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Monday, February 22, 2010

Consider the Source: The Ghost


Roman Polanski's Switzerland arrest on Sep. 26, 2009, has reignited the furious debate over the filmmaker's art vs. his 1977 sexual assault case. The furor has nearly eclipsed the reception of his latest film, The Ghost Writer, which Polanski co-scripted with Robert Harris, author of the original 2007 novel, The Ghost.

In The Ghost, a professional ghostwriter takes on the job of completing the memoirs of an English Prime Minister recently voted out of office when the previous writer dies – under mysterious circumstances! Harris has denied that The Ghost's ex-PM "Adam Lang" is meant to be a literal portrait of Tony Blair, despite unmistakable parallels. Harris supported Blair in the late 1990s, apparently socialized with him on at least one occasion and became increasingly disillusioned with him, particularly following Great Britain's support of the United States in waging the Iraq War. Where Stephen Frears' The Queen offers an admiring portrayal of Blair, The Ghost better represents the public anger towards Blair in his last years in office. One character remarks, "Name me one decision that Adam Lang took as Prime Minister that wasn't in the interest of the United States of America."

The Ghost offers a compelling portrait of Lang and his entourage adjusting to life out of power. The unnamed narrator finds himself within Lang's inner circle when the International Court threatens to charge him with war crimes for allowing "extraordinary rendition" of war combatants to be tortured by the CIA. There's a long quotation that provides the definition of "waterboarding." When the narrator begins to investigate the death of his predecessor, the sleuthing and conspiracy plot feel both familiar and preposterous. When Harris spends seemingly endless pages describing Martha’s Vineyard as a deserted winter wasteland, or follows his narrator as he conducts his investigation by Google, the novel feels like a missed opportunity – one misses Lang for the long stretches that he's off-stage.

Surprisingly, some of The Ghost's most intriguing sections take an insider's look at the craft of ghost writing, such as this insightful passage:

And so we swapped memories for hour after hour, and I will not say we began to concoct a childhood for Lang, exactly – I was careful not to depart from the known historical record – but we certainly pooled our experiences to such an extent that a few of my memories inevitably became blended into his. You may find this shocking. I was shocked myself, the first time I heard one of my clients on television weepily describing a poignant moment from his past that was actually from my past. But there it is. People who succeed in life are rarely reflective. Their gaze is always on the future: that’s why they succeed.

Primarily Harris specializes in historical thrillers like his terrific Cicero novels or early alternate-history books like his debut Fatherland, in which the Nazis won World War II. Paradoxically, his most studied and stodgy thriller turns out to be the one set in present day.

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