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
, 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.