The novelist Tom Clancy died in Baltimore yesterday. He was 66 years old. (Which means I’m about half his age. Which is crazy.)
Clancy is very tightly bound up with learning how to read adult fiction for me. A gateway drug, taken in a cocktail with Tolkien, Agatha Christie, CS Lewis, Alan Moore, Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Melville … Someone who helped lead me to much of what followed. Although I quickly learned to detest the worldview exemplified in the books he wrote as I matured, I also have to acknowledge that having read and re-read many of his books, he was an important part of my childhood. There was always a seductive sense of a moral universe, determined heroes and plotting villains about his works. Their lack of moral ambiguity and their sense of realism and admiration for the moving parts of the intelligence industry had something deeply appealing about them.
His novels combined a sense of deep knowledge and technical realism of the everyday work of intelligence operations, military and paramilitary organisation, with that feeling of male fantasy that dominates parts of the American right. In that sense, he prefigured, maybe even shaped, the state of mind that rose to rule the US in the post 9/11-world. That same combined sense of military fetishism and self-delusional fantasy is a figure of mind that we have come to know very well. It is appropriate that his first break came when Ronald Reagan spoke positively of the book, and that the Bush administration’s biggest problem could be stated like this: it thought it lived in the Ryanverse. But it didn’t.
By the time I got around to reading Clear and Present Danger, I knew that the person writing these books did not share my values. Though I found parts of the moral story he told compelling, his approving descriptions of mock executions, massive surveillance, assassinations and defense of military operations with massive collateral damage led me to understand his work differently than I had as a kid. At the time, I was joining the Amnesty International Youth organisation and learning about human rights. I started to see the books as dangerous fantasies of self-justification. I saw the obvious approval the narrator has of Jack Ryan and his allies and the stark contrast between that and the obvious moral evils they perpetrate. I started, while continuing to enjoy the novels as guilty pleasures, to see Clancy as an apologist for a lot of the wrongs of US agency in the world.
I stopped reading Clancy at some point in my adolescence. To go back to those books now is, to me at least, to peek into a child’s self-righteous fantasies. Some good storytelling but mostly terrible prose. And while I thank mr. Clancy for the enjoyment he gave me, and for the working knowledge of intelligence and military work which as a child was leagues ahead of my peers, I feel I can’t quite commend him for his work. It sits uneasily with me now.
There was always a sense to me of how he was a barometer of the fears and anxieties of the American consciousness. Always ahead of the curve, always fearing what we would all come to be fearing next. Always playing out conflicts that would come to pass, justifying those conflicts, representing the American spin on them. To put it with one of his own titles, his work is the sum of all fears. He showed us emerging from fear of the Soviets and communism into the strange, confusing world of assymetric warfare with incomprehensible enemies in a multipolar world. His work shows the confusion. The inability to build a coherent narrative around them is testimony to the strange place we live now. The focused, rational fear of the Soviets becoming reflexive paranoia with nowhere to go. Eventually his novels were simple, black and white accounts of a deeply confusing world that resisted easy narratives. That he failed to make sense of the world in his works shows us, even today, the unease with which the paranoia of the security state deals with the sheer complication and chaos of the real.