John Le Carre’s new novel, A Legacy of Spies—his 24th!—is due out September 5th; and I can’t wait. I’ve read a number of reviews, and they only make me more eager to get my hands on it. When summing up, the reviews I’ve read talk a good deal about how Le Carre’s books fit into and inform our popular understanding of the Cold War—and how this latest goes back over that ground to assess what it is, and what we gained, if anything. Ned Resnikoff’s piece in ThinkProgress is superb.
On the one hand, during the Cold War, the “enemy” is implacable, inscrutable, and ruthless. On the other, we have to confront what we become in opposing it. As the head of the Circus, Control, notes to Alec Leamus in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: “I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?” Le Carre’s work evokes a world that’s not about good vs. evil, or light vs. dark, but about those who toil in the penumbra. Legacy examines what we did, why we did it, and whether we gained anything by it.
Which brings us to today, and the forces we confront. Oliver Sachs has said the object is always “to write–intelligently, creatively, evocatively–about what it’s like living in the world at this time.”
So what is it like to write now, post Cold War, when the world is atomized, hued rather than shaded, and (for all its bluster) nuanced?
Today, we see the growth of authoritarianism even among nations with a democratic pedigree and wonder how, why? Edward Luce’s book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, has much to say on this point. Harry Cheadle interviews Luce in Vice (from May).
Though he doesn’t use the term in the interview, Luce describes what political scientists call “constitutional order” breaking down across the world, not just in the US, and not merely with regard to standards and tenets of the Constitution, but in the myriad ways people express and uphold their understanding of right and wrong, of what can and can’t be done. The rhetoric and actions, the divisions between left and right become ever more stark and severe. Hostility reigns. The ideal of moderation or compromise—even just getting along—seems increasingly problematic. Those taking sides feel that normal politics—that which constituted their understanding of how the world works—has failed, and they must win absolutely. How did we get here? We got here the way we get anywhere: one step at a time.
I started this literary journey some 20 years ago. When I first fully understood the workings of the Electoral College, I found it disturbing, ripe for mischief. The broad outlines of a conspiracy to upend the supposed result quickly took form. But who would do such a thing? I asked myself.
Even twenty years ago, those with wealth, position and power saw that the then-current constitutional order didn’t allow them to do what they wanted, and they grew impatient. They’d tried buying candidates, tried influencing elections, but the constitutional order was too diffuse (or too robust). Then, they tried motivating and mobilizing discontent from outside the parties in groups the parties had to address. This was movement politics of a kind, but only insofar as it articulated opposition. Those in the various movements weren’t a political party, so there was no ideology at work, only a petulant, reactionary reflex. This opposition meant that a group who could stoke the sense of aggrievement needed only to demonstrate their agreement in order to subvert order and exercise control. They can’t command a majority, but as the only seeming power in amongst the squabbling, they would be able to issue central directives beneficial to them and have them executed—an authoritarianism without ideas.
I won’t claim I saw all of this twenty years ago, but I worried about what I saw (and see) happening, and I wrote about it. I wanted to examine how a well-heeled, anti-democratic force might rise to power. Faithless Elector was the product.
Over the years, some 40 agents and editors rejected Faithless Elector. Those who were kind enough to write something more than “thank you, no, this is not right for us” (one had a rubber stamp which said just that) praised the writing, the characters, but all said something like “too obscure,” or “too improbable,” or “no one knows anything about the Electoral College, much less how it could be manipulated.” It isn’t obscure now; they know now. And the petulant class is closer to cementing its power.
This is the world we’re in now, the world writers must intelligently, creatively, evocatively confront. It’s the world my characters inhabit. It’s the world Imogen Trager and Duncan Calder push back against. In Faithless Elector, Calder tumbles to the fact that the conspirators can’t be from within either major party; in Dark Network, Imogen grows concerned about what the extra-judicial methods she uses to expose the conspirators and collaborators means for her own principals.
Taken together, the books—Faithless Elector, Dark Network and Consent of the Governed—aren’t meant as prophecy. And it’s not that the conflict is coming, but that it’s here, and we’ve very nearly lost. My work is about ordinary people risking their lives, toiling to uphold and preserve the constitutional order.
James McCrone is the author of Faithless Elector, a suspense-thriller. Publishers Weekly calls it a “fast-moving topical thriller.” Its “surprising twists add up to a highly suspenseful read.” Kirkus Review says it’s “A gripping and intelligently executed political drama.” The second Imogen Trager novel, Dark Network, will be available October 20.