitions, William Gaddis
79. Red Harvest, Dashiell Hammett
80. Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
11 / 20
81. The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles
84. The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth
93. Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller
98. White Noise, Don DeLillo
99. White Teeth, Zadie Smith
15 / 20
67 / 100