Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Edward Wilson's stellar intellectual thriller A VERY BRITISH ENDING

It's a fascinating question, whether the latest Edward Wilson spy novel A VERY BRITISH ENDING would be as smart, vigorous, engaging, and downright delightful a read without us all having easy access to the Internet. Fortunately, I don't have to answer that question.

This is a book custom-built for the smart-phone era, the era when you can think "Better look that up," launch a Google search, and expect to get a clearer sense, within a few seconds, of who actually did what, when, in real life. Much of the pleasure of this novel lies in determining just how much of Wilson's intricate intellectual thriller is history and how much is literary invention.

Here's the remarkable thing. Pausing momentarily to check, for instance, whether the CIA really was behind the 1954 screenplay adaptation of George Orwell's ANIMAL FARM (it was), or whether senior intelligence operatives really were, or really are, eager to strike up dark, democracy-threatening alliances with the military, somehow does not dull one's interest in William Catesby, Wilson's long-suffering, fundamentally decent hero.

Quite the contrary. Once you put down the phone and return to the book, you find yourself more curious than ever about where Catesby's journey will lead -- and anticipating the strangely satisfying ritual of Googling the history behind the book's next plot development. I don't know how Wilson manages that, but he does.

Catesby, a liberal-leaning MI6 officer with a functioning conscience and a deep love of his country, is a man who knows paranoia when he sees it. He sees a whole lot of it in Cold War-era England, and he learns, first-hand, its heavy cost to the body politic. The central conceit of this story -- the destabilization of a sitting Prime Minister's government by fanatically anti-Communist elements of the UK's intelligence apparatus -- may seem to those unfamiliar with the period to be implausible, some kind of fanciful improvisation meant to boost book sales. Yet it is settled history, every bit as real as the Profumo scandal or the Cuban Missile Crisis. So: Did these machinations really turn into a coup? Were people like Catesby really around to note, with alarm, the mental state that served as the source of such plots? And who, exactly, are we talking about, back in the real world?

Better look all that up. And once you do, better make sure you keep this stellar page-turner nearby, because, having begun it, you will return to it in very short order. A marvelous, magnetic, and endlessly intriguing spy novel that boasts equal measures of dazzling invention and responsible research, A VERY BRITISH ENDING illuminates potent and enduring truths about the perils of hyper-nationalism and groupthink. It also gives us, in William Catesby, that rare protagonist in whom cynicism and idealism persist, believably if not comfortably, side-by-side.

"Treason usually, but not always," Catesby's mentor and ally Henry Bone notes at one point, "comes from the right wing." Later, Bone warns Catesby that "power is a poison -- and even more deadly when it exists in confined spaces." Such insightful passages about political excess (there are many, many more) could just be the musings of a writer who knows when he's found the right tone for a novel about a coup plot hatched by reactionaries. On the other hand, who knows? Wilson's prose could very well have something to do with real, live, catastrophic threats to democracy that we all need to be ready to spot in the era of Farage and Trump. What schemes have the increasingly paranoid followers of those gentlemen come up with lately? Better look that up, too.