James Clavell | Critical Review by Thomas R. Edwards

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of James Clavell.
This section contains 1,366 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Thomas R. Edwards

Critical Review by Thomas R. Edwards

SOURCE: "Gulp!" in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXIII, No. 20, December 18, 1986, pp. 58-60.

Edwards is an American educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he faults Whirlwind for its lack of appeal and believability, lamenting that the novel "has nothing to do with any life I've ever heard of."

Whirlwind, a "now" book for which the publisher reportedly paid Clavell $5 million, the highest price ever paid for a novel, takes place in Iran between February 9 and March 4, 1979, just after the flight of the Shah and the advent of Khomeini but well before the hostage crisis. Almost 1150 densely printed pages are devoted to these twenty-four days; the evident aim is to let us know just what all of an enormous international cast of characters were doing moment by moment. But they often weren't doing much of anything, and the consequence is not fiction but chronicle run mad, a triumph of "data overload" over the faintest illusion of reality:

Inside the Range Rover it was warm and comfortable. Azadeh wore padded, modern ski gear and a cashmere sweater underneath, matching blue, and short boots. Now she took off her jacket and her neat woolen ski cap, and her full-flowing, naturally wavy dark hair fell to her shoulders. Near noon they stopped for a picnic lunch beside a mountain stream. In the early afternoon they drove through orchards of apple, pear, and cherry trees, now bleak and leafless and naked in the landscape, then came to the outskirts of Qazvin, a town of perhaps 150,000 inhabitants and many mosques.

"How many mosques are there in all Iran, Azadeh?" he asked.

"Once I was told twenty thousand," she answered sleepily, opening her eyes and peering ahead. "Ah, Qazvin! You've made good time, Erikki." A yawn swamped her and she settled more comfortably and went back into half sleep. "There're twenty thousand mosques and fifty thousand mullahs, so they say. At this rate we'll be in Tehran in a couple of hours…."

This would be a good passage for a reading comprehension test:

  1. How many mullahs are said to be in Iran? a) 150,000? b) twenty thousand? c) fifty thousand? d) many?
  2. At this rate, in a couple of hours we'll be: a) in Qazvin; b) in Tehran; c) only on the next page.

It would also do as an outline for a miniseries, with cues to the coiffeur and the wardrobe department. But it can hardly be called writing.

The events—there is no story—cluster loosely around an Anglo-Scottish helicopter company which has been serving the Iranian oil fields. We follow its pilots, managers, and support employees through these chaotic days; some of them have Iranian wives and in-laws, who lead the narrative outward into the local landscape, culture, and politics; assorted mullahs, bandits, revolutionaries, bourgeois profiteers, and spies prowl and prowl around (as P.G. Wodehouse would say) like the troops of Midian. The Europeans are hard to keep straight since so many of them have Scottish names (or cute ones—there's a "Nogger," an "Effer," and a "Scragger") and since they're all doing the same thing, saving their personal and organizational hides. The Islamic characters appear to have lost something in translation; within a page, for example, a Kurdish sheik says "So you dare to disobey me?" "You wish to beg for mercy?" "What trickery is this" and "Are you mad?"—sounding more like a heavy from an old Universal serial than a descendent of the great Saladin. And the factionalism of this revolution, as Clavell scrupulously reports it, may give the unschooled Western reader a headache—I learned to remember that the Tudeh are Communists, the Green Bands Khomeini's Shi'ites, and the SAVAK the Shah's secret police, but I never did figure out who the mujhadin and the fedayeen are.

Much violence and some sex occur, but the sex consists largely of fanatic male Muslims exposing themselves to unveiled women while grunting about their brutish intentions, and the violence, though detailed, usually observes the rule that when good Europeans are on the verge of destruction, a mysterious shot will ring out to save them, while when bad Iranians think they have it made, the puritanical Green Bands will burst in from nowhere to spoil their sport. Clavell keeps alluding to excitements one would be only too grateful to feel, but an indecision about what his words mean to do continually stifles titillation:

… Bayazid pulled the pin out of a grenade and tossed it through the doorway. The explosion was huge. Smoke billowed out into the corridor. At once Bayazid leaped through the opening, gun leveled, Erikki beside him.

The room was wrecked, windows blown out, curtains ripped, the carpet bed torn apart, the remains of the guard crumpled against a wall. In the alcove at the far end of the huge room … the table was upended, a serving maid moaning, and two inert bodies half buried under table cloth and smashed dishes. Erikki's heart stopped as he recognized Azadeh. In panic he rushed over and shoved the debris off her[,]… lifted her into his arms, her hair flowing, and carried her into the light. His breathing did not start again until he was sure she was still alive—unconscious, only God knew how damaged, but alive. She wore a long blue cashmere peignoir that hid all of her, but promised everything. The tribesmen pouring into the room were swept by her beauty.

Some of my problems here are minor. I don't understand how the grenade's pin could make such a "huge" explosion. And it's impressive of Erikki to hold his breath (or heartbeat?) long enough to get to the far end of a "huge" room, remove all that debris, pick Azadeh up, carry her into the light (wherever that is), and thoroughly check her vital signs. But the last two sentences are the most puzzling. I thought I was supposed to be enjoying the mayhem, but it's Azadeh's body and the "everything" it promises the tribesmen and me that are the bait. Yet there's no body there, only its ghostly paradigm—long hair, blue cashmere—left over from the previous passage.

Why would anyone, of any age, occupation, or state of culture, want to read such a book? To some customers, I suppose, it may seem to offer instruction in recent history—what was that Iranian business all about? But Whirlwind never really says what it was about. Clavell is rather reticent about the imperfections of the Pahlavi regime, and though he shows some interest in the motives of the Shah's enemies and in "the Islamic mind" generally, his Iranians are mostly pictured as an excitable, devious, venal, self-destructive lot. And the Western character's contempt for the Carter administration and the Callaghan government in England, so sweeping as to suggest that the author's own politics are showing, doesn't clarify issues.

Spies and counterspies are endemic in Whirlwind, but the serious devotee of espionage fiction will want to look elsewhere. We learn that the SAVAK was ruthless, M16 plucky but understaffed, the KGB cunning and brutal, and the CIA dumb and obvious, just about as we'd expect. (But I doubt that even the CIA would choose "Wesson Oil Marketing" as the name of a petroleum company it uses for cover.) Clavell's suspense fails because all the spies keep quadruple-and quintuple-crossing everyone in sight, to the reader's bewilderment; when anything clear emerges, it is on the order of the megalomaniac SAVAK man who plots to bend the Iranian multitudes to his will by feeding them psychedelic drugs. "How exciting this is," someone says late in the book, but my sentiments are those of the British agent who says, "Christ! Where will it all end?" (And when?)

As someone who has misspent much of his life reading and somehow enjoying commercial fiction, good and awful, I must say that Whirlwind is by far the worst novel I've ever finished. I can't imagine anyone reading it with pleasure, but reading is probably the wrong thing to do with it. Better just to have it handy as the sign of the intention, at least, to know more about important things, like Asia…. James Clavell's novel has nothing to do with any life I've ever heard of.

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This section contains 1,366 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Thomas R. Edwards
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