Lea Carpenter’s “Red, White, Blue” is an altogether different kettle of spooks, less an unfolding story than a series of set pieces, using — rehearsing might be a better word — some of the tropes of the spy thriller. There’s nothing new about this: Many a self-consciously literary novelist has dipped a toe in the genre in order to examine themes of identity, betrayal, duplicity and so on. Few, though, have skated quite so lightly over the surface of the world they’re borrowing. While much of the pleasure of Fesperman’s novel derives from its detail, and the acute handling of tradecraft — like the escape and evasion kit Helen prepares — Carpenter dabs instead on a larger, fuzzier canvas. An unnamed C.I.A. case officer delivers a series of bulletins about his career, and the spy trade in general, to Anna, a young woman whose late father also worked for the C.I.A. He has, it seems, something of moment to impart to her. Alternating with these sections are glimpses of Anna’s own life: her memories of her father, her girlhood, her marriage, her gradual comprehension of who her father was and what he did.
What the threads have in common is a kind of dreamlike, affectless prose that effectively nulls characterization — Anna’s husband, we’re asked to believe, is a mover and shaker in the music business, but nothing about his behavior adds credibility to this bare résumé. And the individual sections are, if anything, overcrafted, each straining for its own little epiphany. A ship’s nautical compass, appearing in an opening paragraph, will inevitably have mutated into “a moral compass” by the section’s closing line. Meanwhile, our nameless agent delivers a series of unanchored observations, supposedly laying bare operational truths. “Timing plus empathy equals a successful recruitment … timing plus empathy can even, occasionally, avert an attack.” This sounds worth exploring, but remains an abstract profundity. Narrative scaffolding, indeed, is conspicuous by its absence throughout, and while we’re told at one point that “the order in which we receive facts matters,” this isn’t borne out by the text, many of whose sections could be rearranged without fracturing the story.
And yet, it weaves a spell. Though mannered and elliptical throughout, it’s more readable than those qualities usually herald, and in the end there’s something hypnotic about its stately, confessional prose. I’d hesitate to classify it as a spy novel, because it pretty clearly doesn’t want to get grubby. No: It’s a novel in which some of the characters are identified as spies. But in its contemplation of different kinds of lost innocence, it’s also pondering the fall.