Friday, 12 November 2010

The Tourist: Olen Steinhauer

As the Tourist drew to a close, I was all set to get quite annoyed with it, because it was wrapping up in a hurried and confusing way. It's a rather literary book, and it takes its own sweet time setting up the character and situations. So when the last forty or so pages started introducing twists and almost immediately tying them off, I was thinking, "Well, this is a bit of a mess for someone with five novels under his belt."

Turns out, I was being unfair. The Tourist is the first of three or four books, at a guess, and it's filling the role of origin story of sorts for its main cast. I'm not sure I want to find out what happens to them next, but I have to give points to Steinhauer for the way he sets up the end of the book as the beginning of the story.

That said, it's hard enough going. There's not a lot of action, and most of the characters are different levels of unlikeable, so that on the one hand you're stuck with people who you're not even meant to like much, and on the other hand, there's not much going on to distract you from the unlikeability.

I'm not qualified to say anything terrible insightful about the way the book depicts spying. The central conceit - the main plank for the whole sequence, I imagine - is that the CIA has a black ops unit called the Tourists, who are completely unaccountable and go around killing and torturing people for the greater glory of the US. This is a recurring theme in bad movies and TV shows; I've long ago lost track of how many times TV has introduced us to a super elite team of spies who operate above top secret. Alias seemed to be intent on inventing ever more arcane levels of unaccountability, for example. I got the impression that Steinhauer had watched some of this stuff and thought to himself, yeah, that's all very well and good, but in real life you'd go nuts doing that, wouldn't you?.

This is almost certainly true, but it isn't necessarily that much fun to read about. The main viewpoint character, Milo Weaver, is introduced to us just as the lifestyle really starts to catch up with him, as he flounders through his last mission as a Tourist in a haze of booze and amphetamines. At one level, I can completely see it. A clandestine agent would be under a lot of stress and with no real limits on what he could get away with, he'd be in a position to self medicate to manage the stress. It's just somehow Steinhauer doesn't get me believing in Weaver as someone who's depending on alcohol. He's not hazy enough, or disorganised enough and he makes the transition away from it unbelievably quickly. We have to buy into the idea that the love of a good, entirely random, woman turns his life around, and that's just too Hollywood compared to all the other efforts to make it real and gritty.

Still, there's some interesting stuff going on around the edges of the book, in what I surmise is the master plot. Steinhauer has already written five novels which were an exploration of the decline of communism in a fictitious Eastern European country. With these books, he seems to be trying to write an extended critique of the national security state as practised in the USA; both the endless expansion of the security organs of government and the shabby uses to which the organs are put. There are some interesting thoughts hovering in the wings here, but it's clear that it's going to take more books to put them out there.

Some things did ring false. A master plot mechanism seems to be the idea of former spies holing up in the unlikely venue of the UN and working against the worst excesses of the national security agencies. I know just enough about the military committee of the UN security council to view this with immense scepticism. It's a lovely idea, but it doesn't fit with the historical development of the UN as an organisation. Most importantly, the idea that the UN could have a black budget is hilarious. I've sat in on budget negotiations for UN agencies, and I wouldn't claim for a second that UN budgeting is lean or exact; what I will say is that it's VERY scrutinised. The UN gets its money from levies on the member states, and everyone pokes around at it; the people who chip in are convinced they should chip in less, and the people who take out are determined to get their cut from it.

Still, it's nice to dream. The Tourist will have a sequel out one of these days and maybe I'll check it out.

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