The Network, by Jason Elliot
Novels centered on spying and intrigue, led by John Le Carré, have foundered since the days of the Cold War and the Soviet meltdown. There have been noble stabs at trying to integrate the “War on Terror” into this genre, but how to do that with an amorphous and non-nation state adversary remains something of a mystery. However, with Elliot’s new novel, The Network, maybe the genre has once again found its feet by blending CIA-type intrigue with the gonzo action novel.
Here, Tony Taverner, a British Army officer, has been recruited by MI-6 (the British CIA) for a mission that remains cloaked while Taverner is put through field trials to test his mettle as a prospective agent. Taverner tells us this in first person and present tense – a tactic that rarely works, but in Elliot’s hands it does.
Our protagonist drifts to various backstory segments as a way of allowing us to empathize with the sort of person who is up to such political/military tasks, including a peek at his dour ex-wife and two barely depicted daughters. Too, we meet an African lover of Taverner’s, who is also an undercover agent. But the members of the Network, i.e., his comrades in the task he’s about to undertake, are his real family, as Elliot demonstrates as the novel draws to a close.
The Network’s task in this case in the retrieval or destruction of a large stockpile of Stinger missiles the U.S. supplied to the Mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, these shoulder mounted missiles now in the hands of the Taliban. Taverner crosses the Pakistani border with another agent, known simply as H to accomplish this task.
While the root storyline seems rather simple and straightforward, Elliot accomplishes his literary (I use the word because his writing has the eloquence of the best literature, superimposed over the most accurate journalistic details I’ve yet encountered in such novels) mission with yet another genre embellishment. First, he gives us history – political asides accurate enough to be accepted as journalism. He reprises the tensions between Pakistan and the various Afghani occupiers while giving us detailed accounts of why and how the Taliban came of age. Too, he gives us, largely via dialogue between Taverner and other members of the Network, passages delineating their psychological angst as political operatives. He even gives us perhaps overly descriptive details of weapons used during the various combat encounters.
I became irritated with the story over the first fifty pages, as the story seemed swamped in such details. However, the story did eventually fructify, in very British fashion, ever so slowly. So why the inordinate emphasis on details? While I wouldn’t encourage this sort of embellishment (in less capable hands it would only be a way to create filler for such a story), in Elliot’s case these details become an ongoing metaphor for the complexity of modern life, social as well as political and military.
My rating: 4-1/2 of 5 stars
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