How to Sell — Clancy Martin

How to Sell works, or at least the first half does while the second descends to melodrama. It’s a novel of surfaces and not an easily quotable book. The narrator notices but doesn’t do up the descriptions:

I should have known that as soon as the pitch started Jim believed the lines he was throwing me. It’s like being an actor or prime minister, you get all worked up with the audience and you think can can say nothing false or unbelievable.

How to sellOne could say many professions involve lying as a central component of the work; one could say that science does the opposite and is one of the only fields in which lying, while possible, is at least also discoverable. In How to Sell the narrator and his brother, Jim, work the jewelry business in a pre-Internet age, though I’m not sure how much the Internet has changed that business.

How to Sell starts with an Elmore Leonard-esque word slide: “Our father told it that Jim was caught dressing up in my grandmother’s black Mikimotos when he was scarcely two years old.” He “told it?” To who, when, how? It doesn’t matter since we don’t find it, but it and that weird “scarcely” tell us that the narrator isn’t quite level and maybe the story won’t be either.

It isn’t, not really, and much of the discussion revolves around who is lying (everyone) and who isn’t (no one, not really, including the narrator). Yet a lot of people want to be lied to and put themselves in a position to be lied to and then others do the lying and justify it, as Jim explains:

Look, Bobby, the appraisal is not a lab report. [. . .] We are not calculators, we are people and so are our customers.

W’re people and we want to be lied to. The people who want the truth take the time to learn how jewelry works and the rest take the bullshit the salesman tells them. But information has a cost and so in some circumstances it’s easier to just do it without paying attention to the niggling gaps between details; a lot of romantic relationships function on the same principles as selling jewelry, as the novel makes clear since it is about how the one activity is a metaphor for another. Jewelry is a potent metaphor here because it’s also unnecessary: no one dies because they can’t wear it. As a pure luxury item it is sold as glamor, and one element of glamor is a lie plausible or well-presented enough to be believed.

No one in this book should be married or in a monogamous relationship, yet many characters are and their dilemmas would go away if they could undergo that simple change. But they can’t, or won’t.

Characters are constantly giving bad advice. One, a man named Kizakov, says “In this business, always trust your eyes.” Except that eyes can be deceived, which is why humans build so many tools to augment what we can see. Our senses should be verified rather than trusted; in this way do they also resemble lovers? In that domain broken promises may not be the norm but the evolutionary and other pressures are so strong that everyone at least knows stories about crumbling and breakage and base metals.

Jim gives brotherly advice: “Sometimes it’s better to stay on the surface with somebody.” People who say that often mean, “Stay on the surface with me.” Jim is a man of surfaces more than most people, and when he stays “on the surface” he means that he’ll do what he wants, when he wants it, and you’re only “in” with him to the extent you can do something for him. For men that means selling and for women that not surprisingly means something else.

The owner of the store, Mr. Popper, has a post-modernist view of the truth, as when he says that “It don’t really matter [what’s real and what’s fake], so long as she’s done right.” The similarities to love are again obvious; the bad outcome for Mr. Popper is also not surprising.

A few other points: Clancy knows enough about the jewelry business to describe it or learned enough about the jewelry business to fake it. There is substance amid the love lines and too many novels forget that. The second half of the novel is less about the technical facets of the jewelry business and that’s part of why it is weaker.

* There is more in common with selling jewelry and religion than is commonly supposed.

* To some extent no one knows anyone and that fact continues to drive fiction.

The Spies of Warsaw — Alan Furst

The Spies of Warsaw suffers, probably mortally, from the inherent deficiency of historical fiction that depends on an outcome that has already been decided—and therefore none of the characters can stop or change it. In this novel, Mercier, a French military attaché in pre-World War II Warsaw whose adventures lead him, with the creeping horror of a science fiction protagonist discovering that aliens inhabit the bodies of his friends, toward the startling revelation that Germany intends to attack France through the Ardennes forest. In retrospect, of course, we know this, making the constant references to the mystery—”Just precisely what forest were the Germans thinking about?” (85), “Still, it was—oh, not exactly dangerous, France wasn’t at war with Germany […]” (135), ” ‘Newspapers on the continent explain every day why there won’t be war. And I assure you there will be, unless the right people determine to stop it.’ ‘I can only hope this meeting is a step in the right direction,’ Mercier said. ‘We shall see.’ ” (225)—grow old with repetition and obviousness. Dramatic irony ends too soon, and the dramatic irritation begins. Invented worlds of fantasy, or the equally fanciful and usually poorly written worlds of Tom Clancy, let us imagine that single individuals can control global destinies, but we don’t have this luxury to prevent or alter the course of World War II in a world that remain in the bounds of history.

For a historical novel to work, it needs to focus on the individuals or on how something came to be. If it relies on a well-known event to generate tension without focusing on how that event touches the people involved, we know the fundamental outcome and that it cannot be changed. The Spies of Warsaw doesn’t transcend its focus on the pre-war atmosphere, and we know the efforts of Mercier to raise the alarm in France have to fail. Sure, a perfunctory romance blooms from nowhere and everywhere between Mercier and Anna, and it happens with as little surprise as the invasion of Poland, but nonetheless tries to generate authentic feeling from too small a base; I’d take the James Bond, anti-Romantic mode of spy romance, in which the characters reflect the cold of international politics instead of acting as counterpoints. I could imagine a great novel with love as that alternative, but The Spies of Warsaw isn’t it.

That isn’t to say The Spies of Warsaw is unredeemed: the beginning and end move with swiftness the middle lacks, and bits of description are wonderful in their accuracy: “From some distant century, an ancient waiter in a swallowtail coat moved toward them, parchment face lit by a beatific smile, parchment hands holding a silver tray, which trembled slightly, bearing two glasses of champagne” (50). The word “ancient” might be overkill, but otherwise the subtle resonance between the elegant but decrepit waiter and the horror of Europe being overtaken by the barbaric young who don’t understand the lessons of past wars is strong, and the theme is well-developed. Others aren’t so carefully done, and when Mercier says, “You work for people, madame, and I work for people. Maybe they’re not so different, the people we work for” (165), the long shadow of John le Carré falls across another spy thriller that could be improved by dropping the now-obvious implication that the methods of the free West are similar to those employed by its authoritarian enemies—a subject that could make a great paper for college sophomores but is by now a standard trope of the spy novel. Whether the equivalent between Western and authoritarian regimes is an intentional or subconscious allusion to current events in Abu Ghraib and other black sites I don’t know, but the point has been made so many times elsewhere that to have it so bluntly reiterated is mere repetition, both from other books to The Spies of Warsaw and within it: “None of us are saints, my friends; we all watch each other, sooner or later” (181).

Elsewhere, the quiet dread and pathos of a letter from Jews elicits this: “Mercier read it more than once, thought about answering the letter, then realized, a sadder thing than the letter itself, that there was nothing to be said” (117). The alliteration of the “t” sound doesn’t give the sentence the musicality it could otherwise have, but the sentiment of a futile desire for decency is nonetheless powerful. Boring parties are well-described, especially given the stultifying rules so often governing them. The spying machinations are clever enough to be worth following but not so clever as to be cartoonish. Somewhere in Alan Furst there is, I think, a better novel gestating, and I hope one day to see it. Night Soldiers showed potential, but I fear that potential has yet to be fulfilled, and I can only hope it will be even as I suspect it won’t.

%d bloggers like this: