The Company by Robert Littell

[23 August 2007]

By Chris McCann

A Good Read Spoiled

On more than one occasion in Robert Littell’s The Company: A Novel of the CIA characters quote G.K. Chesterton to explain their continued dedication to the fine art of espionage: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” As it becomes clear that Littell’s writing simply doesn’t measure up to his subject matter, readers of this massive novel may find themselves questioning the truth of Chesterton’s words.

Upon its release in 2002, The Company received nearly general admiration: “A massively ambitious page-turner (/i>New York Post), “Move over Mr. le Carré″ (The Washington Times), “If le Carré is the Joyce of spy novels, Littell is the Dickens.″ (Booklist), “Think Dickens. Think Homer″ (Raleigh News & Observer). OK—wait a minute.

Dickens? Homer? I can only imagine the Dickens citations arise as a result of the books 894-page length; there the similarities end. And Homer? The Cold War as Littell’s Trojan War? Shudder. Littell’s work is better compared with that of authors like John Grisham and Dan Brown than with the genre-transcending fiction of le Carré, Graham Greene, or Alan Furst.

At its best, The Company offers readers a fascinating look into the world of tradecraft, the duplicities, treacheries, and violence of the Cold War spy. From the recruitment of two Yale undergrads in 1950, the fictionalized history of the CIA spins out over the next 50 years. Littell takes his readers on several extended journeys behind the Iron Curtain, from the anti-Soviet revolution in Hungary to the shadowy world of post-war Berlin. The persistent reader will make it to Moscow, Cuba, the Vatican, and the mountains of Pakistan, traveling with Littell’s suspiciously honorable cloak-and-dagger Cold Warriors.

It might be a more exciting ride if the book were cut by several hundred pages. It’s clear that Littell’s going for epic and his story demands it. In a 2002 interview, he said he spent a year researching and taking notes before he started writing. The Company is full of lively digressions into the use of torture, espionage training, and the internecine battles that Littell believes did as much to damage the CIA as the KGB ever did. He knows his stuff; that much is clear.

There’s so much interesting historical detail that I wondered why, at page 450, I just got tired of it all. I’m a sucker for spy vs. spy intrigue, the more complications the better, but again and again I found myself bored by The Company. “A massively ambitious page-turner”? It’s certainly ambitious, but as the story went on and on, I found it harder and harder to turn those pages.

The page-turner should be like a box of Cheez-It—impossible to stop once you′ve gotten that first tangy bite of faux cheddar on your tongue. The Company fails the Cheez-It test on several levels. The first, while seemingly minor, became intensely irritating after the first few hundred pages. For a “New York Times Bestseller,” as the cover trumpets, the book has an unconscionable amount of typographical errors. Multiple characters “breath” heavily, someone speaks in “pigeon Russian,” and many times homonyms are transposed. These sloppy and infuriating mistakes could have so easily been corrected by a good editor.

There are authorial miscues, too, though. Littell gets his facts wrong at times. For example, he has Con Edison workers in Washington, DC, when the company is a New York institution that has never had a presence in the nation’s capital. In another scene, two men order BLTs on toast. Six lines of dialogue (and no other narration) later, the sandwiches arrive. While these minor inconsistencies don’t affect the arc of the narrative, they do cast doubt upon the author’s control of his material.

And it is Littell’s pedestrian prose that descends at times to simply execrable writing that ultimately brings down The Company. Admirably, Littell sets out to humanize the world of spies and espionage, but he does so by balancing the scenes of action with awkward passages attempting to illustrate the emotional lives of his spies and their uniformly smart and gorgeous wives. There are far too many lines like this one (said on page 614, by a woman who’s just been proposed to): “I’ve wanted to fuck you as far back as I can remember.” False, wooden dialogue destroys the fictional spell of the novel, and lines like that appear whenever Littell strays from the particulars of espionage.

The Company does some things well. Littell has an encyclopedic knowledge of the workings of America’s intelligence operations; his years spent as a Newsweek reporter specializing in Soviet affairs during the height of the Cold War provide him with just the right kind of details (the make of a motorcycle, the way a label is stitched into a jacket). The hunt for the mole inside the CIA provides an interesting look into the internal politics of the agency, though the traitor’s identity is never really in doubt. Littell also does well with some of the relationships between elder and younger CIA officers that, while not exactly nurturing, have a familial tinge to them. And the inclusion of historical characters (counter-espionage chief and madman James Jesus Angleton, a mush-brained Reagan, a cocksure Bobby Kennedy, the soviet mole Kim Philby) provides some enjoyable moments, especially for conspiracy buffs.

But in the end, The Company disappoints. There are just too many unbelievable scenes, too much clunky prose, too little competent editing, and far too much black and white for a world that existed almost completely in shades of gray.

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