Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Constant Gardener

Warning - possible spoilers

Two weeks ago, the journal Science published an article claiming that reading literature improves your social skills.  While I generally agree with Neil Gaiman that so-called "fluff" reading has imaginative value, I also take issue with the assumption that genre fiction is fluff.  Some of it is - but some literary fiction is so concerned with being "literary" that the author downplays minor details like plot and characterization, resulting in a book that one can admire, but not really like.  Yes, there's some mediocre (or worse) genre fiction on the market and selling well, but I can't agree that a mystery can't be literature.

My first exhibit?  The Constant Gardner.  It appears to be an action-movie-in-waiting: a well-known espionage novelist, exotic locales, and an unsolved murder.   Lift off the first layer and you'll find an indictment of the modern pharmaceutical industry, and below that a love story in retrospect.  It also takes place largely in the mind of a grieving man, desperate to solve his wife's murder before he too dies violently.

Le Carre's novel starts as a conventional suspense novel.  Sandy Woodrow, a British diplomat in Nairobi, learns that another diplomat's wife has been found, murdered.  Tessa Quayle was, well, a bit of an embarrassment to the embassy; much younger than her undistinguished husband, flirty, and prone to quixotic forays into social justice.  Woodrow and his wife organize the funeral and hide Justin Quayle from the press, both men submit to police questioning about Tessa's life and death, and Justin returns to England.  So far, an ordinary if well-written mystery, highlighted by acidic sketches of domesticity in the diplomatic corps.  Once Justin returns to England, though, The Constant Gardener changes, becoming a more reflective piece which takes place more and more in Justin's mind as he travels through Europe, to Canada, and finally back to Africa, trying both to solve his wife's murder and to complete her mission.

You see, the diplomatic corps had completely misjudged Tessa.  She wasn't a flirt, but deeply in love with Justin (and Justin with her).  Neither was she a quixotic campaigner, but an Oxbridge trained lawyer and human rights campaigner who'd discovered that a promising anti-malarial drug had toxic side effects and that a corner-cutting pharmaceutical company didn't know - or care.  Using Justin's grief to frame the flashbacks, le Carre subtly transforms Tessa Qualye from a shallow dilettante to a fully realized character.  Perhaps she's a bit too "good" (after all, we're seeing her through the memories of her widower), but she's real, too stubborn and perhaps naive to be a saintly victim.  Justin also transforms from a middle-aged, mid-level, mediocrity into a man desperate to complete his wife's quest, even (or perhaps hopefully) at the cost of his own life.

I mentioned above that I believe The Constant Gardner is literature, despite its genre status.  It engaged both my emotions and my intellect more than some classics have (coincidence-heavy Jane Eyre, with the two-dimensional Mr. Rochester, for example).  Le Carre also had a more difficult task than the non-genre novelist, because he had to stay within a framework.  Genre fiction isn't easier than straight fiction - it's harder.  The author has the same duty to use rich language, create engaging characters, and craft a believable plot as any other novelist, but has to do so without violating the genre's rules.  Le Carre succeeded on this level as well.  After finishing the novel, I woke up in the middle of the night.  It wasn't because of a noise outside, or because I was thirsty or uncomfortable - it was because I second-guessed myself on the identity of Tessa's killer.

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