Book Review

Trauma??? of intent??? or something like that by Anthony Burgess 

not a witty pastiche so much as a dull echo

christmas day 2021

cw: child abuse (in the context of the burgess novel)

This was one of the most boring novels I’ve ever read. 

I don’t know why I persisted with reading it, probably because I felt like I needed to punish myself because my mental health has been pretty low recently and I don’t feel like I deserve to ever feel happy. 

Reading a boring book – a book that I found really fucking insipid, tiresome and dull – gave me something to feel, you know? 

Reading a book that was shit, reading a novel that was shit, allowed me to feel right

I don’t deserve nice experiences. Nice things are easy to get hold of. I have a job that pays me money and I can use that money to buy nice things. Nice people are easy to find, they are less complicated, less difficult than awful people and I think this is the fucking problem, is that I’m just bored of nice people. I just like to spend more time with people that are dicks like I am. I am not kind, I am not caring, ultimately. I don’t really find other people interesting, I think – as I said in the parts of the previous post I redacted as it was a bit too frank, especially as this is coming to you from Christmas day. 

I don’t think of myself as a nice person, which in many ways is pretty freeing. People who aren’t nice tend to be more fun. No, that’s not quite right; people who don’t care about being nice tend to be more fun. I think that’s more what I mean. 

It’s pretty easy to exist in the world if you don’t really care what other people think and I suppose that is my BPD in action, is my inability to live like that. I don’t understand how I am meant to be around other people, as discussed, when it isn’t clearly being hated. Am I meant to contribute? I don’t have anything interesting to say. Nothing interesting has happened to me for a very long time. Maybe reading Trauma Of Intent or whatever that fucking book was called is a way to keep myself trapped in that, y’know, self-sabotaging? 

If you can’t talk about anything because nothing has happened to you for literally years, then not even reading interesting books or watching interesting movies is a way to keep a lid on ones inflated sense of interest. I don’t feel bad posting this on my blog because this is not forced upon anyone, no one is reading my blog by accident. Well, maybe some people are who have googled the name of a book and want to learn about it, but the joke’s on them if they’re still reading at this point because this clearly isn’t a literary review. 

In a one-on-one conversation, I know what to do; there are two people and there’s a very clear line of transaction: each is there to entertain the other. Easy. In a room of 10 people, what the fuck am I meant to do (if I’m not being paid to be there and I don’t need to be like productive)?

///

So, this Anthony Burgess book, right, I picked it up when I was in Halifax last month, one of the most boring towns I’ve ever visited and it’s not even a town, it’s technically a city, a definition that should probably be revised. 

The cover of the book makes it sound like this novel is going to be Burgess doing a satire of Le Carré and/or Fleming and their, y’know, classic but blokey spy novels. But Tremor of Intent (that’s the correct title, I finally bothered to check) isn’t a witty pastiche so much as a dull echo

Like many of Le Carré’s and many of Fleming’s novels, this is about a spy towards the end of his career. He’s traveling behind the Iron Curtain to bring back a defector, a rocket scientist, who he went to Catholic public school with a lifetime ago. The spy is traveling there on a luxury Cruise liner through the Adriatic, which is a journey I myself made in another life (see this post for some minor details).

While on the cruise liner, the spy (his name is Hillier) has sex with a beautiful woman, he meets an overweight Eastern European slash English [whatever the word for someone who sells secrets to both communists and whatever the US team was called in the Cold War] who is paedophile (in a later scene it’s also revealed that the spy himself is a paedophile, which is strange, especially as it’s implied his child abuse was OK because the children he had sex with were female child sex workers, rather than the non-sex worker boys preferred by the baddie (who, at the novel’s end, is killed by being drugged and drowned after Hillier (a lapsed Catholic) symbolically confesses his lifetime of sins to the secret-seller)). Hillier also meets a child of a flour magnate, a precocious 12 year old boy who later in the novel has sex with the paedophile secret seller in order to steal his gun, which he uses in the denouement to kill another spy who has been sent to execute Hillier. This boy also has a “sexy” teenage sister, who Hillier eventually allows himself to have sex with as his reward for outwitting the other spies at the end of the novel. There is also a cockney wide boy crew member, who turns out to be a disguised public schoolboy assassin (this is the person who the flour heir guns to death).

When you recount the plot so bluntly, Tremor of Intent does sound like a satire, like a spoof of a Bond novel. However, for me, the real difference between effective satire and its absence is a sense of disapproval. Burgess doesn’t write Flemingesque sex scenes in a way that makes them appear ridiculous, he writes them in a way that makes them appear aspirational

At one point, Hillier engages in an eating contest and throws up off the side of the cruise ship. It doesn’t feel like a satire of the gastronomic indulgence of James Bond, it feels more like an extension of it. I don’t think extending something slightly (Bond vomits, right?) is a way to draw attention to the failings of it, in fact Burgess’ text draws attention to the successes of the Bond & Le Carré novels and this is why the Burgess novel fails

It doesn’t feel mocking, it feels celebratory

In drawing attention to the to the tropes and to the tones and the repeated narratives of these spy novels, Tremor of Intent emphasises why those novels work, why the Bond novels, why Le Carré, continue to be widely circulated and have been in print for decades. This Burgess novel is pretty fucking obscure, to be frank. 

Far from subverting the ridiculousness of Bond and Smiley, it reminds a reader what they enjoyed about those novels. Fleming’s decadence, Le Carré’s intricate plottings… 

Fleming frequently skates close to pastiche in his own writing, and I would argue that this tone (the Bond novels’ failure to take themselves seriously) is a key reason why those books remain popular. To make fun of, to mock, Fleming, a writer needs to do something beyond what the text does itself. It’s perhaps not a fashionable opinion for an English person to have (however it is an English person who’s accidentally lived in Canada for three entire years), but one of the reasons why Austin Powers worked as a satire of James Bond was because it was very free and loose with its humour. Those films (which I obviously haven’t rewatched since I was a teenager) used enough tropes from Bond to make it clear what the point of the satire was, but it also built on those tropes in ridiculous ways; Austin Powers did things that the Bond novels do not do

There is nothing that happens in Tremor of Intent that the Bond novels don’t do better. This is bad satire: the plot is less exciting than a Bond novel; the sex might be more graphic, but it’s not more sexy and it’s not more ridiculous. The sexism might like to think that it’s “knowing”, but the book still fucking reeks of male chauvinism, e.g. it contains eroticisation of young women. Tremor of Intent repeats sexist tropes, rather than subverts them. If Hillier was, I dunno, shit in bed, for example, that could have been one way to subvert the presumed virility of an archetypal spy, but if anything he’s a better shag than Bond…

When I bought this I thought I was going to love it. I bought it thinking it may well end up being one of my favourite novels. It’s not, quite the opposite. 

Anthony Burgess’s Tremor of Intent is honestly one of the worst novels I’ve ever read and exactly what a sad lonely little loser deserves to be reading at Christmas. 

Thank you for reading this in March or whatever day it actually is today.

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