The Ghost: a Novel
© 2007 Robert Harris
I know the Internet is the stuff a paranoiac’s dreams are made of. I know it parcels up everything — Lee Harvey Oswald, Princess Diana, Opus Dei, AL Qaeda, Israel, M16, crop circles — and with pretty blue ribbons of hyperlinks it ties them all into a single grand conspiracy. But I also know the wisdom of the old saying that a paranoiac is simply a person in full possession of the facts…
With those words, a ghostwriter’s struggle to find his client’s voice begins to grow into a mystery thriller, ending unexpectedly. The controversial prime minister of the United Kingdom stepped down from his post two years ago, accepting ten million dollars by a US publishing firm for the publication of his memoirs. Wanting to leave a testament behind him but unwilling to actually do the work, Adam Lang — a “thinly veiled” version of Tony Blair — passes the work off to loyal aide Mike McAra, who spends two years engrossed in libraries doing research. As Lang and his ghostwriter approach the deadline, McAra’s body washes up on a beach. The PM’s wife Ruth Lang, having read several ghost-written works by our narrator — as the book is written in first-person — recommends him to finish the job.
The timing is most inconvenient, as an ex-colleague of Lang’s has recently seen fit that the International Criminal Court should investigate Blai— pardon me, Lang‘s — role in allowing the United States to kidnap several Pakistani nationals and then stick them in secret “black site” interrogation centers to be tortured for information. As such, Lang — holed up on an island in the United States while resting from a recent lecture tour — is forced to respond to those accusations while being interviewed by our narrator. The potential stress of the job does not compete with the $250K our narrator is being paid for the month of work, and so he takes it on.
He struggles to find his subject’s voice early on, grappling with the question of who his client is. Who is the man behind the public face? Nothing makes sense, and in the course of doing his research he stumbles into more serious questions, questions that endanger his life and trap him in a web of political intrigue. I enjoyed the book extremely: unlike Enigma and Archangel, I didn’t have to work my way through this one. Every page captured my attention, and I finished it in a matter of hours. Characterization is particularly strong in this novel, I think. I laughed out loud when reading the narrator’s response to seeing his predecessor’s work for the first time: after reading through an extremely dull manuscript (which he is expected to revise), he realizes how much work there is ahead of him and describes his reaction: “I pressed my hands to my cheeks and opened my mouth and eyes wide, in a reasonable imitation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.” After the emoting, he turns to see Lang’s wife staring at him. Her only response is to raise an eyebrow and say, “As bad as that?” I found the scene funny: Harris doesn’t have his narrator describe his feelings: he has the narrator show them in a spontaneous way. The characters’ personalities come through in little quirks like this. Another example is Ruth Lang’s bodyguard, who likes to read Harry Potter books on the job. There aren’t too many major characters, and each of them are fleshed out well. (Lang, interestingly, receives no physical descriptions beyond his clothing: if Lang is indeed Tony Blair, I suppose Harris thought none was necessary. It’s as if he’s telling the story with a wink to his audience. The story, by the way, is told to the reader — breaking the fourth wall — by the unnamed narrator, and so includes bits of foreshadowing. Nothing is ruined, though. Beyond characterization, the book’s plot develops in interesting ways. Harris is plainly used to the modern era: at one point he has the narrator Googling for information and presents search results in the text — including fake Wikipedia articles, lending a touch of realism. These little touches and the plot in general made for a fun read — extremely enjoyable stuff, and a very worthy diversion from the sociology paper I worked on all day.