By Robert Harris
Simon & Schuster, 335 pages, $26
“This is a work of fiction,” says the bold type on the copyright page of Robert Harris’ The Ghost. “Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.”
True, the novel’s imaginary former British prime minister (he quit because his slavish obedience to an incompetent U.S. president led to a disastrous war in the Middle East) is called Adam Lang. True, Lang went to Cambridge (not Oxford) where he spent most of his time treading the boards (not playing guitar in a rock band). True, Lang is getting it on with his babelicious blond aide, and nobody laid that particular charge at the door of the guy you might be thinking of. Nor did anyone ever suggest that that guy’s wife—you know, the one who, like Ruth Lang, was famously “smarter than her husband” and infamously “loved their life at the top”—would put out for a lowly hack.
The hack in question is so lowly he makes his living turning daylong interviews with flavor-of-the-month celebrities into “misery memoirs.” Now, though, our titular Ghost has to alchemize Lang’s tedious ragbag of exculpatory bleatings into a gold-plated best seller. He has to do so, moreover, in just one month—and with the knowledge that the task proved so much for his predecessor that the poor guy drowned himself in suspicious circumstances. Sounds like a job for Superman.
Thankfully, Mr. Harris’ resolutely anonymous protagonist never transmutes into anything resembling an all-conquering action man. Though guns and brass knuckles, SWAT cops and Bond-villain-style lairs all figure in The Ghost, our man at the center of it all remains somewhat less than heroic. Even the book’s shock-horror revelation—so shocking it simply can’t be true, though if it were it would certainly explain pretty much everything about the recent history of Great Britain—comes about only because our man accidentally switches a sat-nav on.
That shock, though, is the only one in the book. The Ghost kicks off in predictably thrilling style, but before long it’s all become unthrillingly predictable. Anyone vaguely literate will foresee the moves of Mr. Harris’ pawns long before they have been shoved about the board of his plot. Given that they’re merely pawns, by the way, I’m not sure it was wise of Mr. Harris to allow his narrator to say that his “fundamental problem with our former prime minister” is that he’s “not a psychologically credible character.”
Nor are matters improved by the novel’s air of mocking self-consciousness. Just who, for instance, is talking here: “I was still smarting from [Ruth Lang’s] crack about my not being a proper writer. Perhaps I’m not. … I see myself as the literary equivalent of a skilled lathe-operator, or a basket-weaver; a potter, maybe: I make mildly diverting objects that people want to buy.” If Robert Harris’ sales record is any indication, many people will want to buy The Ghost. But if a basket had this many holes in it, I’d be asking for my money back.
Christopher Bray Lives in London where he is working on a book about Sean Connery.
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