Everything to Fear
Monday, November 5, 2007
By Robert Harris
Simon & Schuster. 335 pp. $26
The narrator of "The Ghost" is a professional ghostwriter whose name is never mentioned -- ghosts don't rate names. After writing books for minor rock stars and aging actors, he is offered a big score. Adam Lang, a British prime minister who left office in disgrace after giving wholehearted support to an unpopular American war, has a $10 million book deal, but the project is in disarray. Lang's collaborator died mysteriously, the manuscript he left behind is unreadable and a deadline looms. Our hero is given an offer he can't refuse: $250,000 to rewrite the book in one month. He is soon off to Martha's Vineyard, where Lang and his wife are holed up in his American publisher's well-fortified mansion.
At the outset, as the deal is being negotiated, Robert Harris satirizes the publishing game, which of course is like shooting fish in a puddle. There's the greedy publisher who, when his author is accused of war crimes, is overjoyed at the prospect of increased sales. And the tweedy, old-school editor who, under new corporate management, "received his orders direct from the head of sales and marketing, a girl of about sixteen." And of course the agent who, when you really need him, is vacationing in a rain forest on Fiji. Harris, also the author of "Fatherland" and "Imperium," is clearly a student of the absurdities and indignities of the writing business.
He's good on politics, too. Adam Lang is handsome, charismatic and unknowable. His sexy and acerbic wife, Ruth, is said to be the brains of the family -- there are hints of the Macbeths in their union. Still, Lang is sleeping with his very efficient and very blond aide, Amelia Bly. Harris contemplates the political world and sees the seductive pleasures of the motorcades and private planes, but also the isolation of leaders, the back-stabbing that surrounds them, and all the muck underfoot. In one scene, as Lang and his entourage exit the Waldorf-Astoria: "The shouts of the reporters, the fusillade of camera shutters, the rumble of the Harley-Davidsons -- it was as if someone had rolled back the doors to hell." Some people see politics that way; others see the gates of paradise.
Harris's story darkens. Lang is accused of having illegally authorized British involvement in the CIA's abduction of four British citizens in Pakistan; one died under torture, and the others wound up in Guantanamo. He's charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Rather than return home to face the charges, Lang stays in the United States, where he's safe because we don't recognize the ICC. Indeed, when he visits Washington he's hailed as a hero by Congress and the unnamed vice president. Meanwhile, our ghostwriter is delving into Lang's past and finding inconvenient facts that don't fit the official story. He's growing increasingly concerned, too, about the previous ghost's mysterious death. Can curiosity kill a ghost? Twice?
All this is told with style and wit. Our narrator notices Lang "looking at me quite differently now: it was as if some electric lightbulb marked 'self-interest' had started to glow behind his eyes." He's talking to Lang's wife and "Over the rim of her glass, her dark eyes gave me one of her double-barreled-shotgun looks." In an American airport: "This is how they'll manage the next holocaust, I thought, as I shuffled forward in my stockinged feet: they'll simply issue us with air tickets and we'll do whatever we're told." Flying into New York, seeing the empty space where the twin towers once rose: "Strange how an absence can be a landmark. It was like a black hole, I thought: a tear in the cosmos. It could suck in anything -- cities, countries, laws; it could certainly swallow me."
For all its fun, "The Ghost" is finally about Guantanamo, rendition, waterboarding, official lies, a Halliburton-like conglomerate called Hallington and a CIA that's not always as inept as we think. Harris is asking at least three serious questions. First, in a conflict in which billions of dollars in cash are floating around the war zone, and more billions can be had from various kinds of corruption, should we be surprised if people who find out too much are murdered? Another question is why a popular British prime minister would commit political suicide by embracing an American war his people hate. The prime minister's own answer is that he believed with all his heart in the necessity of the war. That, however, isn't the answer Harris offers. It's not even close. Finally, he's asking if decent people have a chance against the modern embodiments of Big Brother. By the end of the novel, our nameless narrator recalls George Orwell's Winston at the close of "1984." Neither ending can be called upbeat. Harris has managed to write a superior entertainment that is also an angry portrait of today's political reality. If you don't like the current war or the people who dreamed it up, you'll find nourishment in "The Ghost."