So, I am an old fart. I have always been one. By feel and intuition I cobbled myself a classical education in high school, reading Shakespeare long before it was assigned, learning mythology from academic dictionaries and old minor epics, studying Latin, using French. My love of punk music (old fart chronologically, too) and my knack for the tech and culture of computer networking (which got me hired at AOL way back before a phone could go in a pocket, much less go online) hid my mustiness pretty well, so long as I kept my vocabulary in check. But my way of being has a sense of the past about it. I live larger by living across time.
This is not the most comfortable perch when one has a new book to sell, when one tries on glittering adjectives to catch the eyes of agents.
Certainly as compared with what gets on the front table at the better bookstores these days, my writing is less catchy and my pacing slower — at first. Arbitrary rules I adopted to keep the mess of my sprawling international setting contained — no brand names save ones passed into history, no pop culture, a forward-marching timeline with no full-scene flashbacks — necessarily limit the pizzazz. But the tensions, the feelings, even the dei ex machina both real and fantastical, reflect the anxieties and beliefs and entertainments of my time in ways I am too steeped in to notice.
I recently read Le Carré’s grand Cold War espionage mystery Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Last year’s movie adaptation took a surprising hold on me; though I fell asleep the first time (it was late, the film slow, and I had wine), I have watched it six times since. I was hoping for like fascination from the novel, but while I enjoyed it, I don’t think I’ll be reading it again.
It is not for the artistry — superb and lovely in both novel and film — but because the film’s characters are and become people who make more sense to me.
In place of the novel’s pudgy cerebral spy-catcher, in the film Smiley is cunning and cruel, closer to his emotions even as he locks down their expression — from Father Brown to bearded Spock. The novel’s womanizing Peter Guillam is now a monogamous gay hiding himself to be who he wants to be; the elegant Bill Haydon, less insufferably entitled by his culture’s misogyny and the myth of the amoral artist.
I’m not saying that my generation’s movie proves the novel’s types are antiquated or wrong. There are many more types of person than can fit in any narrative work, even Tolstoy’s. I’m just saying, the stories the movie tells around the main plot are the stories I am more prepared to hear.
I can only hope I got that right in my book.
Post Script: this essay started out a lot more depressing. Sometimes you have to carefully describe your demons in order to see they’re just imps.