Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Wendy Walker, The Secret Service (1995)

Wendy Walker is slightly hard to find online just because there's a thriller author of the same name who has a bigger internet footprint.  I don't resent her!  That's fine!  I hope her books are good, even though they're not likely to be anything I would want to read.  Still, the Wendy Walker in question here DID manage to score wendywalker.com, so...win.  In a sense.

I knew I had to read this when I saw that Tough Poets was reprinting it.  It is a long-ish and dense novel of the kind of which I am known to be fond.  It takes place in a nineteenth-century Europe that's like the real one but with different rulers and things.  The idea is that this here Secret Service has found a way--rather convincingly explained via a torrent of psycho/technobabble--where people can take on the forms of inanimate objects (and also plants, which don't seem inanimate, but whatevs) (also, I take it that "service" here has a double meaning).  The main characters are two young agents, Polly and Rutherford (who are also lovers, though that's not very relevant).  They're working on disrupting a complicated plot by three Continental conspirators to arrange it so the king of England has a child with his own sister, which will fuck up the monarchy and destroy the Church of England.  Apparently; they're a little vague on all the specifics.  But anyway, our protagonists are trying to thwart this.  It's not a very plot-heavy novel.

It's impressive; there's no question about it.  There are certain parts--describing the perceptions of the characters as they inhabit objects and take on their characteristics--of which I've never quite seen the like.  The espionage business never gets THAT deep, but it's frequently engaging.  Furthermore, in the back half there are some unexpected horror elements that freaked me out pretty well, so well done there.

However, we have to be honest: this book can be a bit of a slog.  And given my reading history, I don't say that lightly.  The prose is written in a baroque style that is sometimes rewarding, and sometimes exhausting.  Also: there's the ninth chapter.  Nobody who's read this won't know what that means, for good or ill.  It's very long; it takes up something like a quarter of the entire novel, and it takes place in a kind of interstitial realm as Polly deals with the trauma of the item she "was" having been broken.  It's kind of engaging in parts (it's sometimes reminiscent of Calvino), but it also gets pretty dang boring.  None of it relates to the main narrative, and I don't feel that Polly's character is sufficiently important to the story or psychologically deep for it to justify itself.  The Tough Poets reprint includes an interview with Walker where she justifies this as such:

In The Secret Service, I inserted a medieval romance--a Grail quest and a katabasis--into the center of a 19th-century Wilkie Collins-style novel. . . . The book has been criticized for the long central chapter, but I have been puzzled that no one has recognized what it is, which I had thought was rather obvious.  So a rather simple formal innovation seems to have stumped readers, most of whom are not accustomed to thinking about literary form."

And here's where it seems like she has a very fundamentally different conception of literature than I do.  Because yes, I appreciate innovation, to some extent.  A large extent, in fact.  You people bloody well know how much avant-garde and experimental literature I've read.  But it has to be effective innovation.  I really don't think that people criticizing it are doing so because they don't understand it.  I mean, maybe they don't, but that's not the reason: they're criticizing it because it goes on forever and completely derails the narrative and it's exceedingly rough to get through and once you do you wonder, why did I do that?  The fact that you can articulate a rationale for something doesn't make it ipso facto good.

Oh, and also, I've read seven Wilkie Collins novels, which I feel safe in asserting is more than the vast majority of people living today, and of all the books I've read that have not reminded me in any way, shape, or form of his oeuvre...this is one of them.  I mean, I suppose you could argue that in a very, very broad sense they and this are both generally about a kind of subterfuge, but to my mind that's so broad as to be meaningless (and they both take place in the nineteenth century, which is even more meaningless).  Okay, come to think of it, I guess the evil baron here is a little similar to the evil count in The Woman in White.  But still.

Then again, maybe I'm slightly jaundiced because she writes, of Angela Carter, "I couldn't read her sentences without wanting to take a pencil and improve them."  To which I say, if you think you're capable of writing a novel as good as The Magic Toyshop or The Passion of New Eve or Wise Children...well, you should do it, and good luck to you.  That's my opinion.

I don't know; in spite of everything, I wouldn't exactly say I disliked this, if that's even a relevant way to talk about it.  But the ratio of effort expended to satisfaction derived is not quite what I might have hoped, ultimately.


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