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The Rise of the Literary Espionage Novel

In the surveillance-ridden contemporary world, the traditional domestic plot has become a bit less exciting. So espionage has crept in.
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(Photo: carnivillain/Flickr)

(Photo: carnivillain/Flickr)

In the post-Cold War age, there has been a lot of grumbling about the lack of a decent villain in American storytelling. Our film action heroes are reduced to fighting wildly specific splinter groups from unpronounceable countries. On television, the popularity of forensic procedurals suggests that the most sinister enemies lie closest to home: You just need a DNA match in order to find a murderer with a microscope and some Luminol. In books, though, the world of espionage has become both richer and stranger: richer because authors previously thought of as literary are trying their hand at spy thrillers, and stranger because these novels often put America in a precarious position. In these new narratives, America is no longer the shining force for unequivocal good against Communists or other totalitarian states. But is it still the superpower to be reckoned with and the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering nation in the world? Or has the coming of the cyber age leveled the playing field? More critically, why are the world’s best writers now making incursions into the world of genre fiction, previously thought of as literary fiction’s popular but shallow cousin?

While pondering the state of the world, at least in literature, the tropes of genre fiction seem more suited to illustrate the myriad troubles of our times. The domestic, always the stomping ground of the literary novel, has ceded territory to the universal, or, at least, the worldly—if not world-weary—sphere of espionage.

The latest novels by American Denis Johnson (The Laughing Monsters), Chinese writer Ha Jin (A Map of Betrayal), and Australian writer Peter Carey (Amnesia), all incorporate espionage elements. Johnson, previously a foreign correspondent, sets his tale of corruption, betrayal, and a troubled friendship in the equally troubled countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Congo—perhaps an homage to Conrad, but also an unstable backdrop for his unstable narrator, Roland Nair. Nair is a man without a country, or a man with one country too many: Dutch-born and American-raised, he might still be working for the CIA, or he might just be back in Africa to hook up with his dangerous, charismatic pal Michael Adriko, the kind of friend who is always running some scheme which could make you serious money, get you in serious trouble, or both. “Reality is an impression, a belief,” Adriko tells Nair. And in the post-9/11 spy game, it’s hard to argue that there is a singular reality.

Certainly that’s the case in Ha Jin’s A Map of Betrayal, where a dutiful daughter and academic named Lilian Shang finds her father’s secret diary which reveals that he was a Chinese spy, a mole in the CIA. Yet his betrayal went further than just his country. He also had a secret family in China who he left behind as a young man. Gary Shang’s double life was both public and private, and also could be a metaphor for a world in which our loyalties are constantly tested. Jin said he based the novel partly on the real-life case of Chinese-American Larry Chin, but also that he had always been a fan of espionage (particularly the novels of John Le Carre). “I think espionage has always been practiced,” Jin says, when asked about how espionage functions in both the novel and the world. “Even our friends spy on us and we do the same to them. However, the heart of the issue in the novel is the conflict between the individual and the country in the context of espionage.”

Carey’s book, about a woman who is accused of cyber spying (and other more nefarious deeds), takes on the tangled history of America and Australia. Through his protagonist, a left-wing journalist recently convicted of libel who is charged with writing the young woman’s story, Carey narrates a long history of American abuse of power. From the rapes committed by American soldiers stationed in Melbourne during World War II to the complicity of the Australian government in the American war in Vietnam, Australia is painted as an American puppet state, a friendly doormat where Yanks can wipe their feet on the way to wage covert or overt war in Asia and the Pacific. International relationships become the most salient metaphor for ordinary human ones in these books, with their overtones of mistrust, betrayal, shifting alliances, and the strained exchange of information.

Sarah Weinman, the news editor of Publisher’s Lunch, says the incursion of literary writers into genre fiction is a commercial play. “I tend to look at these through the prism of market forces, and right now, readers want things that are hipper, faster, more grab-by-throat, all of which are genre hallmarks, and mix that with great characters and sentences and situations that literary fiction does so well and you end up with some really interesting hybrid books,” she says. “Or maybe it's that genre better encompasses while literary fiction seems to grow more narrow.” Doomed marriages and messed-up kids, the hallmarks of literary fiction, are less intriguing to read about than the, well, doomed nation-state and messed-up world we live in.

This expansion of worldview, as well as a concomitant paranoia, is also what editor Sean McDonald of Farrar, Straus & Giroux attributes to the success of hybrid books like these. “Why the appeal of dark and paranoid, edgy and violent, and whatever else describes espionage fiction? It’s flippant to say look at the newspaper, but with the state of the world such as it is—in our technology-saturated times, with drones and PRISM and ISIS and climate change—it simply seems natural,” he says. “These seem to be the storytelling styles and tools that engage with the times.”

Both Weinman and McDonald see the trend toward hybridization continuing. “I suspect the biggest trend is simply that there’s simply more openness about what qualifies as ‘literary’—in publishers’ minds, in readers’ minds, and in writers’ minds,” McDonald adds. Thus the enemy is no longer a single country, or entity, but maybe it’s an idea: being boring.