Suspending Disbelief

Milan Kundera observed somewhere or other that one of the key things fiction does is ask the reader to suspend their disbelief. Three books I’ve read over the summer push that ask a little too far.

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews is a cold-war spy thriller set in contemporary times. The idea is that Dominika, a ballet dancer, is coerced into becoming an operative who specializes in honey-traps – i.e., using sex as a means of doing whatever needs to be done with targets. To become this, she is sent to the Sparrow school where she’s taught… well, other than watch porn and be fucked by any and all, we’re not quite sure what she’s taught. She graduates with flying colours and is sent to entrap an American agent who’s running a highly placed mole. This entails a whole lot of nastiness, the end result being that no one is happy and several die.

The author was a CIA spy, but experience that should be an asset, isn’t. The descriptions of spy craft come across as if he’s trying to avoid giving away too many secrets; the notion that there’s a school where women are sent to become skilled seductresses comes across as an old man’s masturbatory fantasy; the idea that a woman who had been coerced into this would be any good at it is laughable, and the idea that an uncle would be the one coercing is obscene. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t doubt that there are some women who enjoy sex and because it’s for the country would be great Sparrows – but Dominika isn’t one of them. Add to this characters that go from two-dimensional to near parody, and I’d stopped believing the fantasy less than half the way through. (The film, which I stumbled across on a flight, was even less engaging – though the ending was cleverer than the book’s.)

Jo Nesbo makes no pretention to reality in his latest Harry Hole crime thriller, The Thirst – and it shows. The bullshit detector was past the amber light less than fifty pages in, and rattling on red by the time we’d found out that we have a killer who puts steel dentures over his teeth and bites his victims to death. To compensate for the fundamental implausibility of this, we get some pseudo-science (the human jaw, we are told, can bite down with a force of 70kg – but kilograms are a measure of mass, not force), we get an elaborate pseudo-psychology, and the usual Harry Hole distractions of alcohol and potted histories of the victims.

The other Harry Hole book(s – I’m not sure how many I’ve read) have at least had some measure of “yeah, that could just about happen in the country with the world’s lowest murder rate,” but not this one – and it isn’t to do with Oslo. Humans are carnivores. Our teeth are evolved to pierce and tear flesh. We don’t need steel dentures, and dentures sharp enough to make the piercing and tearing easy would leave the serial killer with a tongue in shreds. His isn’t. Bullshit detector on 100%. End of story.

Thus, by the time I pulled Dana Stabenow’s Silk and Song off the shelf, I wanted something nice to read, and the premise was kind of cool: in the early 14th century, Marco Polo’s granddaughter, Johanna, sets off on an adventure that leads her from Cambulac (modern Beijing) to Europe and England.

There were two problems with this saga. The first was that, by the last quarter, the author had run out of plot, so relied instead on incident. Not once, but twice, Johanna and her followers rescue prisoners from heavily fortified keeps – yet though she and her band face mortal threats, they never seem to be in danger.

But the real problem is that there are too many cultural blunders. There’s an extensive bibliography, but the author has Muslims in Kashgar face to the East when they pray, where in Kashgar, they face south west (Muslims face Mecca to pray). A Persian sheik plays a major part in the story, but Persia has no sheiks  because sheik is an Arabic word – and, at one point, she has 14th century Persians speaking Farsi, which is the modern language and very different to the Persian of that era. Tauregs make an appearance, but Tauregs come from the south west of the Sahara and – look at a map – their tribal lands are just too far away.

And then there was the writing. The point of view could change twice in a page, and the copy-editing was lousy. These are from two successive short paragraphs (p. 146):

The risky desert journey had paid off an excellent profit for them all…

… the journey had paid off in good traded to their advantage

That’s the same wording, twice within one column inch. Here’s another, on p. 109:

Persian, Jew, Turgesh, Sogdia, Persian

No, that wasn’t a typo by me. Persian is mentioned twice in the same list.

All of which is a shame, because I wanted the book to work. But, like the other two books, it was set in an exotic location, and that location was too riddled with nonsense to keep my disbelief suspended. Jason Matthew transposes Soviet-era spying into this century, and still has characters rely on some easy-to-find clunky short-wave radio: no way. Nesbo has a killer with dentures sharp enough to pierce human skin twice (the external skin and the artery wall), yet his mouth isn’t full of lacerations; Stabenow sets her novel in an age of random, barbarous cruelty, yet never once is any of the main characters hurt.

It’s a shame these authors don’t seem to have read sci-fi/fantasy. Frank Herbert’s Dune, J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, even Anne MacCaffrey’s DragonWorld are all more believable other planets than these three books set on this one.