Backstory Entry Hatches in John Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama: A Partial Taxonomy

I can see why this complex and richly entertaining novel isn’t as popular on Goodreads as many of Le Carré’s other books. The propulsive urgency of the story sags in places, which is the reason that I’m giving it a positive but slightly qualified recommendation. It was bound to disappoint Le Carré’s spy thriller audience, because it doesn’t do what books in that genre are supposed to. It’s not even a spy thriller, really, though it is a novel about spying. 

You could say that it belongs to a very small sub-genre, along with Our Man in Havana: the Bitingly Satirical Spy Caper. And while The Tailor of Panama doesn’t captivate the reader with the same charmingly effervescent blend of suspense and comedy as Our Man in Havana, the satire hits home just as effectively as it does in Greene’s book. In fact this novel elaborates and updates Greene’s theme, pushing it to a logical conclusion that remains all too resonant in today’s world of intelligence-targeted official violence.  

Whatever you think of its themes, I think we can all agree that Le Carré is a remarkably accomplished writer with a particular strength in the art of creating interesting, impossible-to-forget characters. In this book the imaginatively prodigious tailor himself, Harry Pendel, stands out, as does the resourceful and despicable spy manager, Andrew Osnard. 

But let's get to the writerly question at the center of this post: What specific techniques does Le Carré use to create such interesting characters? 

There are so many aspects of character creation one could talk about, but one of the things that struck me most about this book is the frequent and skillful use that Le Carré makes of backstory, and in particular of that difficult-to-pull-off subset of backstory, flashback, to endow his characters with extra interest and complexity. Each of the main characters has an emotionally charged history that constantly intrudes on the present moment, clueing the reader in about important motivations and conflicts featured within what we might call the “frontstory.” 

I’ve written about backstory and flashback before. As anyone who writes fiction knows, there’s an ongoing debate about the merits of backstory, and in fact there are prominent writers who espouse a policy of minimizing or doing away with it entirely. But the more I think and read, the more strongly I come down on the side of backstory as a richly useful tool in the task of creating complex, fascinating, novel-worthy characters. Le Carré is a great teacher in this regard. In particular, I was interested to observe some of the ways he handles the difficult transitions between frontstory, backstory, and full-fledged flashback. 

So, without further ado, here’s an incomplete taxonomy what we might call Le Carré’s “backstory entry hatches.”

Abrupt Flash. An image from the past that comes to the protagonist suddenly, often in the middle of a dialogue-rich scene:
Mickie scarecrow thin, face lopsided from a beating, eyes still fresh from hell. Mickie in frayed orange rags, no bespoke tailor available. Wet red blisters round his ankles, more around his wrists.
Marta in her ripped white shirt and jeans lying like uncollected refuse in the gutter while three members of Noriega’s Dignity Battalions, known affectionately as the Dingbats, take turns to win her heart and mind with the aid of a bloodied baseball bat, starting with her face.
But the sequence of these events remained disordered in Fran’s mind because all she could concentrate on while they were unfolding was her very first gymkhana, when her pony, which like every other pony in the world was called Misty, took the first fence perfectly, then bolted down the main road to Shrewsbury . . . 

Triggered Narrative Rewind. A memory triggered by a sensory experience in the frontstory, and entered gradually rather than abruptly by narration that begins in the frontstory and slides backwards: 
Then he would stare into the peaceful city, and very soon the flares and the red and green tracer and the hoarse tattoo of machine guns and the jackhammer rattle of cannons would start to create their own mad daytime in the theatre of his memory, just as they had on that December night in 1989 when the hills blinked and shuddered and the huge Spectre gunships flew in unopposed from the sea to punish the mostly wooden slums of el Chorillo . . . 
Sweat pouring off him, heavy as the rain. Running water gurgling under his feet. Pendel floating, upriver or down. The entire past that he has buried six feet deep, crashing in upon him . . . starting with the miracle of his birth as related to him in prison by his Uncle Benny and ending with the Day of Absolutely No Atonement thirteen years ago when he invented himself to Louisa on the immaculate all-American lawn in the officially abolished Canal Zone with the Stars and Stripes flapping up in the smoke of her daddy’s barbecue and the band playing hope-and-glory and the black men watching through the wire. 

Untriggered Narrative Rewind. You might call this the traditional method, and it might feel a little clunky were it not achieved with Le Carré’s usual panache:
And it was somewhere around this point, most likely, that Stormont, partly out of boredom and partly in self-defence, drifted off into a troubled review of his life until now:
            Stormont, Nigel, born too long ago, educated not very well at Shrewsbury and Jesus, Oxford. Second in History like everybody else, divorced like everybody else: except that my little escapade happened to make the Sunday newspapers.
How she had got here was a mystery to her, though it was a mystery now ten weeks old. “Only two ways to play this situation, girl,” Osnard had explained to her with the assurance he brought to everything, over lavish helpings of barbecued chicken and cold beer beside the pool of the El Panamá. 
Hallucinated Memory. And I end with my favorite. A full-on hallucination in the frontstory delivers us straight to the backstory:

"Harry.” It is an hour later, but Pendel is too estranged to go home, so he is back in his cutting room with his dinner jacket and Bach. “Harry.” The voice that is addressing him is Louisa’s from the first time they went to bed together, not just fingers and tongues and listening for her parents’ car coming back from the movie, but completely naked in Harry’s bed in his grotty attic flat in Calidonia, where he’s tailoring at night after selling ready-mades all day for a clever Syrian haberdasher called Alto.

The Objective-Correlative & Characterization: Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul

I have to admit that didn’t love this book. Certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as I did Greene’s masterpiece of humor and suspense, Our Man in Havana. The Honorary Consul is a quieter book, to put it nicely, oddly cold and lifeless in places, and my sense is that it was marred by Greene’s perceived need, late in his career, to “say something” meaningful about the Catholic Church. Still, as with anything by Greene it’s extremely well written, and I did notice an instructive instance of the objective-correlative that was used in association with one of the novel’s minor characters:

His secretary was a pretty young woman called Ana. She was dauntingly efficient and the daughter of an influential official in the public health department. Doctor Plarr sometimes wondered why he had never been tempted to make love to her. Perhaps he hesitated because of the white starched uniform which she had adopted of her own wish—it would creak or crackle if one touched her; she might have been connected to a burglar alarm.

Interesting way of putting things, no? That uniform, like a burglar alarm. And a few pages later, it comes back:

She ignored his flippancy. “If you will leave those two cards on my desk when you have finished . . .” Her dress crepitated as she went out, like a nocturnal insect.

I think you’re probably getting the picture. The uniform dress is an objective-correlative for Dr. Plarr’s evolving feelings for Ana, which are, to say the least, pretty charged. Using it allows Greene to portray those feelings without resorting to “telling,” in an imagistic way that has the effect of rooting us imaginatively in the story, while at the same time deploying metaphors that give us intriguingly resonant insights into our main character.

All of which serves as a reminder that the objective-correlative is a nice tool for any writer’s toolbox, particularly when it comes to character creation.

For more on uses of the objective-correlative, click here. For more on skillful characterization, click here.


Advantages of the Close Third Person Point of View: Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome

This is now the third post I’ve done on Edith Wharton. I didn’t set out to become the president of the Wharton fan club, but you guys: she’s just so damn good! In other posts I’ve talked about her skill with narrative structure and world-building. In this gorgeous, intensely page-turning novella— which I’d never read before—what I noticed most had to do with point of view, and in particular the deft way she uses close third person to unfold her story in a way that is irresistible and nearly impossible to put down.

The story works in large part because it paints a clear, vivid scene and refracts it through the consciousness of an acutely observant, emotionally intense protagonist, thereby immersing you in the story-world in ways that are, as I've written elsewhere, compulsive and impossible to resist:

“The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.”

Wharton is free to describe the scene so fulsomely and with such lyricism, in part, because in close third she feels no obligation to write in the “voice” of her laconic narrator. In first person narration, the voice of the narrator has in some way to match the voice of the character. This would have been hard to do, as Ethan Frome’s voice, when he does talk, is clipped and colloquial in a way that feels very true to rural New England culture, limited throughout the story to laconic observations such as this:

“‘Oh, Ned ain’t much at steering. I guess I can take you down all right!’ he said disdainfully.”

Even if a first-person narrative voice didn’t exactly match the bitten-off exclamations of “spoken” Ethan, it would have been hard to credit his direct thoughts taking on the soaring, descriptive lyricism of Wharton’s implied narrator. With close third, the reader’s subconscious expectation is that the narration will partake of the “essence” of the POV character, without having to actually capture or mimic that character’s “voice.” So we get a sense of Ethan’s inner landscape—among other things he is an acute, melancholy, and poetic observer of nature—without having to wonder about why his thoughts are so different than his speech:

“Here the snow was so pure that the tiny tracks of wood-animals had left on it intricate lace-like patterns, and the bluish cones caught in its surface stood out like ornaments of bronze.”

At the center of the novella is a bittersweet, highly affecting love story. Close third gives Wharton the ability to portray the development and efflorescence of Ethan’s feelings for Mattie with the refracted intensity of lived experience:

“It was one of those days when the glitter of winter shines through a pale haze of spring. Every yard of the road was alive with Mattie’s presence, and there was hardly a branch against the sky or a tangle of brambles on the bank in which some bright shred of memory was not caught. Once, in the stillness, the call of a bird in a mountain ash was so like her laughter that his heart tightened and then grew large; and all these things made him see that something must be done at once.” 

“She clung to him without answering, and he laid his lips on her hair, which was soft yet springy, like certain mosses on warm slopes, and had the faint woody fragrance of fresh sawdust in the sun.”

Note that these lyrical visions of Ethan’s emotionally refracted inner landscape would have been far too poetic to be transmitted to the reader using Ethan’s first-person voice. But we’re also privy, as we would be in first person, to his most private internal agony:

“It seemed to Ethan that his heart was bound with cords which an unseen hand was tightening with every tick of the clock. Twice he opened his lips to speak to Mattie and found no breath.”

Because the entire story (minus the frames at the beginning and end) is written in rigorous close third, there’s no expectation that we’ll get the perspective of other characters in the story. And much of the suspense has to do with the fact that we think we know, but are not quite sure about what the other characters are feeling:

“He saw the rise in colour in Mattie’s averted cheek, and the quick lifting of Zeena’s head.”

“The sudden heat of his tone made her colour mount again, not with a rush, but gradually, delicately, like the reflection of a thought stealing slowly across her heart.”

Imagine how different these effects would be if the story were written in the omniscient point of view, even limited omniscience. We would know what the other characters were feeling, and this would eliminate much of the uncertainty, diluting the suspense and most likely blunting the overall impact of the story, which depends on an intense scrutiny of the gradually expanding consciousness of a single individual.

The story is told in the past tense, but with close third there is no real question about where the narrator herself stands in time, as there always is with first person. Because of this the terrible, suspenseful, tragic story can unfold without any expectation of a retrospective vision, such as “if only I’d known what was going to happen, I would have . . . ”

Here’s an example, from the climactic scene:

“As they flew toward the tree Mattie pressed her arms tighter, and her blood seemed to be in his veins. Once or twice the sled swerved a little under them. He slanted his body to keep it headed for the elm . . . ”

With first person, we would either have had to bear the awkwardness of present tense, or we would have expected the retrospective voice to intrude, letting us know how and why this was going to be such a pivotal event in his life—and if we didn’t hear any of that retrospective voice, we probably would have wondered why it was absent at such an important moment in the story.

My take-homes:

Close third is a better choice than first person or omniscient if:

You want to describe the setting fulsomely and lyrically, and your character is not a poet or a painter.

You want the focus to be on the character’s essence, rather than the sound of his voice. 

The story turns on the misconceptions or limited perspective of the main character, and/or the suspense of not knowing what the other characters in the story are thinking.

You want the story to unfold moment-to-moment, without having to address either the presence or absence the retrospective view—i.e., you wish to have a story where the narrator’s stance in time is indefinite. In other words, if you wish to rely on suspense or mystery more than dramatic irony as a page-turning mechanism.