Dispatches | October 11, 2006

What are you to think when one of your favorite writers puts out a clunker?

I’ve been wondering about that as I read John LeCarre’s new novel Mission Song, the story of Bruno Salvador, a translator who gets entangled in a conspiracy to take over the government of the Congo. It’s a follow-up to The Constant Gardener, which is also partly set in Africa and his best novel since The Tailor of Panama. The initial chapters of Mission Song are reminiscent of the old LeCarre stuff — secret agents, double-crossing, bad marriages (remember Smiley’s wayward wife), the wicked rich and questionable governments. But then, alas, Mission Song unravels with long, boring scenes, flat characters, and an increasingly vague purpose.

With some authors and some kinds of storytelling, genre conventions serve as helpful guideposts that make them work. The Constant Gardener was good partly because it stuck to the basic conventions of the noir international thriller, complete with a mystery that builds, an increasingly threatening environment, and finally discovery of the evil actions and motives of the bad guys.

When the latest novel of an author like LeCarre fails, though, my response, finally, is to give him some slack. LeCarre revived the spy thriller. He’s written exciting books that are neither “easy” nor merely entertaining. One might vaguely imagine that his best work didn’t survive the end of the Cold War, but in fact he has continued to come up with really great books. He just started doing it a long time ago.

Not to get weird about it, but “loving” an author is not entirely unlike loving a person. Okay, sometimes they blow it. Philip Roth was putting out uninspired postmodern fiction for fifteen years, and then started writing the best work of his long career. And if you want to go back in time — Melville’s Omoo? James’s The Tragic Muse? Faulkner’s Mosquitoes? So what, they’re still the greatest.