Through the Looking-Glass: Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry

Asymmetry is Lisa Halliday’s debut novel and she is clearly a writer to watch.

The novel begins with a meet cute. Alice is a recent college graduate who works in publishing in New York. She is reading in the park when a man, much older, sits down beside her with an ice cream cone from the Mister Softee truck. Alice knows immediately who he is: Ezra Blazer, Pulitzer-but-not-yet-Nobel-prize winning writer of a series of famous and influential books. (Blazer is clearly modeled on Philip Roth, with whom Halliday was at one time apparently involved. The most preposterous thing in the book is that people whose lives his books have changed keep recognizing him; surely that doesn’t happen even to Roth.)

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Blazer tells her a middlingly funny joke and invites her over. In no time at all they are having just-a-little-bit-disappointing sex (gingerly because of his back), and watching baseball (it is 2004 and Alice is a Red Sox fan, much to Ezra’s disgust). Alice is something between personal assistant and girlfriend, running by Zabar’s to get Ezra’s favourite brand of preserves. He gives her things, some little (a sheet of stamps with the portraits of the Tin Pan Alley songwriters he introduces her to, various CDs, a wallet), some not (he pays off her student loans). He invents a persona for her (complete with fake business cards), passing her off as Samantha Bargeman, his research assistant, so that she can join him at his summer place. He gives her books to read.

It’s a May-December romance. Well, not really. She is part caretaker, part lover. He is on the verge of failing health, all colonoscopies and forgetfulness. It’s a bit tender and a bit not. It’s a Pygmalion story. Alice is lucky. Alice is put upon. Alice is being used. Alice is some kind of man’s fantasy:

Sweetheart,” he said. “I can’t wear a condom. Nobody can.”

“Okay.”

“So what are we going to do about diseases?”

“Well, I trust you, if you—“

“You shouldn’t trust anyone. What if you become pregnant?”

“Oh don’t worry about that. I’d have an abortion.”

Before too long, in other words, readers are likely to feel disquieted, indignant, uncomfortable, or worse about the relationship. Ezra is kind of funny and kind of wise but he’s also kind of insufferable. In the hospital after being beset by chest pains, Ezra watches spellbound as a couple across the cubicle lay hands on each other and pray to Jesus: “he could never get enough of humanity, so long as it slept in another room.”

This tart observation is Alice’s—the first third of the book is focalized through her. Clearly, Alice isn’t just a push-over. In fact, the book is more complicated and stranger than I’ve made it out to be. Take the opening. I said Alice was sitting on a park bench, reading. Here’s how it actually begins:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of all this sitting by herself with nothing to do: every so often she tried again to read the book in her lap, but it was made up almost exclusively of long paragraphs, and no quotation marks whatsoever, and what is the point of a book, thought Alice, that does not have any quotation marks.

That opening clause carries the suggestion that Alice is restless, ready for something to happen. Is she waiting for someone like Ezra? Has she conjured him? The preciousness of Alice’s impatience with literary pretension sounds like something from a beloved, twee, almost certainly English children’s book. If Alice’s name weren’t clue enough, the epigraph to the first section—revealingly entitled “Folly—is from Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice. (Her last name is Dodge, too, pretty close to Dodgson.) From the beginning, Halliday is taking us down a rabbit hole. But it takes a long time to figure out just how intricate are its twists.

I can’t talk about the book anymore without revealing some secrets. They aren’t crime-fiction-whodunit secrets, but they explain what makes the book unusual and interesting. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

When Ezra plumps down beside her, she is wondering—“somewhat foolishly, for she was not very good at finishing things”—“whether one day she might even write a book herself.” And Alice does.

But we don’t know that until the end of the book, in a short section that is a transcript of Blazer’s appearance on the BBC radio program Desert Island Discs. Asked whether he has ever suffered from depression, Blazer starts riffing on how nations and economies can suffer depression, finding his way into a screed about the complacency of American power. Then he says:

A young friend of mine has written a rather surprising little novel about this, in its way. About the extent to which we’re able to penetrate the looking-glass [WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT ALICE?] and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own. It’s a novel that on the surface would seem to have nothing to do with its author, but in fact is as kind of veiled portrait of someone determined to transcend her provenance, her privilege, her naiveté.

This information is slipped into a section that serves to amplify whatever reservations we have may had about Ezra. With increasing desperation and lack of self-consciousness he attempts to seduce the radio host, and his chutzpah sheds itself of the last vestiges of any charm. But readers of the book—as opposed to listeners to the program—will seize on the information, because it explains the second part of the book, titled “Madness”, which seems to have nothing to do with what’s come before and what comes after. “Madness” tells the story of Amar Jafaari, an Iraqi American, an economist, who is held by immigration officials at Heathrow on his way to visit his brother, a doctor, in Kurdistan. Amar reflects on his childhood visits to family in Iraq, in the schism in the family caused by his brother’s decision to return to Iraq, and his despairing feelings, shared by everyone in his extended family, of how much worse and less safe American intervention has made life. Halliday works brilliantly on our latent prejudices. The authorities refuse to allow Amar to enter the UK, and we keep wondering, despite all the evidence to the contrary, whether they know something we don’t. Could this intelligent, polite, and thoughtful young man be a threat? Is he part of some kind of terror plot?

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The answer is no (though that doesn’t stop British officials have detaining him in airport immigration limbo until he can get on a flight to Turkey), but the point is that we’ve wondered. The epistemological uncertainty of this moment is encapsulated in a bizarre scene in which Amar is forced to undergo a medical examination even though there is nothing wrong with him. Everything in the immigration scenes feels threatening, deadening boredom adding to rising indignation. Even more amazing than these scenes in the airport are those set in Iraq and Kurdistan, in which Halliday shows the increasing despair of Iraqis, the way they begin to take precautions like never taking the same route home or to work; to this she adds the surreal parallel life of foreign reporters and NGO officials, where drunken pool parties manifest the heartbreak and cynicism that comes from reporting on others’ suffering.

Amar’s section—which resonates with Alice’s in all kinds of small ways: remember that exchange between Ezra and Alice about what would happen if she got pregnant? Well, Amar remembers accompanying a college friend to get an abortion—feels vivid, relevant, and plain old interesting. I feel like I know Ezra’s history (he explains it to the BBC radio host). And I feel like I know Alice’s world, and can imagine it intersecting with Ezra’s. But I don’t know much of anything about Amar’s (though I understand, in a much milder, safer, and more privileged way, Amar’s frightening and frustrating experiences with immigration officials).

Because Ezra and Alice’s worlds were familiar to me, I was able to note something a little destabilizing in Halliday’s portrayals of them—the way we were meant to see how Alice wasn’t only undermined or oppressed by Ezra, for example. But I don’t have a comparable seismograph for reading Amar’s story. Which is part of the point. My readiness to find Amar’s story not exotic—Halliday is too sophisticated for that—but fascinating because foreign is built into the novel. Maybe I find Amar’s story so fascinating and plausible because it fits with little snippets of things I’ve heard on NPR or read in the New York Times. Maybe I’m just congratulating myself on encountering foreignness, on expanding my readerly horizons.

Literature is good at introducing us to foreign worlds. But I think what Halliday is doing here is asking us to think about what we mean when we say that. In that sense, her book can be taken as an intelligent contribution to the anxious debate about cultural appropriation: as Ezra puts it, it suggests we can “penetrate the looking-glass and imagine a life, indeed a consciousness, that goes some way to reduce the blind spots in our own.” (The specific looking-glass here is the one-way mirror Amar knows is there in the immigration holding area but which he cannot see.) Ezra goes on to add that this portrait of the other, no matter how convincing and flattering to our liberal sensibilities, is really a disguised portrait of the self, such that any encounter with otherness might be deemed impossible.

That’s a compelling reading, but Ezra is shown to be such a fraud, or at least, such a pain in the ass, that I don’t think we should take it at face value. I think Halliday believes we can learn something from the stories of others as long as we don’t start congratulating ourselves for it, as long as we don’t forget that what we are seeing as the other might just be a version of what we’ve been told to see (which isn’t quite the same as seeing only ourselves).

In this way we come to see the justness of Halliday’s title. She isn’t just referencing the odd, unbalanced, only tangentially connected structure of her narrative. Asymmetry inheres not just in art but also in life. The relationship between the west and the rest, and between those who have and those who don’t is anything but balanced. The connection between art and life arises, for this novel, in the idea of storytelling. Whose story gets to be told? Whose stories are finished and whose are left hanging?

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The other asymmetrical relationship important to the book is the one between men and women. If anything is clear in this slippery book it is its indictment of white male privilege. Ezra isn’t as charming as thinks: his avuncularity is a mask for a pretty ruthless narcissism that requires that he fascinate women all out of proportion to the quality of his character. Halliday deftly makes us turn against Ezra.

But even as I admired her skill here—she never casts aspersions on his work, for example; too many people are doing that these days with Roth—I was troubled by her example of insufferable male privilege. Ezra doesn’t just happen to be Jewish; his Jewishness is at times part of what the book finds irritating about him. It’s true that a disproportionate number of the most prominent abusers who have come to light in the past year or so are Jewish. And in my opinion Jewish men need to have a reckoning about their masculinity and how it’s tied to some dangerous ideas about authority. But I don’t think this book is enabling that conversation. I don’t think it’s interesting enough about Jewishness, except to tie it in a careless way to Ezra’s (and by extension, through his friends and acquaintances and the cultural institutions they are shown to have built, to his generation’s) carelessness and entitlement.

That aspect of the novel disturbed me. But I liked how it kept evading my grasp. When we say a book is slippery we often mean it is confusing or that it is cutely self-referential. But this slipperiness is as thorough going as it is thought provoking. I’ll read her next book with interest.

 

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My Life in Books

Hope Coulter, my colleague in the English Department at Hendrix and Director of the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation Programs in Language in Literature, invited me to give a talk in a new series of lunchtime conversations called My Life in Books. Here’s an only slighted revised version of what I presented today. People seemed to like the talk; we had a good discussion afterward. I wrote this pretty quickly, as you’ll be able to tell; it’s a little rough. I’d to revise it further, and I welcome your suggestions.

Somewhere in my house I have a thin little book I’ve carried around with me for many years. I don’t remember when I got this book, probably I was around 8 or 9. The name of this book is The Smartest Bear in the World and His Brother Oliver. It’s by Alice Bach, who it turns out—I only learned this yesterday, never having been in the slightest curious about the author before—has had a long and distinguished career as a feminist biblical scholar, in addition to having written twenty children’s books.

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Of those many books, this one dates from 1975 and my copy—which I wanted to bring today but could not find despite having ransacked the house—included wonderful, shaggy illustrations by Steven Kellogg.

The gist is this: Ronald is very smart bear. He has a set of encyclopedias that he is reading from A-Z because he wants to learn everything. But he has a problem: it’s fall, winter is coming, it will soon be time for bears to hibernate and his family just wants him to eat all the time. Ronald isn’t that interested in eating—it’s fine, but it keeps him from reading. He’s not like his brother Oliver—Oliver loves eating. (There are these wonderful pictures of the bears tucking into giant stacks of pancakes smothered in syrup.)

It’s hard to learn everything when you have to sleep for almost half the year. So Ronald makes a plan. This year he will only pretend to go to sleep with his family. Once the others fall asleep he will stay up all winter, and have many glorious months of uninterrupted reading time. He imagines he’ll be reading about zebras when his family wakes up in the spring.

You can probably see where things are heading. Ronald’s plan is foiled—he can’t help himself; he’s a bear, after all—and when the rest of his family tuck themselves under heaping piles of down-filled comforters he gets sleepy too. But everything turns out fine—he learns that he doesn’t have to do everything at once, that the encyclopedia will be waiting for him come spring, and that his brother Oliver—his sticky, always-eating-young-chef-in-the-making brother Oliver, who is so much more like a normal bear than Ronald—isn’t so bad.

In other words: moderation in all things and tolerance for people who are different from us, even people who don’t like to read.

To which I say: what a terrible message!

By no means is this the greatest kids book ever written, nor was it the book I loved most as a child. But I did read it over and over again, stopping occasionally as I did so to glance up at my own set of encyclopedias, mostly unread. And it has stayed with me as an adult, maybe because I’ve refused to take its lesson.

To this day there is a part of me—a not insignificant part of me—that believes I could read the encyclopedia from front to back. And believes, even more grandiosely, that I could read everything. Even that I should read everything.

You can guess how well that’s going.

Maybe for some people reading is a pastime. They like it, they don’t like it, whatever: it might be important to them but it causes them no anxiety or neuroses at all. This is hard for me to get my head around. I don’t mean to say that I find no pleasure in reading; I find a lot. But I also find a burden, an endless task connected to some totally unhelpful ideas of mastery. At its best the idea that you’ll read everything is motivated by insatiable curiosity. At its worst, though, it’s motivated by narcissism and egomania. No hibernation for me!

*

When I first heard the title Professor Coulter gave to this series—My Life in Books—I immediately thought: but that’s redundant! My life, books, these are the same thing—totally synonymous. I can’t imagine my life without books.

But of course it’s important that life and books aren’t quite the same. It’s impossible for me to imagine being able to live life—and to make sense of life—without books, but the point is that books have to be different from life. We need fake things to understand real things. (Even non-fiction is “fake” in this sense—not that it tells lies but that it represents—every book has to frame the truth it tells, and that framing is the distance between art and life.)

But I don’t just experience the book-life distinction as a theoretical matter. For me it’s also psychological, even embodied. As a pretty highly introverted person—a person for whom being around others takes more energy than it gives (it is not an easy thing for such a person to be a college professor, by the way)—I need time away from the world. I need to fill up my emotional tank, which runs dry pretty quickly.

So in addition to being objects to conquer, books have always served a second important function in my life: they’re a way to hide from the world. “Leave me alone, I’m reading,” as the title of book critic Maureen Corrigan’s memoir has it. Often, when I am having, or even on the brink of having, a difficult or intense conversation with someone, I can feel myself needing a book. If one is nearby I’ll pick it up, hold it, steal a few glances at it. We sometimes speak of books as demanding—“Ulysses is a demanding book”—but even the most demanding book has never demanded anything of me the way other people do.

Reflecting on these roles books have played in my life—as a way to define myself, as a challenge to set myself, as a tool to help me manage a world that often seems so clamorous—I wonder if I’m able to have a healthy, neutral, or, best of all, purely joyful, relationship to books. Is my relationship to books—one of the two most important relationships in my life—a good one? Is it good for me?

I think being a professional reader—and someone who teaches others to read—is both a wonderful and a terrible choice for me to have made. (If it’s even a choice: fate might be a better word.)

As I sit with this ambivalence, I’m led to think again about The Smartest Bear in the World and his Brother Oliver. Maybe its lesson isn’t so bad after all. Ronald learns that his passion doesn’t need to be his neurosis. I’m working on that too, but maybe my lesson is actually different from Ronald’s. My lesson might be about hungering for books—about needing (and wanting) to devour them. And about accepting that need. My lesson might be that I am just as much Oliver as I am Ronald. Maybe part of me is a gourmand of books not just the professor of books. I’m working, not on being the smartest bear in the world—that sounds pretty terrible, actually—but on learning to eat, and then sleep. I’m learning to hibernate.

Two Superior Spy Thrillers

Does anyone remember the movie Crank from 2006? Jason Stratham plays a hit man injected with a poison that will kill him if his heart rate drops. What follows is 90 minutes of preposterous enjoyment, and a master class in narrative efficiency. There is no goal; there is only go. The movie barely has a beginning, and who knows what the end is (it’s telling that I can’t remember, because even more than most narratives this ending must undo all that’s come before). Instead it’s all middle, just one set piece after another of ingenious contrivances designed to keep the character’s—and the viewer’s—heart pounding.

I thought of Crank when reading Lionel Davidson’s terrific thriller Kolymsky Heights (1994). Davidson’s novel is more sophisticated, but like the now mostly forgotten movie it reducing narrative to its essentials. What’s really amazing is that Kolymsky does so over almost 500 pages, not a single one of which is wasted. The book gets its hooks into you from the beginning and doesn’t let go. That’s true even when it does something unorthodox, like taking until page 60 to introduce us to the hero.

And what an interesting hero he is. Jean-Baptiste Porteur is known as Johnny Porter. He is a Gitskan Indian from the Skeena River area of Northern British Columbia. (How timely and exciting to have an Indigenous protagonist., one whose indigeneity is central to his success—and not because he’s “in tune with the land” or some such nonsense but because he can speak so many languages.) Porter is a linguistic genius, having as a child already mastered several Native languages from the region, including Tsimshean, “a language so unique that linguists had been unable to relate it to any other on earth.” Later he is sent to a mission school (the horrors of which are glossed over—I’d like to think a book written today wouldn’t do so), where he learns English and French. Porter begins studying at two prestigious Canadian universities—studies interrupted by a sojourn in Russia—before completing his degree and winning a Rhodes scholarship.

Porter is back in Canada pursuing legal claims against the Canadian government when he is approached by an Englishman named Lazenby, who has received a coded message from a research station in Siberia that no one in the West knows the purpose of. Lazenby, who is the character we follow for the first 60 pages, reaches out to a former student now working for British secret services and the CIA; agents from these institutions are the ones who tap Porter as the only person able to get into Siberia, penetrate the defenses of the research station, and return. Lazenby flies to Northern British Columbia, makes his case to Porter, and exits the novel. Porter, phlegmatic, bemused, and interested despite himself, meets with the CIA and takes the case.

What follows is a gloriously ingenious journey via Japan and a Korean ship through the Northwest Passage into the heart of Siberia. Porter disguises himself as a member of the Chukchee people (he speaks the language, as well as related ones such as Evenk), going by the name of Kolya Khodyan. He gets a job at a transport company in the Green Cape along the Kolyma River (where earlier in the century many of the Gulags had been located) and patiently waits for his chance to sneak into the top-secret research facility. (This involves befriending the local Medical Officer, with whom he enters a relationship much more touching, plausible, and non-exploitative than the ones you usually find in spy novels.) The best parts of the novel detail the winter transportation routes across Siberia, mostly along frozen rivers in jeep-like vehicles called bobiks. (Kolymsky Heights has good maps and if you’re anything like me you will refer to them over and over.)

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I pretty much loved everything about Kolymsky Heights. Particularly intriguing is the absence of any references that would allow us to date the events. The events of 1991 are never mentioned, though I suppose they are indirectly alluded to in the increasing national/ethnic self-consciousness of the indigenous peoples of the north (though this is always accompanied by contempt/casual racism by whites, a fact Porter uses to his benefit, in that people are always underestimating him because they think he is “just” a Chukchee or an Evenk). I take the book to be set around the time of its writing, that is, in an interim period in which the Cold War is taken by many to be over but Russia remains an enemy, though of what kind it isn’t quite clear.

That uncertainty might explain why the mystery at the ostensible heart of the book—what is the going on at that underground research station?—isn’t the usual Cold War fare. The Russians don’t have a terrible new weapon that threatens humanity, for example. This mystery is much more intellectual, even ontological, concerning what it means to be a human being. (A question which, frankly, was answered in a more profound manner in the labour camps strewn across the whole area in which this book is set and which were just being closed at the time of its publication.) All mysteries have an easier time building up suspense than resolving it, and if there is any weakness to this novel it’s with the scenario Porter uncovers at the research station. I had a hard time really caring about the Big Reveal. But I cared a lot about how Porter was going to break into that place and then get out again. Porter’s escape through the blizzards of the Siberian winter is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever read.

A vivid evocation of a particular time and place is one of the things that links Kolymsky Heights to a thriller I read a few weeks later: Joseph Hone’s The Private Sector (1971). But that’s about the only thing these books have in common. If Kolymsky Heights reminded me of Crank, The Private Sector is, oh, I don’t know, Antonioni maybe. The Private Sector is not particularly suspenseful (though the last thirty pages or so really pick up the pace; it turns out this is the first in a four-book series and you can tell Hone is playing the long game). Nor is its presentation of events always clear. Hone is fond of shifts in perspective and time that are at times so oblique that I had read a few pages before I noticed what had happened. And the story itself is much more complicated than in Kolymsky Heights. In Davidson’s book, we know what the hero is trying to do; the suspense lies in seeing whether he will be able to, and how, exactly he will accomplish it. In Hone’s, not even the protagonist (no heroes here) is sure what he’s meant to do. This is the world of triple agents and double crossings familiar to me from the little amount of John le Carré I’ve read.

But whereas most spy fiction takes the transience of its characters for granted—having nothing to say about it beyond fetishizing the freedom of its invariably male protagonists from the clutter of bourgeois life—Hone makes this situation into an existential dilemma for his characters, all of whom have hybrid identities that complicate their work for British intelligence. Marlow, the central figure, is born in Ireland but grows up in England. He meets Henry Edwards—who first recruits him into intelligence work and whom he is now, many years later, assigned to track down—at a private school in post-Suez Cairo, where both are teachers. Edwards has grown up in Egypt, as has Bridget, the woman whom by the time of the narrative present he has become involved with and who happens to be Marlow’s ex-wife. It’s all very complicated and it doesn’t make it easier that all the male characters have first-name surnames. (Their control back in London is named Williams.)

What Kolymsky Heights does for the cold, The Private Sector does for heat and humidity in pre-air conditioning Cairo. Hone vividly describes how the heat sends everyone underground, holing up by day and timidly venturing forth at night. I was reminded of Olivia Manning’s descriptions of Egypt in the first volume of the Levant Trilogy, which I read a few years back and unaccountably didn’t finish. (If you haven’t read The Balkan Trilogy yet, stop reading this post and do so immediately. These two books are fantastic, but they’re no Balkan Trilogy.)

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All of which is to say that Nassar’s Egypt in May 1967, rushing into a war with Israel that, in Hone’s telling at least, it has no real interest in, is more than just an exotic locale. It is home to most of the characters even though almost none of them think of it that way. They think of themselves as from England, a place most of them have spent very little time in. Though less overtly uninterested in the locals than many novels set in expatriate or colonial/Pieds-Noir communities—an Egyptian colonel, in particular, is an important and appealing character—The Private Sector is still almost entirely about Westerners. That’s certainly a limitation, but I found its depiction of colonials living on in the wake of decolonization fascinating.

Here, for example, is Marlow describing Henry Edwards’s particular tribe, those Englishmen who had grown up in Egypt, would never be Egyptian, yet are highly attuned to it:

[T]hey were natural seismographs alive to its [Cairo’s] smallest tremors. They had not always been happy there; so much the more were they bound to it: they had lived a real life in the city, had given nothing false to it, in every minute passed there. Their dreams of elsewhere, of rain, of ploughed fields, sloes in the hedgerow or London Transport, were as unreal as mine would have been for sun and coral, and clear blue water. The known years spent in a landscape never tie us to it, the marked calendar from which we can stand back and reflect or think of change; we are bound to a place by the unconscious minutes and seconds lost there, which is not measurable time or experience, and from which there is no release.

You can see what I mean when I say Hone isn’t exactly easy going. His narrator is always stepping back from the action to offer these sorts of reflections. With its sophisticated syntax and complex ideas, this passage is typical. Our dreams, Hone suggests, are always of elsewhere. For him dreams are conscious things, meditations that fill our days even as we ignore our surroundings. But it turns out we’re not really ignoring them. We might think we know where we’re from—after all, we do live “real” lives, we do give ourselves over to the place where we live, it’s not that we are living in bad faith all the time—but we’re tied to the place of our history by something deeper than what we can know. We can’t even measure these experiences, but nor can we get rid of them. Most of time, this passage tells us, we live in clichés (sloes in the hedgerow or coral in a clear sea) when what really matters is happening to us unannounced.

I don’t cite this passage in order to say that Hone transcends the thriller genre, because I don’t think genres need to be transcended. They exert a hold on us for a reason. (If we’re going to wish them away we should do so in the spirit of true freedom and gleeful destruction, as Tom does, rather than as a covert way to uphold literary fiction as the standard for all writing.) Better to say that Hone’s book is both a very good spy story—though for pure excitement it’s got nothing on Davidson’s—and a thoughtful meditation on belonging. Although Marlow is thinking in this passage about belonging to nations or cities—about England and Egypt, London and Cairo—in the end the book pursues the idea most intensely in terms of the intelligence community. What allegiances do we owe to institutions that pursue their work by breaking allegiances—that is, by spying? Given its—to me, completely unexpected—ending, it’s clear Hone will have more to say about this question in the rest of the series.

*

Maybe the best thing about these wonderful books is the serendipitous way I came across them. I found Kolymsky Heights the old-fashioned way: browsing in a good bookstore, in this case Bridge Street Books in Washington, D.C. I’d never heard of Davidson, but I knew I was on to a good thing when, a day or two later, I had the good fortune to finally meet face to face with Eric Passaglia at an evening with several bloggers and book lovers organized by the inimitable Frances. (Eric has no blog, sadly, but you should follow him on Twitter.) Eric sang Davidson’s in a way that made me wonder yet again how it was I had never run across him before. The book Eric had with him that night was by Joseph Hone (I can’t remember if it was The Private Sector or one of the later ones) and he described him so appealingly that I tracked the book down at the library as soon as I returned home. Serendipity, then, and the reassurance that comes from a trusted source’s recommendation (which is what independent bookstores at their best can do): that’s how I came across these two books. I’m here to pass on the love. If you have even the least interest in spy thrillers, you should read Davidson and Hone without delay.