Of Literary Spies and Real-Life Selves

For some reason, spy novels are finding their way in my have-read list. More recent titles, not John le Carré classics. Last week, for instance, I finished Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy which was just published last February.

Pausing here to mention I don’t write book reviews. Nothing against them, just that I like approaching my next read with an open mind. Reviews are better read after turning the last page; to soundly agree or vehemently disagree with a critic is its own form of entertainment.

I think even the loudest, most outgoing people have a hidden side, a psyche lurking in the shadows. In a way, we, the quiet and reserved, are more truthful by frankly observing and listening, refusing to explain whether we are content, uncomfortable or just plain shy. Words are powerful but they are not the only mode of expression and interaction, no? There’s my excuse for my occasional social awkwardness. When you catch me being the life of a party, either I’m possessed or putting on an act.

Or there is something about the company, because other people can unlock something within us. Marie Mitchell, protagonist in American Spy, found herself falling in love with the man she’s supposed to lure to his ruin. Marie is cold and self-possessed, but when in the company of her target, she is conflicted, inwardly captured. But the same can be said about her interactions with her family and handlers. Our relationships too–we don’t really need to be spies to experience the tension between hiding and being revealed.

Then there’s Eve Gardiner from The Alice Network who would try to stay awake when spending the night with René, afraid she would speak German in her sleep. (For a change, it would be nice to read about a young male spy seducing an older, powerful woman.) When they say sleep with someone (instead of having sex), I nod now with new respect to the euphemism, conceding that sharing a bed in slumber has its own intimacy. A lot has been written about faked orgasms, but one hardly pretends to snore or talk in their sleep. Not yet anyway–on social media people post photos of themselves supposedly sleeping, smooth-browed, parted lips. Look at me, they seem to say, how poised I look during my most unguarded moment.

What got me into espionage novels was Viet Than Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. A riveting baptism! I just purchased the audiobook to relive the experience (I read a library copy). Narrator is a double agent with a poignant and sometimes comical take on being a man of two minds, possessing a talent-turned-hazard: his ability to see any issues from both sides. Beneath his calm veneer, he grapples with the contradiction between his adopted cause and his scant but deep personal ties, the uneasy legacy of his mixed-blood lineage that doomed him to belong to neither East nor West.

In growing an online presence, I confronted my contradictions. My dislike for offering unsolicited opinion and advice versus the appeal of regimented writing with a view to being read. I prize privacy but also understand that good writing is true, drawn from deep within. I am fed up with the melange of mental trash on social media, but occasionally crave the distraction offered by Facebook and Instagram. My best solution at this time is good judgement.

We all spin our stories, don’t we? We all live double lives.


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