Book Tip: Glamorous Spies

As the geopolitical situation tenses up, it is advisable to take a break from daily headlines about hybrid attacks and escape to Manhattan in 1953, when working lunches had a three-martini minimum and the spies engaged in sexy-time on Coney Island carnival rides.

Hacking into people’s emails and manipulating algorithms seems like such a bore compared to the spying- and propaganda machinations that the superpowers used to deploy decades ago – detachable Oberlippenbart, anyone? Francine Prose‘s latest novel The Vixen is a hilarious story about a clueless, just out of Harvard Simon, who gets a junior position at a New York publishing firm, and is given the task to edit The Vixen, the Patriot, and the Fanatic. The script turns out to be a nonsensical, clumsy erotic romp about the recent executions of the Rosenberg couple (convicted & executed in 1953 for spying for the Soviet Union – first Americans to be executed for such charges). Simon’s confusion grows when he meets The Vixen’s author, Anya Partridge, who lives in a glammed-up, opium-scented, whiskey-soaked luxury mental asylum at the Hudson River.

-“Wait. I need to get Foxy. My lucky charm. I can’t leave without it. It wards off the evil eye.”
Maybe she did belong to a minimum-security asylum. Hanging from a hook on the wall was an animal pelt. I averted my eyes as if from the sight of a living creature being skinned. When I did look, it was disturbing, not the stole as much as the enraptured, hypnotised way in which Anya wound it around her neck. It was like watching a love-scene between a witch and her familiar. … With the fox draped around her neck, Anya vamped toward me half-ironically and gave me a long look, so cartoonishly seductive that even I, who knew nothing about sex, felt pretty sure that eventually we would have it.

Many books have been set in the US during the Red Scare when everybody suspected everybody, and was usually right. I’ve never been particularly drawn to such stories, but found The Vixen absolutely hilarious, probably because it doesn’t try too hard. To be anything but great entertainment. The CIA-jig is up to everybody but the hapless Simon, making his ethical struggles to make the rubbish script better all the funnier. He initially wants to do justice to the Rosenbergs and tries to persuade Anya to partly change the tone and some scenes in The Vixen.

In the scene the agent lectures Esther (Rosenberg) about how looks don’t matter in the Soviet Union. Only party loyalty matters. Then he threatens to shoot her, and it turns her on. They lock the bedroom door and pop a bottle of French champagne.
“That scene doesn’t really advance the plot, and she slept with another Russian agent just forty pages before –“
Why had I focused on that scene? I’d felt I had to say something.
I smiled, but Anya didn’t. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea, having our heroine get excited when a Russian agent threatens to shoot her.”

The reality starts to dawn on Simon as odd coincidences start happening more frequently: I couldn’t remember anyone taking my photograph at the office. In my Harvard yearbook photo, I looked startled, as we all were, when the photographer said “Look at my hand” and we saw he was missing two fingers. A veteran. A war photographer, maybe. In the photo, I looked like I was thinking of my father and the Japanese corpses.

A student of Old Norse (Folklore and Mythology) at Harvard, Simon had written his thesis on a medieval Icelandic saga, and adored his professor Crowley, who would share endless stories about his exotic travels with the students. Until (and this hardly count as spoiler) Simon’s boss, the publishing firm’s owner Warren spills more tea as he tries to explain Simon how the Central Intelligence Agency operates: You didn’t imagine that Crowley’s teaching salary or his anemic book sales or his modest inheritance was paying for all that adventure travel and research? Do you know what it costs to buy a reindeer-hide tent in Lapland? To feed the great-grandchildren of the Sicilian witches before they’ll say one word? To bribe the Albanian lesbians not to kick your ass? Not cheap, even then. … Do you imagine your beloved professor chose the places he did because he wanted to hear a whopping fabulous fairy tale about a feral baby and a werewolf? Those countries were chosen for him because they were strategic.

The Vixen is a thoroughly funny book, while there’s of course nothing much funny about that particular part of history with its ever-present paranoia and its consequences. Poignant parallels with the current moment are scattered in the novel: “My generation knows that you have to fight for the freedoms, fight with your lives, and we’re still fighting. We’re like sharks. If we stop fighting, we die.”
“Moving,” I said. “If sharks stop moving, they die. Supposedly.
“You’re a clever one, aren’t you. You young men will never see what we saw. And once you’ve seen the horror, you can’t unsee it. You boys will never know how quickly and easily brutality can take over.”

And the thread that runs throughout the novel: how to balance ambition and conscience when they are not aligned?

Big recommendation for The Vixen, especially if you’re in the mood for a dirty martini in a New York watering hole right about now, with a side of steak frites medium rare and 300 pages of political history.

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