Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Ghost, by Robert Harris

I've always thought Robert Harris writes great historical fiction/thrillers. Fatherland is a creepy alternative-universe story about a world in which Hitler was not defeated; it's also a detective story--a police procedural at that. Enigma (hate that movie tie-in cover; alas) is about the code breakers in England during World War II; I believe Alan Turing was one of the code breakers and that he appears in the novel as well. Harris has also written a couple of nonfiction works--the one I read is Selling Hitler, which is about the Hitler diary forgeries/scandal of the early 1980s. That's also a fascinating book. Oh, and he wrote Pompeii and Imperium, the first of which, in conjunction with HBO's series Rome (one of my all-time favorite TV shows), caused me to read fanatically about ancient Rome, Pompeii, Caesar, and so forth. I even went to the Field Museum to see the Pompeii exhibit there. Anyway, all of this is to say that I'm a Robert Harris fan and that I like his thrillers; they're fun to read and they're intelligent.

The Ghost, his latest, takes place in a world similar to our own in which a ghostwriter (who refers to himself as a ghost and who, I think, never tells us his name) is hired to help write the memoirs of the (fictional) former British prime minister Adam Lang. As the ghost becomes more involved with the book, he starts to uncover a scandal. The prime minister is obviously a Tony Blair figure, and the book seems in part an exercise in speculation about why a relatively sane figure like Blair would throw in his hat with the Americans in the Iraq war. Blair suffered profoundly in England for his alliance with GWBIII, and the character of Adam Lang suffers as well. I won't say more of the plot other than to say that the speculation perhaps goes a bit far but that I found the book very engaging.

It's neat to have a ghostwriter as a main character, and I liked the passages where the narrator discusses the craft of ghostwriting, the processes he uses and so forth. The ghost talks a lot about how he "creates" life stories with his subjects--how, along with the subject, he decides on the kind of tale to tell. It's an interesting way to think about the complicated relationship between fiction, memory, and memoirs. The book also asks us to contemplate the relationship between politics and ghostwriting, and the made-upness of all political "personalities," and to see both writing and politics as fields in which stories/narratives are used strategically.

Near the end of the novel, the ghost ends up comparing his version of the PM's memoir to an earlier, plodding one written by a more pedantic "researcher," someone who was not a skilled writer (in fact, the ghost has been hired to "fix" this early draft)--and the ghost ultimately comes to some very interesting conclusions/realizations about the same manuscript he once derided. He seems to be both embarrassed and proud of his own craft as a ghostwriter. The plot gets a bit clunky? crazy? too "far out"? near the end. I can't describe exactly what I felt; mostly, I guess it made my eyebrows raise, which is to say that in some places, it seemed to stretch the limits even of conspiracy novel plausibility. Plus, I believe the ghost is a bit naive, but perhaps this is just bec. I've read a lot more thrillers than he has. Anyway, I read this book straight through--devoured it, really--and I've been thinking about it ever since I finished it. That's pretty much all I usually ask from a thriller--that it hold my attention and make me think--and this one delivered on both counts.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. I'm not familiar with this author--I don't read much historical fiction--but these sound interesting. And you mentioned Pompeii! And our trip to Chicago!