30 August 2008
That’s a bit over a quarter and… and it’s fine. Robert Harris has dropped us into one of those believable worlds that writers like him invent, with the ex-powerful ex-politician, the billionaire holiday retreat in winter, the bored security guards, the smartarse PA…. In what is either a hostage to fortune or a sly nod to the reader Harris has had his protagonist Mike explain one of the tricks of the trade. A ghosted autobiography has to pass the Seaplane test: the target audience will have no way of checking the facts, so not every word has to be true – but nothing’s got to happen that strikes a false note. Don’t have the tycoon arriving for work in a seaplane landing on the Thames. Well, there haven’t been any seaplanes yet, only stuff we’ve seen and read about hundreds of times. So far, so… so-so.
Famously, the ex-PM whose autobiography Mike is having to re-write is exactly like Tony Blair, from the easy informality of his manner to the trajectory, via a popular landslide election victory and disastrous incursion into a sovereign state, of his career. Harris can mess about with the details all he likes: grammar school in Leicester, lowly origins, Cambridge, banking instead of the law…. But all that is just stuff: it’s Blair all right.
And there are ingredients: the original ghost-writer died in what might or might not have been an accident; Mike has been mugged and had an unimportant manuscript taken in what could only have been a coincidence – unless some very powerful people, including the publisher, know a lot more than they’re saying; seconds after Mike has finished emailing the original manuscript to himself – breaking every rule and confidentiality statement his bosses made him sign – there’s a routine ‘lock-down’ drill in the mansion where he’s working. Yep.
I’ve only read historical fiction by Harris before, because that’s what he’s specialised in before. So far I like his previous stuff more than this…. Maybe historical fiction’s easier, because it’s easier to pass the seaplane test, and easier to avoid sounding like everybody else who’s writing a contemporary power politics thriller. Mike’s a believable hack – Harris even has him using rather lazy formulas, has him inhabiting a lazy, complacent world of unambitious writing to order. We can certainly believe the way he begins to shape a childhood for the ex-PM, based on the easy nostalgia of 70s memorabilia that clutters up any 50-something reader’s brain. But, of course, all he’s doing is setting a believable scene. Something’s going to happen soon – and if it’s anything to do with his email to self, well, what did he expect? (Of course, I always guess wrong: I’m a sucker for red herrings.)
To where the ex-PM’s wife gets into bed…
I’ve stopped at a moment that’s been coming, so to speak, for about 50 pages: the ex-PM’s feisty wife has just got into bed with Mike and given him a big fat kiss. Actually she’s not feeling feisty at all, but in need of a bit of Marvin Gaye: hubby’s gone to Washington with the smartarse PA in the entourage (did I mention the PA was a fit-looking woman?), the one he’s having an affair with. 50-odd pages back that was only enough to make wifey cry in private, but other stuff’s happened since then, largely through Mike stumbling preposterously on various bits of gold-dust quality evidence about his predecessor. Item: a party membership card that proves the PM’s story about why he joined (to impress his future wife) to have been untrue. Item: the previous ghost-writer had written down – conveniently, on the back of an archive photo Mike’s been looking at – the phone number of the ex-Cabinet Minister who’s spectacularly just spilt some very unwelcome beans on a possible war crime the PM perpetrated. Item: the previous ghost’s body couldn’t have been washed up on the particular beach where it did without human help (information courtesy of an old resident under whose stoop Mike happens to seek shelter). Item: a woman who saw lights on the beach on the night the body was found has fallen down stairs and is in a coma. Item: the PM had a big row with the ghost the day before the death….
The PM’s in Washington because he daren’t go to Britain: he’s likely to be arrested to face charges in The Hague following the allegations. Which is why Mike and Ruth, as she’s called, are rattling around in the big house with nobody else but the housekeeper and secret servicemen. They were obviously going to end up in bed; it was only a matter of why she would need to resort to such a thing after being a bit snotty with him to start with. Robert Harris has spent several chapters providing us with reasons.
Other stuff. Now the plot’s under way Harris doesn’t need to say so much about the writing process. There’s a bit, just before the shit hits the world’s news media, but it’s really there so Mike can conclude that the ex-PM is really no more than an actor: he can’t get inside him. This has never happened before, and Mike comes to see him as a kind of cipher. Is he the Ghost of the book’s title? Or is that Mike’s predecessor? Or is it Mike himself, invisible among the movers and shakers (at least twice people have forgotten his name) and sleeping in a dead man’s room or wearing the dry clothes – her husband’s – that Ruth offers? Early on he made a joke about ghost-writing: dress-code chameleon. And everything that’s happening to him confirms that. We’ve even seen him write a statement in response to the allegations for the ex-PM, and then disappear into the background as they get beamed around the world.
So is this a potboiler thriller or a metaphysical disquisition on the nature of identity? (The first, I’d say, with occasional engaging nods in the direction of the second.)
To Chapter 14
Less than a quarter of the novel to go – I’ve just finished Chapter 14, with three remaining – and it turns out the ex-PM was a CIA plant all along. Through one of those sequences of happy chances and convenient coincidences Mike has been able to meet the self-serving ex-Cabinet Member who’s uncovered the (fairly minor) war crime. On the way he’s met the American professor who’s been the PM’s CIA puppetmaster for decades (if the Cabinet whistle-blower is to be believed he even got the young Blair – sorry, Lang – his safe seat to start with) and… and what? The New Labour project, as it’s never called in the novel, was just a front to allow the Yanks to treat Britain as its European satellite.
Of course, this might be another red herring, and ’the world’s biggest conspiracy’ (to quote from the cover of the book) is another in the long line of paranoid theories clogging up the Internet. In what might be a knowing nod to the reader – or what might be a bit more muddying of the waters – Harris has had Mike trawl through a selection of these theories in an Internet café…. And one character (I can‘t remember who) has referred to the old joke that just because you‘re paranoid doesn‘t mean they‘re not out to get you. So we don’t know if we know the real story yet.
I hope not, because I find the whole idea – what? – disappointing. Given the dislike for New Labour in 2007 among the sort of people who are likely to read a Robert Harris novel, and their downright bafflement at Blair’s apparent determination to do the US’s bidding, it just looks as though Harris has gone for the easy explanation. As I say, let’s hope there’s more (or less) to it than meets the eye, and that the vain, mirror-glancing ex-minister is simply using circumstantial evidence to serve some other agenda. The facts as we know them would fit the theory, but, well, he’s just not to be trusted: basically he’s blackmailing Mike to do his dirty work. And surely, so many references to his almost narcissistic vanity must make him a suspect. In which case, of course, I haven’t a clue what’s going on.
To the end
In fact, except for some Da Vinci Code-style twists, the CIA conspiracy story is all true. Like all conspiracies, it runs with ruthless and unfailing efficiency: the CIA puppetmaster really was able to get his man into Downing Street; he knows what’s happening almost as soon as it happens; the ex-minister dies in a car crash to keep him quiet…. Yeh, sure. In case we were wondering about the circumstances of the writing of this little memoir, well, Mike’s in hiding – and it will only be published if he dies. Oh dear – the long tentacles of the organisation must have got to him.
This little frisson is the last of several that Harris lays on rather thickly. The ex-PM is assassinated in a preposterous suicide bombing as he arrives back at the billionaire’s retreat; the stories about his wife getting him really interested in politics turn out to be true, because – wait for it – she was the CIA man’s agent provocateur, recruited when she was studying under him at Harvard; she’d originally been lined up for the top job – shades of Cherie Blair – but the CIA committee realised he was the better salesman. To say nothing of the emptier vessel, ripe for manipulation by his cleverer wife. No wonder poor Mike couldn’t get inside him: there was nothing to get inside. He really is the eponymous ghost.
And… and that’s it, as it appeared to be 70 pages back. All the baffling complexity of international politics comes down, as it always does in conspiracy theories, to dirty tricks. Everything is explicable, nothing is too difficult to comprehend… all the loose ends are tied up. For me this is summed up in one last bit of jiggery-pokery even Dan Brown would be ashamed of. The truth, apparently, is to be found in the beginning of the original memoirs. (The first ghostwriter knew, but didn’t know how to publish it.) But no, Mike finds out, it’s not the beginning, but beginnings, plural: The first word of each chapter – pay attention – spells out the truth about the PM, his wife, and the Harvard professor. I didn’t find that satisfyingly neat, I found it stupid, and wondered why Harris thought he needed such a preposterous ruse.
But maybe I’m just taking it too seriously. It’s an entertainment, a bit of fun like a James Bond movie or a whodunnit. I suppose with the stakes being so high – a fiction based on a thinly disguised Tony Blair – I’d hoped for something with a bit more oomph.