Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bond Goes Goth – You Only Live Twice (novel)

Ian Fleming wrote three James Bond novels that included the evil Ernst Blofeld: “Thunderball”, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and “You Only Live Twice”. These three novels are interesting because they present James Bond with a complete story arc, one that ends in the final book “You Only Live Twice”.

Most people are familiar with the film version of this book. James Bond goes to Japan, finds Blofeld in a hallowed out volcano and launching a space ship that eats up space capsules. Much of the look of that film ended up spoofed in “Austin Powers”, it’s iconic James Bond at his most swinging 60’s.

The book couldn’t be further from the film. Part of this has to do with the placement of the book versus the placement of the films. In the film version, “You Only Live Twice” is the first time James Bond comes face to face with Blofeld. But in the novels, Bond faced him in Switzerland during “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. That book ends in tragedy, and that tragedy carries over into the next novel. James Bond is off of his game, he’s making mistakes and endangering his missions. M is at a loss, but he comes up with a solution. He’ll put Bond in a no win scenario, and it will force Bond to come to his senses or die.

At first the no win scenario seems benign, decidedly anti-007. He has to go to Japan and convince the Japanese secret service to share their intelligence stream coming from Russia (the book was written in 1964). Britain is feeling left out because the US has access to all this great information. This is a diplomacy issue, something that Bond does not excel at, and it involves a culture he knows nothing about. This is his last shot so he can’t fail, but it seems impossible, especially when he gets to know the decidedly cool “Tiger” Tanaka – head of the secret service.

In the end Tanaka is willing to consider an exchange, but he wants Bond to perform an assassination for it. Turns out there is a mysterious doctor who has purchased an old feudal castle and turned it into a suicide haven. Its garden is filled with poisonous plants, venomous insects and snakes, bubbling pools of sulfuric mud and your typical pool of piranha instead of Koi. While it is meeting a need, the Japanese have the highest suicide rate in the world, Tanaka sees it as a cancer that must be purged. Bond is set up to take down the doctor and his castle of death. You get one guess to figure out who the crazed doctor turns out to be.

This book is many things, but it is not a James Bond adventure that most readers will be used to. Ian Fleming’s novels are not as fast paced and action packed as the films anyway, but this book comes across more like a travelogue with a dour and grim atmosphere.

Death permeates the entire book, from Bond lamenting over the death of Tereza, up to Blofeld’s perfect castle for suicide. The book even contains an obituary for James Bond, as well as a rebirth of sorts in the last chapter. The mission is hopeless, and Bond begins to feel that he will not survive it. This makes for a bleak novel that plays it very cold and very straight – just like a katana sword.

For all of that, it’s still James Bond. He still drinks hard, smokes like a train, beds nearly any girl who is willing and is deadly cool when it comes down to the wire. It just feels like a lot of the lightness and flippant nature of the character is gone. In its place is a man broken and is facing death.

If you look at the Blofeld series as a story arc, it is obvious that James Bond grows up in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”. He gets married at the end! But here is the first time where Bond faces death at every turn and even goes into an underworld of sorts to face a supreme devil in the form of Bloefeld. It’s an ending that seems fitting not only for Bond but for the series as a whole. The next book in the series, “The Man with the Golden Gun” was never completely finished and the result is a lesser novel of the series. For me “You Only Live Twice” is a fitting end to an interesting literary character – especially since it is an atypical adventure for the British agent.

Have you read “You Only Live Twice”? What did you think of it? Do you think an author can and should take a chance with a well-known character and create something so different from audience expectations? Can you think of an example that worked?

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