"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Sunday, May 10, 2020

David Morrell: Past and present

Time Was (2005)

Not your typical Serlingesque stop at Willoughby.

When a driver is rerouted off an interstate in Arizona he finds himself in the benighted wild west town of Meridian. Morrell puts his protagonist through what we would call a timeslip, though such a mildly objective word does not hint at the uncanny nightmares awaiting him.

....Sam went over. "Is that sign outside accurate? Do you sell sasparilla?" Realizing that he mispronounced it the way actors in movies did, he hurriedly said, "I mean sarsaparilla." The word felt strange in his mouth.

     The barkeep didn't answer. None of the cowboys looked at him. Part of the show, Sam thought. We're supposed to feel like we're back in the 1800s and can't be seen.

     "How much for a case?" Sam asked.

     Again no answer.

     Sam glanced to the right along the bar and noticed generic-looking soda bottles on a shelf behind it, near the front window. They were made of clear glass that showed dark liquid in them – like root beer. They were labeled sarsaparilla. Corks were held in place with spring devices that he'd occasionally seen on pressurized bottles, indicating that the contents of these bottles were probably carbonated. Like root beer.

     Sam counted ten bottles. "I'll take them all. How much?"

     No answer. The actors maintained the illusion that he wasn't there.

     Sam went over to the bottles and saw a price tag on each. Five cents.

     "This can't be true," he said. "What's the real price?"

     The only sound came from the tinny piano.

     "Okay then, if that's how you want it. I'll give you a bonus and take the whole lot for a dollar."

     Sam put a dollar on the counter and moved to pick up the bottles.

     No one bothered to stop him.

     "I don't know how you're going to stay in business," he said.

     Then he started wondering about what he was buying. Suppose these bottles were merely stage props, or suppose this was the worst-tasting stuff imaginable. Suppose he took it home and gave it to Lori and her friends, only to watch them spit it out.

      "Is there anything wrong with this stuff?"

"Time Was" is close to an earlier, ambitiously absurdist strain in Morrell's short fiction, akin to tales like "The Dripping," "But at My Back I Always Hear," and "The Storm."

The Abelard Sanction (2006)

Catharsis and consolation are very near in this novella. A too-brief pendant to the arcana of Morrell's great 1980s trilogy.

....Erika shook her head from side to side. "In Cairo, I nearly got him. He has a bullet hole in his arm to remind him. For two weeks, he ran from refuge to refuge as cleverly as he could. Then six days ago, his tactics changed. His trail became easier to follow. I told myself that he was getting tired, that I was wearing him down. But when he shifted through Mexico into the southwestern United States, I realized what he was doing. In the Mideast, he could blend. In Santa Fe, for God's sake, Mideasterners are rarely seen. Why would he leave his natural cover? He lured me. He wants me to find him here. I'm sure his men are waiting for me outside right now, closing the trap. Habib can't imagine that I'd readily break the sanction, that I'd gladly be killed just so I could take him with me. He expects me to do the logical thing and hide among the trees outside, ready to make a move when he leaves. If I do, his men will attack. I'll be the target. Dammit, why didn't you listen to me and stay out of this? Now you can't get out of here alive any more than I can."

     "I love you," Saul said

The Interrogator (2013)

"The Interrogator" is a tough read. It details U.S. torture of detainees in the bipartisan war on terror. It asks: how much to get the facts from a prisoner? Or is the prisoner already out-thinking you?

Morrell's interrogator Andrew is second generation CIA, and learned the rudiments of tradecraft from his father. But are seemingly quaint old lessons reliable today? Or is it just another way of fooling himself?

....Andrew needed to know, he was again reminded of his father. He sat before the computer on his desk, watching the image of the prisoner, and he recalled that his father had sometimes been asked to go to the Agency's training facility at Camp Peary, Virginia, where he taught operatives to extend the limits of their perceptions.

     "It's like most things. It involves practice," his father had explained to Andrew. "For old times' sake, I made my students read The Ambassadors. I tried to distract them with blaring music. I inserted conversations behind the music. A layer at a time. After a while, the students learned to be more aware, to perceive many things at once."

     As Andrew studied the computer screen and pushed buttons that flashed the blinding lights in the prisoner's cell while at the same time causing a siren to wail, he thought about the lesson that his father had said he took from that Henry James novel.

     "Lambert Strether becomes increasingly aware as the novel progresses," Andrew's father had told him. "Eventually, Strether notices all sorts of things that he normally would have missed. Undertones in conversations. Overtones in the way someone looks at someone else. All the details in the way people dress and what those details say about them. He becomes a master of consciousness. The sentences dramatize that point. They get longer and more complicated as the novel progresses, as if matching Strether's growing mind. I get the sense that James hoped those complicated sentences would make the reader's mind develop as Strether's does. But this is the novel's point, Andrew. Never forget this, especially if you enter the intelligence profession, as I hope you will. For all his awareness, Strether loses. In the end, he's outwitted. His confidence in his awareness destroys him. The day you become most sure of something, that's the day you need to start doubting it. The essence of the intelligence profession is that you can never be aware enough, never be conscious enough, because your opponent is determined to be even more aware."

The Spiritualist (2016)

A brilliantly imagined dark night of the soul. A sleepless Conan Doyle faces the steep climb to legitimize spiritualism, but gets a nighttime visit not from the beloved dead, but from a very skeptical protagonist he created decades before. 

This is bravura historical writing.

....If I believed that Jean was fraudulent, then I'd need to believe that everything in this room was fraudulent, that my life was fraudulent. 

     He clutched the photograph of the faeries and stared as hard at it as he'd ever stared at anything in his life. He desperately tried to will himself to enter the photograph, to stand with the faeries next to the waterfall whose chill resembled that of this basement. He had a sudden vision that the basement was a crypt and that Holmes was in it, tearing coffins apart, hurling bones into a corner. Bones. Perhaps that's all his dead son and his first wife and his brother and his brother-in-law and his nephews and his mother . . . and his father . . . had become. No. He couldn't believe it.

     That would be the true madness.


10 May 2020

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