Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

The Tourist, Olen Steinhauer.

Olen Steinhauer's The Tourist is a remarkable in that such praise has been given to a novel that is, beyond its mediocrity, awful.

Opening in Venice the day before September 11th, 2001, The Tourist introduces Milo Weaver, a burnt out, drug dependent black ops agent for the USA, a 'tourist' as he is designated, a man without a home, fixed identity, and moral compass. When his job goes bad, he ends up shot and next to a pregnant woman whose water has just burst and who, sadly, six years later, will be revealed to be Weaver's wife.

I originally found Steinhauer's book through some favourable reviews of his third Weaver novel, wherein a lot of comparisons were made to early John le Carre, and I thought, "I haven't read a spy novel for years," and thought that was the ticket. Something new, right? A nice, mean, lean dark spy novel, like those that le Carre wrote (and might still do, admittedly--I haven't read his later work). What I should have done was gone and picked up the le Carre I hadn't read, rather than this, because Steinhauer, who lives now in Budapest, has written the white, upper middle class spy novel of family dysfunction that one of his characters decries at a certain point in the book. It is done without irony, but there are many moments where Steinhauer blissfully writes without irony, sadly.

Somewhere in the back of The Tourist is actually a decent spy novel, but Steinhauer's craft fails him on every level and it remains lost as a whole. His prose is workman like, at best, with, "He kissed his wife again, went to the door, then turned back. She looked tiny in that big Disney bed," being pretty indicative of the general level of it. And yes, they do go to Disneyland where Milo's bottom lip will 'quiver' when a ex-KGB man appears and his wife asks to be introduced. Then there's the characterisation, which relies on everyone, especially Milo, being stupid. At times, it is an incredibly stupidity. For example, after his breakdown in Venice, Milo is given a desk job and spends six years tracking down an assassin called the Tiger (yes, the reference is made to the Jackel, acknowledged in the book) and not once unravels that he is an ex-tourist, that he is funded by his own government, by his own boss, even. His friend, Angela, learns more than him in six months, but she is killed for that--and you know she'll die because she has a huge monologue, and that usually signifies that a) the person who is not Milo will die or b) that they are a minor character with a huge reveal that the book has not allowed its protagonist to foreshadow and will be linked to a huge conspiracy plot that, in the end, is totally unimaginative.

Which, of course, is the largest problem with the Tourist. If a plot heavy conspiracy had actually emerged from the book, it would have been possible to forgive the ordinariness of the prose and the stupid, upper middle class family expectations that sweep through the book, but the truth is, the plot is one ripped from a newspaper, one you and I know well: the USA does bad things for oil. Yes. Clandestine government organisations that fear China getting more and more oil try to cut off China's supplies and, yeah, awesome. However, the real problem with the plot emerges in the last quarter of the book, when Steinhauer has his spy turn himself in, thus removing him from the role of the protagonist. He's still there, of course, but he is confined, so it requires characters such as the CIA officer with the lazy eye, Weaver's wife who knew nothing about him, and Weaver's suddenly revealed father who basically fixes everything without Weaver having to do anything, thus removing him from the equation entirely. If that was the goal, then you have to wonder why Steinhauer didn't just write the book from this father figure's point of view, who is a lot more interesting than his protagonist, and actually opens a more interesting door through his connection with the UN, and his desire to play everyone to influence his own seemingly benevolent machinations.

But no, that's not how it plays: instead, Milo, who is taken off stage in what you can only call a failure of craft, finishes the novel watching from a safe distance his adopted daughter get into the car of her real father, and feeling the family drama.

I mean, you know, if that works for you, all good--but it was all shabbily done on a craft level, from the prose to the plot to the tiny things that bind a work together.

Avoid it, in other words.

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