Friday, 23 December 2011

Reading genre fiction a legitimate reaction to politics

Ever since reading the Millennium Trilogy of Stieg Larsson not so long ago I have been flirting with genre fiction in a way that would not have been likely five years ago. I'm a die-hard literary fiction fan and have been since graduating from science fiction - supplied by my brother, who is two years older than me - back in my teenage years. In my late teens and early twenties I was into Henry Miller and Marquez. I studied arts at university, mainly languages. My fourth-year undergraduate thesis was on the oeuvre of a second-tier Italian novelist of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Italo Svevo. I once made a girl cry by reading in public a poem by High Modernist Italian poet Eugenio Montale. I even write poetry myself. Yet the changes that have taken place in the cultural landscape over the past decade have led me to give genre a try at a time in my life when most people are unlikely to change preferences cemented in their habits from long use. It's not that I felt stale: there's plenty of good literary fiction available nowadays. But I have been more concerned in the past 10 years with politics both local and international. And politics is what thrillers - one of the genres men generally gravitate to - are all about.

Guns, cars and armed mercenaries are the glue that bind together narratives that also involve more 'normal' elements of global malfeasance, such as clandestine documents, secret societies, corrupt government agencies, and venal corporations.

One of the books I've read is Matthew Reilly's Area 7 (2001). The story is full of action of the most extraordinary kind and you think, 'Noone could possibly survive all that stuff in a single day.' No, they couldn't. It's not realistic. The number of times that the hero gets shot at by automatic weapons, and the range of ways that a whole slew of antagonists attempt to kill him, stretch credibility to its utmost extent. But it doesn't really matter. The underlying plot elements are believeable. There's a new virus made in China. The US government at its secret Air Force base in Utah has developed an antidote. The thing about this virus is that it's engineered only to kill Caucasians and blacks. A shadowy group of Air Force officers which holds racist views wants to bring down the government and return to pre-Civil War days. There's also a South African group that wants the virus in order to control Africa. Then there's the Chinese who want world domination. Geopolitics was never this neat, but the underlying motivations are not just hot air.

The book I'm reading is by Allan Folsom and it's called The Hadrian Memorandum (2009). Here it's the CIA working in a loose league with a mid-sized Texas oil firm to control a massive new oil discovery in West Africa. There are Russian agents involved also. The hero teams up with an employee of the oil firm, a woman, who had been following him. Now their destinies are tied together. Action migrates from Equitorial Guinea to Paris to Germany to Portugal.

Such stories respond to the same parts of our psyche that is engaged by the current WikiLeaks drama. They recognise in a material form that politics is often about money, or racism, or the lust for power. They also recognise and talk to us about the nexus between corporations and government. They tell us that there are men and women who are prepared to kill to achieve their goals. They illustrate ideas about extrajudicial murder carried out by governments. In short, they talk about things beyond the experience of most people that are credible because of the existence of real stories that have been told in the media. In a sense, also, they confirm for us the failure of media in the face of 'spin' to tell us the whole truth about what political actors get up to on a daily basis.

When a US Army armed helicopter is allowed to kill scores of people in the street, when evidence of that is made public and the US government does everything possible to take revenge on the people responsible for its publication, when politicians call for the assassination of those people, then the sweet lies a Folsom or a Reilly tell seem innocent indeed. The pleasure you get from reading a thriller is about innocence as well as guilt. Not just the innocence of the characters who are shot at from passing cars in a Lisbon street at night, but your own innocence and the peace that you keep daily as you go about your business in the streets around your home and workplace and commercial district. Rather than saying that the world's fucked up, these books tell you that you are OK and that life is good. That's not an insignificant outcome and I, for one, will keep reading thrillers for the moment.

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