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Betrayed by Memory

SPIES, A Novel , By Michael Frayn, Metropolitan Books: 264 pp., $23

April 21, 2002|RICHARD ZIMLER | Richard Zimler is the author of "The Angelic Darkness" and "The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon."

Making a story out of the past may be the best chance we have of putting it into a sensible order, complete with causes, patterns and consequences--an order that can, depending on our storytelling skills, help orient us in the present. To novelists, this often means returning to childhood to explore those wonderful, tender and cruel moments that started us on the path to ourselves.

"Spies" opens with Londoner Stephen Wheatley returning home after an absence of 50 years to the quiet neighborhood where he lived during World War II, when the threat of German bombing prompted a diffident and troubled young boy to spend his days imagining dangerous and heroic adventures. A mysterious floral scent draws him back, and this shifting borderline between smell and memory is something that Michael Frayn explores throughout the novel.

Stephen's reminiscences soon turn to his only childhood friend, Keith, who conceives and directs their adventures together; wherever Keith leads, our narrator warily follows. Stephen also ends up paying the price for their mischief, giving their relationship a sadistic edge, especially as Keith shows no interest in the troubles that Stephen encounters with adults or even any sympathy for his emotional conflicts.

It's a promising start, particularly for readers interested in the great hidden lives of children, except that Frayn soon makes it clear that he prefers to use his keen powers of observation to painstakingly portray everything from toys to furniture rather than to explore the inner lives of his two central characters. It's as if he's hoping that we'll get to know them--and care about their escapades--from what their houses look like.

Nevertheless, "Spies" seems about to take off when Stephen tells us that Keith pronounced "six simple words" that immediately turned their world inside out, but 20 more pages of physical description and characterizations of peripheral characters follow. What was meant to be suspenseful ends up as artificial and irritating; we are only too aware that the author is making us wait to find out what dramatic line changed their lives.

Keith eventually suggests that someone from one of their families has betrayed England's war effort, and the rest of the novel follows the two incipient spies as they stealthily investigate this possibility. Intriguingly, the clues they soon turn up prompt them to begin to believe their own construct. Simple scribblings become coded messages, and neighborhood outings made by their parents become missions coordinated by enemy strategists. Their small world becomes fraught with second meanings.

The most engaging parts of the book offer us a close look at Stephen's different layers of anxiety and fear--at the possibility of being caught by those being spied on, at finding clues seeming to confirm that there's a secret agent in their midst, at failing to fulfill his cruel friend's expectations of him. These emotions ought to have become the driving force of the novel, but again and again the author's intrusive descriptions--and Proustian observations about memory--take all urgency and delight from his tale.

Frayn's characterization of Stephen's memory also becomes more and more implausible, useful mainly so that the author can say something about the act and art of narrative. Stephen remembers the most minute details about room decor, facial expressions and clothing, but he cannot recall the key moments in that summer's adventure--what he said during a confrontation with Keith's mother, for instance, or when it was that a policeman arrived at a possible crime scene. It's meant to be a comment on the unreliability of narrative and memory, but it ends up making Stephen an insincere and unsympathetic storyteller.

The ending is a disappointment. In an effort to tie up the loose ends he's left over the previous 250 pages, the author resorts to sleight-of-hand revelations reminiscent of a 1940s crime novel, in which, for example, the private eye concludes that the Japanese princess was really a Korean transvestite and her fan a treasure map. It's unnecessary because anyone interested enough in the emotions of a boy in wartime London to buy this book isn't going to care whether there's a clever surprise ending that ties everything up in a neat little package.

If only Frayn had had more confidence in us--that we don't need photographic inventories of living rooms or mysteries strung out over several chapters to keep us turning the pages of an insightful story. Indeed, if the most simply told and convincing parts of "Spies" were tied together, they would undoubtedly make a very compelling and disturbing 120-page novella.

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