Archive for September 2019

Book review – White Noise

White Noise (1984) is regarded as classic of modern literature. The attraction for me, however, was the author, Don DeLillo, whose novel Underworld impressed me enough to check out another of his books. Our chief protagonist is Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler studies at a provincial college. Gladney lives with his wife Babette and a throng of children from their present and past marriages. The book is seemingly about nothing in particular though one theme emerges in the form of death, as Jack and Babette share their fear of death and their fear of dying before or after the other.

Things get more interesting in the second part of the book, which is titled ‘The Airborne Toxic Event’, from which the American indie band took their name. Little did I know however that that realisation was to be my favourite moment of reading the book. The event in question is the result of a chemical spill in the vicinity of the family’s house, which forces the family to evacuate to temporary accommodation. On returning home (for the third part of the book) we become aware of how Babette’s fear of death has led to some ill-judged decisions which ultimately lead to even greater drama.

White Noise is apparently a critique of modern consumption, whether that be the consumption of media or physical goods. It also takes a shot at academia and the over-intellectualisation of things, which evinces itself in the simplest of things, e.g. whereby Jack and Babette refer to each other in the third person (which was especially annoying). While one could probably dissect the book in an intellectual fashion and marvel at DeLillo’s ability to satirise modern society, I found the characters to be shallow and loathsome with few redeeming qualities. Completing the book took some effort; while the change of the pace in the second part of the book was welcome, the third descends into farce, though there is a wonderful dialogue between Jack and a nun towards the end of the book.

Frankly, I couldn’t wait to get the book out of the way before I could move onto something which verged upon a plot, rather than a treatise wrapped in the shape of a novel! I wouldn’t recommend White Noise but there appear to be plenty of people who would.

Book review – A Delicate Truth

A Delicate Truth (2013) is another of John le Carre’s standalone novels (as opposed to his George Smiley series), and firmly within the spy firmament for which he is so well known. This time round we follow in the footsteps of a young, ambitious foreign office official, Toby Bell. Bell is private secretary to a morally ambiguous FO minister, who’s particularly friendly with a defence contractor. The minister is embroiled in a botched mission in Gibraltar, involving our friend the defence contractor, which Bell only becomes aware of through a former diplomat, Sir ‘Kit’ Probyn. Probyn was on the ground during the operation and informs Bell that innocents were killed and that a cover-up is in play, leading to the death of others involved in the operation. Bell therefore finds himself at the centre of things and needs to decide whether to remain loyal to his minister or to blow the whistle.

Numerous reviews of this book suggest that this is Le Carre’s first true post-Cold War novel. I can’t really comment on that, having read a fair few but not all of Le Carre’s works. What is interesting however is that this novel feels the closest to reality. The Gibraltar operation isn’t a million miles off the notorious 1988 SAS operation, Flavius, which resulted in the supposedly unlawful deaths of three IRA members. The close relationship between a minister and defence contractor also finds art imitating life. Liam Fox MP resigned as defence secretary in 2011 following allegations his friend, a lobbyist, had inappropriate access via Fox to departmental meetings, and thus falling foul of the ministerial code. Lastly, the suicide of Dr David Kelley (whose death led to the Hutton Inquiry) also appears to be reflected in the book.

Ironically, the largest event in UK spying history (that we know of anyway!), the outing of the so-called Cambridge Five, including Kim Philby, as Russian spies, doesn’t have a parallel within A Delicate Truth. Spying within the upper echelons of the UK’s secret service has been a theme throughout le Carre’s novels, especially the Smiley series and he’s clearly made a conscious decision to keep the high-level skulduggery to a minimum, focussing on a relatively junior member of staff stuck between a rock and a hard place.

One of the things I most enjoy about le Carre’s novels is the high-level skulduggery, so it’s fair to say that I was a little disappointed, finding the subject of the book to be a little pedestrian compared to the full-on spy novels I’m accustomed to. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book, which has plenty to offer in terms of thrills, twists and turns, and at just over 300 pages is a pretty quick read. Recommended.