Thursday, May 07, 2009

Charles McCarry's SHELLEY'S HEART in Commentary

D.G. Myers reviews Shelley's Heart, the masterful political thriller by Charles McCarry, in the May issue of Commentary: "Though McCarry distrusts abstract ideas, he is masterful at dramatizing their influence. Written in a fluent and sharp-toothed prose modeled upon W. Somerset Maugham and Evelyn Waugh, Shelley's Heart succeeds in creating an utterly believable world in which ideology has run amok. McCarry's portrait of the inner experience of an American radical is entirely convincing: "Correctness was virtue; belief was personal validity; doctrine was truth. All else was evil." So is his dystopian portrait of Washington's near future, in which deer run freely in the streets because of laws governing endangered species, thermostats must be set low and lights dimmed by government mandate, and terrorists have more advanced weaponry than the Secret Service because of budget cuts. McCarry is more interested in persons, the moral drama of men and women operating at crosspurposes, than in flogging a thesis. Although the "whole point" of America's elite institutions is to "turn out a type," as the President's lawyer says, Shelley's Heart contains no types—no "flat" characters in E.M. Forster's sense of having been "constructed round a single idea or quality." The life of every person in the novel is complicated by temperament, memory, and love or its lack. McCarry is particularly good at snagging personality on exact details: Julian Hubbard is a "compulsive diarist" and bird watcher, using "well-worn Zeiss binoculars" that his father had taken from "the corpse of an SS officer"; Franklin Mallory reads Macaulay's essay on Boswell's Life of Johnson with a pen in hand; President Lockwood greets his lawyers in an old University of Kentucky sweatsuit and thick socks; up close, Archimedes Hammett looks "like a Richard Avedon photograph of Muammar Qadaffi." Even better is that McCarry fully unfolds his characters dramatically—through their twisted histories and mixed-motive actions. McCarry is one of the few American novelists to have written with distinction about what Irving Howe called "politics as a milieu or mode of life." Shelley's Heart is a classic that examines how the American Left came to be and how potent the American Left still is. It might best be understood not as a conspiracy thriller but rather as a dark satire. Given how many of McCarry's wild surmises have become reality since its initial release, however, no one should make the mistake of attempting to compartmentalize his remarkable novel."

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