Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Secret Agent

I just finished listening to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent (1907). I was disappointed. Lord Jim and some of his stories show that Conrad could write with tense power about men facing crises, and I expected something like that in a book called The Secret Agent. But this book is not at all tense, and I did not find it powerful. It consists of half a dozen essentially independent character sketches, each showing how one man or woman reacts to a terrorist act. Some of the sketches struck me as perceptive, especially those of two quite different policemen, but none of them really gripped me. The terrorist act seems largely inconsequential, and I just didn't care much about any of the people involved.

The effect of The Secret Agent is to show that what we think of as an "event" is the intersection of the lives of many people, each acting on his or her own motives based on a life history of which the event is only a part, often a small part. Which is intellectually interesting, and I'm sure is a more accurate assessment of the average terrorist act than the sort of hyperbole one gets in contemporary thrillers or Hollywood movies. But it wasn't much fun to read.

No comments: