Log in

Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
UBC #4: Doctor No 
16th-Apr-2006 03:21 am
UBC #4
Fleming, Ian. Doctor No. New York: Signet-New American Library, 1958.

This book veered between the extremely good and the extremely bad, with very little middle ground.

The action scenes and sequences were all brilliant and gripping, especially but not uniquely Doctor No's "obstacle course." And in a book of this nature, that's no small thing. The end boss (to borrow video game parlance) is bloody brilliant.

Fleming is notorious for his passion for brand names, but I figured out, reading this, that it isn't exactly a passion for brand names, per se. Or, isn't only a passion for brand names. It's a fetish for exactitude, especially in matters pertaining to machines. Bond's gun(s), certainly, but also cars and airplanes and anything else of a mechanical nature. (One reason the "dragon" is so disconcerting is that Bond can't identify it.) Fleming knows exactly what they are and how they work. The Decauderville Track of the guanery is the perfect example. I don't know what that is, and there's no reason on earth I need to know--no reason it needs to be mentioned, even--but Fleming gives the precise detail. It's part of how he, and Bond, work.

Of course, sometimes this gets him into trouble. Dobermann Pinschers "baying" on a scent (86), for example. And the eccentric behavior of the Audubon Society might be a little easier to swallow if the organization weren't so carefully specified. But for the most part, it's a way of conjuring the world: not subtle, but not ineffective, either. Fleming's good at it.

He's not good at people. Doctor No and his backstory are just ludicrously unbelievable. (... I'm not even going to start.) I was relieved when we saw the last of Quarrel because it meant I was rid of the Noble Savage and his dialect. (I don't really have room to complain about dialect in books *cough*Mildmay*cough*, but phonetic renderings should be avoided at all costs. Just let it go, Mr. Fleming.)

And poor Honeychile Rider ...

What's interesting about her, actually, is the way her character schisms between a genuine and interesting individual (this girl raised wild in Jamaica, a self-taught naturalist, tough and practical, earthy and naïve) and the stereotypes and clichés that characterize Fleming's attitude toward women. Both Bond and Fleming like and admire Honeychile, but there's a fundamental failure of imagination, of empathy, that for me crystalized the essential failure of bigotry.


You're a twenty-year-old woman, born and raised in Jamaica. Since you were five, you've lived in the ruins of your ancestral home with no company except your nanny; since you were fifteen, you've lived on your own. You love animals and the natural world, but human beings puzzle and alarm you more than any "wild" animal ever could. Your only experience of sex is a man who beat you unconscious and raped you (you got him back for it, though, you and your black widow spider), and you have a badly broken nose as a memento of him. You've started making money by collecting shells, and there's a place you know about that no one else knows, where there are some particularly rare and valuable ones. It's difficult and dangerous to get to; there are men with guns who hunt for you, but you hide from them, and they've never found you yet.

You're there, on the beach, naked except for your hunting knife. (She wore a broad leather belt around her waist with a hunting knife in a leather sheath at her right hip. The belt made her nakedness extraordinarily erotic (69). Thank you, Mr. Fleming.) You're happy, whistling. And then someone whistles back.

Is this how you react?
Hesitantly she began again. The whistle trembled and died. At the first note of Bond's echo, the girl whirled round. She didn't cover her body with the two classical gestures. One hand flew downward, but the other, instead of hiding her breasts, went up to her face, covering it below the eyes, now wide with fear. ... The girl dropped her hand down from her face. It went to the knife at her belt. Bond watched the fingers curl round the hilt. He looked up at her face. Now he realized why her hand had instinctively gone to it. It was a beautiful face, with wide-apart deep blue eyes under lashes paled by the sun. The mouth was wide and when she stopped pursing the lips with tension they would be full. It was a serious face and the jawline was determined--the face of a girl who fends for herself. And once, reflected Bond, she had failed to fend. For the nose was badly broken, smashed crooked like a boxer's. Bond stiffened with revolt at what had happened to this supremely beautiful girl. No wonder this was her shame and not the beautiful firm breasts that now jutted towards him without concealment.

No. Because Fleming doesn't understand that the instinctive reaction to cover oneself isn't shame (we aren't Eve--another woman trapped in a patriarchal text), but fear. Defense. And a girl like this one, "a girl who fends for herself," a girl who's been raped once--she isn't going to give a damn about her nose. She might reach to cover herself, but I think it's much more likely she'd reach straight for her knife.

Honeychile doesn't react as a human being, in other words, but as a cliché. She reacts the way her creator thinks all women would react ... because he's never made the effort (can't or won't, either way) to put himself imaginatively in their shoes. And that's bigotry, in its essence. She reacts (as I said about the women in Goldfinger) exactly as Bond expects her to react. And Fleming, the origin of Bond's expectations, validates those expectations by making Honeychile conform to them. Because (I think) he doesn't understand that women don't react as men would if they were trapped in female bodies. (And please notice that use of the word "trapped"; it's deliberate. Because it's not about how men would react if they were women.) That's what it is: Honeychile reacts as if she shares Bond's view of her--not merely his opinions, but as if she's looking at herself with him, watching her own body from a male perspective.

Yes, the Male Gaze. I've reinvented the wheel. It's three-fifteen and I have raging insomnia. Bear with me.

(This imaginative failure also explains why Pussy Galore and Honeychile, both rape victims, fall into bed with Bond without a second thought. Because Fleming doesn't have any emotional understanding of rape. Again, he hasn't made that empathetic leap.)

It's not deliberate. I believe the narrative's admiration for Honeychile is sincere, if very clumsily expressed. In fact, it's the ingenuousness of Fleming's sexism that makes it interesting, because you can see it. It's all out in the open.

Just like his delight in machines.
16th-Apr-2006 10:16 am (UTC)
I agree with most of this (and I'm a fan, what can I say, this was my childhood?) but I feel compelled to point out that there are a fair number of rape survivors who do have a fair amount of casual sex, either because you can't take what's freely given or because it's their body dammit and they're going to have fun with it etc. I had a rape and incest survivor as a roommate briefly whose casual sluttery was frankly frightening. (As in, I'd like to know before I get up in the morning that there's going to be a strange man in the living room, so I don't forget to put a robe on.)

With any sort of trauma, there's a wide range of responses people have; one of the reasons people who holler that if you write about rape, you are obliged to write about it with realism, dammit drive me crazy is that they usually don't seem to realise that a lot of people have never bothered to read all the rape-survivor self-help manuals and hence do not understand that they're all supposed to go through the same stages when they get raped, so they don't.
16th-Apr-2006 10:36 am (UTC)
(I love your icon.)

What you say is perfectly true, and I'm well aware of it. But what Fleming's doing (or failing to do) is ... I don't know how to describe it. But it's like he's said to himself, "Rape, trauma, check. Bond, sex, check." Pussy Galore is a "lesbian" (which I put in sarcastic quote-marks because it's clear Fleming wouldn't have known a lesbian if she'd walked up and bit him on the ass) until Bond changes her mind--by doing nothing more, apparently, than existing in the same room with her for a couple of scenes. Honeychile isn't running around Jamaica having casual sex. She's apparently just been waiting for Bond to awaken her; it's made explicit at one point that she's a virgin except for the guy who raped her.

It's not that their reactions aren't textbook. It's that they're not commensurate. With anything.

Does that make any sense?
16th-Apr-2006 12:15 pm (UTC)
I spent some time discussing the Bond novels with a longtime Flemign fan once, and trying to argue some of the things you've brought up here, and finally I was like, "But if they're male-fantasy novels, why does the character get the everliving crap beaten out of him in every single book?"

My correspondent replied that there was a reason spanking was the classic English sexual vice.

Bond survives outlandish assault all the time, and takes his revenge, and takes both attack and revenge as his ordinary due. To a certain extent, it's possible to see these rape victims reacting in the same way: I got (my fingernails pulled out/raped), and then I (shot the guy 100 times/sicced a black widow spider on him), and now it's over, and hey, let's move on with the plot, shall we? Not terribly insightful of Fleming, but a weird attempt at egalitarianism.

This doesn't cover the part where Honeychile is wandering around completely naked, which anybody who actually has glorious breasts will tell you is not advised during athletic activities.
16th-Apr-2006 12:40 pm (UTC)
This hypothesis does not fit P. Galore, although I agree that, with a maximal dose of charity, one could see Honeychile's case that way.

I think what squicks me about it is the underlying implication that being raped is a normal part of a woman's sex life. Like getting beaten up is a normal part of Bond's work life.
16th-Apr-2006 03:17 pm (UTC)
Well, yes, I do think that is the implication. (And I agree it is a first-class ticket to Therapytown.) What continually amazes me is that they got THOSE MOVIES out of that source. Like, okay, they didn't freak your shit right out? You thought they would be fun?

I haven't read the Pussy Galore one, just the first two or three. (And actually, I still think the only one worth my time was Casino Royale. Sharpest distillation of Fleming's particular brand of crazy, best setting, most interesting use of postwar Europe.)
16th-Apr-2006 04:11 pm (UTC)
Doesn't that have ?Tiffany Case, who was actually gangraped in adolescence when her mother ?refused to pay protection to the Mob for her brothel - and demands of Bond 'everything you've ever done to a woman'? (I could well be confusing it with another, because they all do run into one another rather with the recurrent motifs.)
16th-Apr-2006 06:17 pm (UTC)
Tiffany Case is in Diamonds are Forever, which I am reading right now. Haven't got to her backstory yet.
17th-Apr-2006 07:15 pm (UTC)
Is there some plot thing to do with blackjack, with her as croupier? That might account for my confusion, though 'Bond plays cards' is almost as frequent a motif as his routine overcoming of major female sexual traumas.
16th-Apr-2006 12:41 pm (UTC)
Also, you are spot on about "glorious" breasts.
16th-Apr-2006 01:54 pm (UTC)
And as I recall, they think "fuck" comes from "ficken," Old English or something like that for "to strike, to hit." It's a pretty transitive verb, either way.

If Lorena Bobbitt were a character in a book, I could believe it if she later suddenly fell, hard, for some guy. It may well have happened once already with the guy she later foreshortened.
16th-Apr-2006 01:04 pm (UTC)
Imho, if Honeychile hasn't spent any time with people, she isn't going to care how her nose looks.
16th-Apr-2006 02:21 pm (UTC)
I've seen books written by women in which their men characters are men-as-women-see-them, when they're not men-as-women-would-have-them. I have lower expectations about character deficiency in thrillers a la Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler (who, I note, are also precise about type and brand of equipment) just as I do (or would if I read them) in romance novels. Thrillers, anyway, are not so much character-driven.

I've read quite a few stories in the vein of men trapped in women's bodies or women in men's, and where they mainly fail is in not acknowledging that what people feel makes them who they are. I can't recall one in which I actually bought it that you switch bodies and your emotions don't change. That being said, though, it sounds to me as though you were already arguing with the author in your mind when you read that passage. I agree with you that there isn't one way in which all women would react in that kind of situation, but it sounds as though you're creating a different absolute-- that there is one way in which no woman would react.

Finally, "bigotry" strikes me as not a precise enough word to be useful. How do you define it?
16th-Apr-2006 06:28 pm (UTC)
I think that in that situation, worrying about one's beauty or lack thereof is a ridiculous response, and not commensurate with Honeychile's character as we otherwise see it.

I'm not saying NO character could respond like that--I can come up with scenarios where hiding one's disfigurement WOULD be the first thing on a person's mind, and come up with characters shallow and/or damaged enough that that would be their first reaction--but that it's not the response of the character Fleming describes. It's the response of the pigeon-hole in Fleming's mind labelled WOMAM.
17th-Apr-2006 12:58 am (UTC)
Hmm, I wouldn't have thought that the reaction only of someone really shallow or damaged. You needn't even be genuinely disfigured-- only insecure enough.

Though it does seem the action of someone who hasn't thought the action through. How long does she imagine she's going to hold her hand like that?

The only way I could see her suddenly having a reaction more social than the way we're told she's grown up is if she's suddenly and intensely attracted to him. Which seems like a different, or perhaps compound, literary sin-- of the author falling so in love with his character (with Bond, that is) that he makes Bond just attract the women like flies, even unlikely ones like this.

But it sounds as though you're going on his depiction of women throughout the book. I've never read any Fleming, so I can't really discuss that point in much depth.
17th-Apr-2006 03:12 am (UTC)
imho, that level of insecurity is damage. (I meant emotional damage, not physical damage--I can see that perhaps that wasn't clear.)
16th-Apr-2006 06:29 pm (UTC)
I've seen books written by women in which their men characters are men-as-women-see-them, when they're not men-as-women-would-have-them.

Interesting. Any examples? I'm curious.
17th-Apr-2006 01:14 am (UTC)
None leap to mind, which could mean either that the writers weren't good enough to stick in my mind, or that I didn't care enough to note it. That element of gender fantasy doesn't seem limited to the romance or thriller genres I mentioned, though.

It's like...oh, any time when you read a passage and could reverse the genders without causing believability issues. Sure, there are many times in life or fiction that that's going to be true. But you can't go the whole book that way. It simply feels like the author isn't appalled on occasion by what his or her characters do-- like they're fairly shallow variations on the author's own self.
(Deleted comment)
16th-Apr-2006 06:18 pm (UTC)

I read it as a child, and remember almost nothing about it. Except the car. Which is, admittedly, very cool.

Tried again when I came across our copy as an adult and Could. Not. Read. It.
18th-Apr-2006 02:17 pm (UTC)
I've never had my nose broken, but I'm guessing it's very painful and likely traumatic if I was completely on my own. I can imagine my hand going automatically to my nose in her position if I associated the presence of other people with being hurt. It would be a physical memory being triggered; her hand could go up in a reenaction of the earlier event.

As the paragraph is in Bond's POV, I would take any conclusions he came up with to be dubious. In this section, at least, her actions aren't completely unbelievable, if one ignores Bond's reflections as skewed and not actually a good assessment of reality.
18th-Apr-2006 03:26 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, as I have said before, the hypothesis that Bond is an unreliable viewpoint character does not hold water.
22nd-Apr-2006 08:50 am (UTC)
This makes sense to me. The visual image makes sense, with her putting her hands in front of her genitals and her nose at the approach of a strange man. The approach of a strange man HURT her genitals and her nose, in the past. As she is not James Bond, I don't expect her to be eager to dive into another such experience, or to regard it as just another day's work. I expect her to flinch, and reach to protect herself. Interpreting her flinch as an indication of shame is the only insane part of the scene. It looks entirely defensive to me, though it might be a clumsy attempt at defense...flinch reactions often are.
26th-Nov-2006 05:55 pm (UTC)
(I came across your post through technorati--I hope you don't mind this late comment)
I think you make an extremely persuasive case regarding Honey. I'd point out in mitigation that Honey's reaction is also akin to that of someone caught singing to themself while naked, and while she knows she's on an island with trained gunmen, hearing someone sing at her is probably not what she expected, and throws her for a loop. I think it's also important that she goes for her knife when she actually sees Bond, and is no longer startled by a spookily disembodied voice. Having seen a man emerge from the bushes, she now feels compelled to go for her knife. Having said all this, I ultimately have to concede that the character is one of Fleming's more sex-kittenish heroines.
I'm guessing from the April date of your post that you're not currently reading any more Bond books. If you ever decide to inflict more on yourself, I recommend The Spy Who Loved Me, the only novel written in first person by the heroine, and You Only Live Twice, which features perhaps the strongest of the Bond girls. Both novels are probably the most interesting entries in terms of gender relations and portrayals.
9th-Sep-2016 04:22 am (UTC) - Y'all are missing a very important point...
...that these stories were written in the early 1950s, which explains the sexism immediately (we didn't start seeing writing that treats women as people until the late '60s/early '70s). Fleming's fetish for brand names/exactitudes are endemic of the 50s, and the audience of those times, who were mostly living on a shoestring, and who knew of those brand names just as we today know of "iPhone" and "Mercedes-Benz", things that many people aspire to, and use as an indication of social status. It's also a particular British quirk, to use the brand names in as off-handed way as possible, as if your knowledge of said brand is intimate and detailed.

Which brings us to the characterization: people of the 50s (especially white people) tended to be very racially motivated, up to and including a person's ancestral makeup--Dr. No's description was perfectly apt and spot-on, and totally normal for that time period; and, the Chinese portion of his ancestry would put him, in the eyes of "good English (or other 'pure race') people", on a level just above Quarrel. Today, it's insulting and rude; in the 50s, however, it was totally normal.

As for Quarrel and his patois: go read the works of William Faulkner. And keep in mind the eras these stories come from: times when white people "ruled the earth". These books were written by a white man, for white men and women **of the day**, not for who might have come in the future. The dialection Fleming uses was a normal way to describe how it sounded to a white guy in those days. Hell, the patois used in Live And Let Die was far worse, and potentially more inflammatory today. But the fact remains, that's how they did such things in those days.

Besides being some decent stories, despite the racism and misogyny, and the basis for some cool movies, Fleming's works are a window into a past that's dying with the people who lived it, untainted by the rose-colored glasses of people who grew up thinking it was "Happy Days" all the time, because those that lived it were too embarrassed to tell the truth about it.

Put off those glasses, take out the ear buds tuned to the "golden-oldies" stations, and read these with an unbiased mind, and see what those days really were like.

As for me: thankfully, I missed the 50s, growing up in the 60s/70s. However, my parents were old (40) when they had me, so ALL the relatives were generations older than I, so I always got that glimpse into the past that was untinted with "good old days" syndrome.

Edited at 2016-09-09 04:24 am (UTC)
This page was loaded Feb 23rd 2017, 12:21 am GMT.