Reviewing The Ghostwriter

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Note: my good friend and accomplished novelist, Frank J. Edwards, asked me to contribute a guest post to his eminently readable blog at “On what?” said I. “You’re a ghostwriter, aren’t you? Review The Ghostwriter.”

He meant, of course, the Roman Polanski film based on Robert Harris’ fine suspense novel, The Ghost. I hadn’t yet seen the film (which I may review as well one of these days). But I couldn’t resist saying a few words the book, for in Harris’ hands, the suspense genre bled perceptibly — how’s that for a thriller simile –onto the dress of literary fiction. So here’s one ghostwriter’s take on a novel about another. Enjoy.

Robert Harris’ The Ghost, one of the best political thrillers ever written, has had the mixed blessing of being turned into one of the best political thrillers ever filmed: Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. I’m told the movie was so well done that it’s changed how we experience the book. We can’t help now but superimpose Pierce Brosnan’s face over Adam Lang, the ex-British Prime Minister in the novel, whose features before the film already carried undertones of Tony Blair’s. New editions of the book are being issued under the film title, The Ghost Writer. This is not a minus: scene after scene will read with an extra layer of ambiguity and resonance now, which rarely harms a thriller. Graham Greene’s The Third Man certainly isn’t any less of a classic because we can’t think of Harry Lime without thinking of Orson Welles’ portrayal.

But it does distract from the book considered purely in terms of its writing, and that is a shame; for Harris’ is a beautifully written book, and as valuable a book about writing and the writer’s life as any recently published. Written in the first person, each page glows with coolly memorable asides by its ghostwriter protagonist –

“…The bruise where I had been punched on Friday ripened, turned black and purple, and was fringed with yellow, like some exploding supernova beamed back by the Hubble Telescope…”

“…the folksier an institution’s name, the more Stalinist its function…”

“…Heathrow the next morning looked like one of those bad science fiction movies set in the near future’ after the security forces have taken over the state…”

– and my favorite, the ghost writer’s comment as he reviews the manuscript draft of the former Prime Minister:

“…and when I laid down the manuscript I pressed my hands to my cheeks and opened my mouth and eyes wide, in a reasonable imitation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.”

What ghostwriter (like myself) has not gone through that? God, one mutters, how true!

The pacing, the dialogue, the moody Atlantic shore atmosphere, the dry wit – everything a thriller needs is there, and done so well that Harris, again like Greene, transcends the genre: this is literature, not pop fiction, the sort of literature that every reasonable intelligent adult should and must read if he or she wants to better understand the modern world.

But for newcomers to, and veterans of, the writing life, the book is a double joy. I’ve can’t recall reading any recent thriller more rich in insights into writing and the writer’s life. The ghostwriter hero of The Ghost is a sharp, funny, gifted, extremely professional practitioner of the writer’s life and the writer’s craft. Whether it’s arranging the book deal, digging through research, groaning over draft material, or learning that the truths one uncovers can sometimes be deadly if expressed, this is a book that every writer should read. A book in which a gifted colleague eloquently describes the burden of our common cross: “I had to produce thirty-four hundred words a day, every day. I had a chart on the wall and marked it up each morning. I was like Captain Scott returning from the South Pole: I had to make those daily distances or I’d fall irrevocably behind and perish in a white wilderness of blank pages.” Yes.

This is not merely a riveting thriller to open between flights, but an education in politics and in writing — an accomplished novel to buy, read, and re-read. Dare I call it haunting? In any case, a masterly performance.


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