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007, defanged.

"I HAVE JUST FINISHED what is without a doubt the nastiest book I have ever read," wrote Paul Johnson, in the April 5, 1958, New Statesman.
 It is a new novel entitled Dr. No and the author is Mr. Ian
 Fleming. Echoes of Mr. Fleming's fame had reached me before,
 and I had been repeatedly urged to read his books by literary
 friends whose judgement I normally respect. When his new novel
 appeared, therefore, I obtained a copy and started to read. By the
 time I was a third of the way through, I had to suppress a strong
 impulse to throw the thing away, and only continued reading
 because I realized that here was a social phenomenon of some
 importance.


That phenomenon was--is--James Bond, alias 007, the dashing secret-agent creation of the raffish British author Ian Fleming. Johnson was certainly not the first person whose emotions Bond conflagrated (the alluring "Bond girls" Vesper Lynd, Tatiana Romanova, and Honeychile Rider, among others, preceded him), but he was perhaps the first for whom the fiery sensation was so profoundly unpleasant. The headline of Johnson's now-famous, acid review of Dr. No was "Sex, snobbery, and sadism," a short and specific listing of exactly those characteristics which caused his revulsion. This same list would continue to turn up in articles, here and there, over the next 50 years. The critic disinclined to appreciate Bond's particular milieu, to take issue with the secret agent's enjoyment of fine clothing and foods and cars and women, his uninhibited virility, his now politically incorrect outlook, simply isn't going to like Bond novels. Kingsley Amis put it well in The James Bond Dossier: "Either you smile appreciatively and nudge your neighbour and lean forward when--say--the saloon goes quiet as new marshal and town bad-man confront each other, or you groan and swear. If the second, you don't like Westerns, and perhaps would be best advised to avoid them."

At the time Johnson's review appeared in the New Statesman's pages, James Bond, had he been an inhabitant of the real world and not an imagined one, could still have managed an unmolested stroll down Oxford Street, popping into Rolex, perhaps, or picking up some Cadbury confections for his housekeeper, May. His anonymity was by no means total in 1958, when he surely had some devoted fans. But the secret agent's cover had not yet been totally blown.

It was quickly receding, however; the world was fast finding out about 007. Dr. No was Fleming's sixth addition to the Bond compendium, a collection that would eventually number fourteen volumes, to which Fleming contributed just about one book annually, beginning in 1953 with the appearance of Casino Royale. That initial novel, about Bond's baccarat battles with the Soviet agent Le Chiffre, was received without much favor: The New York Times reviewer, for instance, wrote that it "leads the weary reader through a set of tough cliches to an ending which surprises no one save Operative 007." Even worse than the Times opinion, though, was the reaction of Fleming's own wife, whom he found one evening in his drawing room, reading aloud particularly steamy passages of Casino Royale to a chortling cluster of her effete, literati friends. Certainly not an auspicious start for potent 007 and perhaps indicative of why Fleming habitually downplayed his own authorial talents and himself called Casino Royale an "oafish opus."

How far we've come from that supposed "oafish opus" (which is actually a good read). In his lifetime, Fleming would see 40 million of his Bond books purchased, and during only the one year following his death, 1965, another 27 million Bond novels were plucked from the shelves. As of this writing, the world has viewed 21 James Bond movies; in November, with the release of Quantum of Solace, that number will be bumped to 22. The New Yorker's film critic, Anthony Lane, wrote in 2002 that it "is now estimated that a quarter of the Earth's population has seen at least one Bond movie"; the New Zealand Herald says it's a third. And at this very moment, the august London Imperial War Museum is presenting the exhibition "For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond," a display it calls "the first major exhibition devoted to the life and work of the man who created the world's most famous secret agent--James Bond."

When President John F. Kennedy in included Fleming's From Russia with Love on a list of his ten favorite books, Bond's popularity began to soar, especially in the United States. But it truly was the movies--beginning in 1962 with Dr. No, which starred Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, and an unforgettable white bikini--that gave 007 his explosive popularity. No one would call them examples of fine filmmaking, surely, but the Bond movies have always had a knack for drawing crowds and for sensing just when their main man (to date, six have played the part) is growing stale. Then--poof!--he's gone, and a new and invigorated and refreshed Bond takes the screen. This transformation happened most recently when Pierce Brosnan, after his 2002 performance in Die Another Day, was replaced by the younger, fitter, hipper Daniel Craig.

Sadly, while the movies have evolved and remained popular, the books have not. Sales of Fleming's novels are low, and the Bond titles released after his death (over 30 of them) were mostly ignored and are today forgotten. For example, The Man With the Red Tatoo, a 2002 book in which Bond battles a mutated version of the West Nile Virus and the terrorists who created it, sold only about 5,000 copies in Britain and a mere 13,000 in the United States. Charles McGrath wrote in the New York Times that although the 007 novel formula seems easy enough to replicate, "most of the Bond knockoffs are pretty disappointing." Even the one such book written by Kingsley Amis (Colonel Sun), a James Bond fan if ever there was one, was, McGrath notes, "a little stiff and joyless."

IT IS precisely this flagging literary enterprise that the Fleming family trust was attempting to revive when it asked the acclaimed British author Sebastian Faulks to write a brand new Bond novel, in Fleming's style, to be released on the centenary celebration of Fleming's birth. Faulks agreed, and on May 28, 2008, Devil May Care was released to the world. That the book had an initial American print run of 250,000, and another 100,000 in Britain, makes clear that the Fleming estate and Devil May Care's publishers thought they had on their hands a bestseller. They were proved right; initial sales were quite impressive. But that success is the result of savvy promotion and not of a refreshed and authentic James Bond experience, which Devil May Care simply isn't. Faulks's novel is a far cry from the best a Bond book can offer.

Perhaps that was to be expected. Of the Fleming estate's request that he be the next 007 scribe, Faulks said, "It was like asking someone who writes complex symphonic music if they would like to write a three-minute pop song." He continued: "I do inner lives, not underwater explosions." Presumably, though, Faulks does do big advances, because despite his serious misgivings--that he couldn't properly write an action novel and that he might be too good to write one even if he could--he nonetheless took the job. Possibly he shouldn't have. Whether one finds Fleming's writing solid or not, appropriating his literary style is inarguably difficult. Fleming's Bond books have about them a unique language, pace, and feel, and an author who tries to replicate them stands on shaky ground. If the task isn't approached with care, it can't be successfully completed. Devil May Care, therefore, was off to a rocky start even before Faulks committed his first words to the page.

In this novel, we are introduced to a weary and tired James Bond on his sabbatical in Rome. He has spent the past three months listlessly traveling around the Mediterranean coast, joylessly gambling in Monte Carlo, being bored with the Cote d'Azur, retiring to bed at 10 p.m., and not drinking. In his hotel room, he observes his naked body in the mirror: "'You're tired,' he said aloud. 'You're played out. Finished.'" Several days later, in his hotel lobby, Bond bumps into a striking woman named Larissa Rossi and causes her to drop her bag. They dine together. After the meal, Larissa invites him up to her suite "for a drink."

"Bond looked down into the large brown eyes as the full lips parted in an expression of modest excitement. Then he heard himself utter three words that in all his adult life had never, in such a situation, left his mouth before. 'No, thank you.'" No, thank you? Well that's an odd choice, 007. Shortly thereafter, the sabbatical ends abruptly. Bond receives a call from M, the head of the British Secret Service and 007's gruff superior, who demands that he return to London immediately. Upon doing so, Bond learns from M that a villain by the name of Dr. Julius Gorner, whose left hand is a monkey paw, has been doing some serious dabbling in the creation of opiates and is in some vague way a threat to national security. Bond is to find out exactly what mischief Gorner is planning. The following pages take us to Paris, Tehran, the Iranian desert, and Russia, where various escapades are executed and unfortunate ends avoided.

Faulks does do some things nearly right. His decision to set the novel not in the present but in 1967, was wise: The Cold War is still hot, spies are everywhere, and nobody enjoying an Americano at a sidewalk table in a Parisian cafe is yakking into an iPhone. And yet, what a missed opportunity. Devil May Care doesn't make use of its setting as it could and should. When Bond and his lady interest, Scarlett Papava (alias Larissa Rossi), find themselves stranded in Soviet Russia, through which they must slink undetected on their way back to London, they somehow manage to completely avoid any unfortunate KGB entanglements. Their dangerous journey--which begins 800 miles east of Moscow and ends in Helsinki, a trek of some 1500 miles--lasts only 2.0 pages, is utterly boring, and consists mostly of Bond carjacking Soviet citizens, sticking up gas station attendants, and napping in parks while waiting for Scarlett to bribe train station employees.

IT'S TOO EASY and a total yawn. Ian Fleming depicted the Russian Secret Service--especially SMERSH, the most shadowy unit of Soviet intelligence--as limitlessly cunning and ruthless. In Casino Royale, for example, we learn that SMERSH "is the most powerful and feared organization in the USSR and is popularly believed never to have failed in a mission of vengeance." Regardless, Bond and Scarlett are wholly unmolested as they travel behind the Iron Curtain, through the heart of Soviet territory, blithely bribing and stealing. They pay a random fisherman to take them from Leningrad across the Gulf of Finland and into international waters, and he does so without incident.

Dr. Julius Gorner has the makings of a first-rate Bond villain (he even employs a henchman named Chagrin, who has a tendency to separate his victims from their tongues). But Devil May Care never closes the deal. Instead, as the book wears on, Gorner becomes more diffuse and incongruous until, when we last meet him, quite oddly and abruptly, the evil genius is unnecessarily clad in some cockamamie disguise, complete with a bushy false beard. We learn about Gorner in bits and pieces. He is insanely smart and proud; an Anglophobe; part primate and sensitive about it; totally heartless; and bent on destroying Britain by importing into that country lots and lots of heroin, which he manufactures in an Iranian desert hideout. His sinister plan is to turn millions of British citizens into zombie-like addicts, thereby wrecking their nation's economy, or something. Halfway through the novel, though, Gorner grows inexplicably impatient with the heroin scheme and, out of the blue, adopts another one. Just in case the drug thing doesn't work out, he will launch nuclear attacks against Russia using hijacked British equipment. The Soviets, Gorner reasons, will respond by ordering an all-out nuclear strike on England, and the Americans, still smarting from the British government's refusal to commit troops to Vietnam, won't get involved.

It is true that Fleming's novels require much willful suspension of disbelief, but once their readers yield to the world of James Bond--where the women are all beautiful and available, where villains are all deformed megalomaniacs, etc.--they are on safe ground. If we allow the premises of Fleming's writings, most things will click. In From Russia With Love, Donovan Grant, Chief Executioner of SMERSH, is a red-eyed psychopath who, on nights when the moon is full, cannot control his irrational killing impulses; once we accept that, everything is gravy and the story works. In Devil May Care, though, the internal contradictions and silliness are just too jarring. If Gorner is a genius, for example, why are all his plans so downright foolish?

And then there's this: The novel is titled Devil May Care, but its sentences bespeak an attitude more fitting for Devil, Don't Stay Out Too Late. One of the pleasures of Fleming's Bond books is their raw, uncensored style of a gruffness their author shared with his secret-agent creation. Raymond Chandler famously noted, "Bond is what every man would like to be and what every woman would like to have between her sheets," and Fleming specifically molded him that way. In Thunderball, for example, we learn from Bond's medical files that "When not engaged upon strenuous duty, the officer's average daily consumption of alcohol is in the region of half a bottle of spirits of between sixty and seventy proof," just the right amount, Kingsley Amis believed, to fuel the reader's fantasy that he, too, can be James Bond. According to Amis:
 A bottle a day would certainly seem far too much, reducing Bond to
 the sodden level. Half a bottle promotes self-identification: it
 sounds like quite a lot--at first--and yet you and I feel we
 could manage it. ... I suggest that this is a disproportionately
 attractive notion. Many of us rather enjoy being told by our wives
 and sweethearts that we're smoking and drinking too much. It
 enables us to feel devil-may-care at little trouble or expense.


But the Bond of Devil May Care is one whose drinking is definitely tempered; likewise his smoking. Likewise his womanizing. It may be fair to impugn Fleming's Bond for taking--again, like Fleming himself--a rather rough tack in his relations with and opinions of women. Nonetheless, the secret agent's ideas about male and female roles are quite defined. They're not views that generally pass muster today, but they are Bond's views after all, and frankly, had he held different, more flexible attitudes toward women, it's likely that the books would have been far less enjoyable and Bond, as a character, far less appealing. Faulks gives us an enlightened 007, and it doesn't work. It's bad enough that he has leeched Devil May Care of the titillating, mildly offensive passages about breasts and behinds that Fleming amply provided, preferring instead sedate language that wouldn't raise eyebrows in the convent library. But the book's dearth of actual sex is simply unforgivable, especially coming from one who is purportedly attempting to write as Fleming. Similarly unforgivable is Bond's penchant for idle chit-chat with the very women with whom, in earlier adventures, he would have engaged in more physical communication.

All of which is to say that the new Bond comes off as inauthentic. He's still able to deftly get himself into and out of scrapes, but something isn't at all right about him; he's been defanged, it seems, and turned into some kind of all-around "nice guy." Indeed, the entire British Secret Service of Devil May Care has been sissified. M--a dreadfully serious man who has never, ever, brooked any nonsense from Bond or anyone else--now suddenly speaks to 007 as his equal and sprinkles his comments with lighthearted and casually friendly remarks ("'It looks like your destiny,' said M, with a wintry smile."). Furthermore, we learn from Miss Moneypenny, M's longtime assistant, that her boss has taken up yoga. It's meant to be funny, of course, but the gag falls flat. And when we read that the British Secret Service now maintains an r branch, and that Bond is ordered to see its "psychological-fitness assessor" for a "course of breathing and relaxation techniques," during which he is asked by the psychologist to find his "special private place," we cannot contain our dismay.

After turning over the last page of Devil May Care, the reader can only be deeply dissatisfied. Among other things, he's apt to wonder: What happened to the sex, snobbery, and sadism?

Liam Julian is a research fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

SEBASTIAN FAULKS. Devil May Care. DOUBLEDAY. 287 PAGES. $24.95
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Title Annotation:Books
Author:Julian, Liam
Publication:Policy Review
Date:Oct 1, 2008
Words:2837
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