Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review of "You Only Live Twice" by Ian Fleming

I have always hated James Bond. 007, the icon, is known throughout the world because of his movies. Since the 60s, he's been suave, cool, irresistable to women, over-the-top and dangerous. I suppose his appeal is that men are supposed to want to be him. He gets any woman he wants and kills anybody he wants. If I met him I'd want to throttle him because he's so unpleasant. Frustratingly, he would kill me if I tried.

So you might be surprised to know that I chose to read a James Bond novel. It's number twelve in the series, You Only Live Twice. I did it out of masochistic curiosity, just so you know. You might also be surprised to discover that Hollywood's James Bond does not resemble Ian Fleming's Bond whatsoever.

Firstly, You Only Live Twice (novel) does not begin with an obnoxious action sequence that is supposed to make you vomit in entertainment. It begins with Bond moping after the death of his wife and a series of professional fuckups. In fact, Bond doesn't actually get into a fight until the end of the novel!

Eventually Bond gets assigned to Japan to uncover some vital information (which is never revealed). We're just told the mission is impossible. Impossible it may be, but Bond gets sidetracked hanging out in brothels with his new Japanese drinking buddy. Then his buddy tells him to go murder some crazy Doctor Shatterhand. But first, they attend some more brothels. He does eventually discover Doctor Shatterhand's secret and penetrates his garden-fortress of death, but that's really only the last fifth of the story. It is such a strange book. It reads like a travel brochure punctuated with anti-Japanese slurs and hookers.

And then there's Bond's personality itself. The literary Bond is not the gadget-laden, smooth-talking product placement we know and hate. Instead, he's hateful in a different way. Imagine if you can a chauvanistic, racist and old-fashioned Cambridge professor trapped in the body of a super-spy. He's also clearly an alcoholic. He wanders around the novel muttering stuff like, "I say, Tanaka, this damned lobster's still alive! Give me a rasher of bacon and hop to it, you damn slant-eyed tosser, wot?" For some reason, the Japanese find this behaviour endearing.

It's not that I entirely dislike the idea literary-Bond. He's real in a way that Hollywood-Bond could never be. To be honest, I kind of enjoyed the exploits of this stodgy booze-hound as he swanks around Japan and I liked even more how much Hollywood could never, ever feature this Bond in a film and expect it to be a blockbuster. The last two Bond films with Daniel Craig have tried to bury the campy 60's Bond and make him more realistic and like literary-Bond. But they don't even come close. This Bond is so irredeemably English that you'd expect to see him stumbling around some high-class function telling off-colour racist stories as annoyed guests tolerate him because he's little, cute and British. After about an hour his mortified wife bundles him off to bed.

So, was the novel good? I guess, kind of. It is the only spy novel I've read and in that sense it's like nothing I've ever read before. I don't think I'll be in any hurry to pick up another Bond novel, but I can say I was glad for the experience.
3 creepy sexual encounters out of 5

As a side-note, another reason I grabbed this book was my interest in comparing movie adaptations with their source material. After seeing this art from the movie poster, I've decided not to bother with the movie for reasons that should be obvious to anyone.