The Shanghai Factor, Charles McCarry

I picked this up thinking I was in for a contemporary spy novel--something à la Jason Bourne--only to find it's really more a Kafka-esque work of existentialist fiction, which was utterly fascinating. The narrator wanders through the story, fundamentally unclear on what it is he's doing, or why. He receives cryptic messages he often doesn't know, or remember, how to decipher, or even if they are real messages. He interacts with people who might be friends, or enemies, or complete strangers. A lot of the fun of the book is the clever, fencing dialogue in which each party tries to mislead or at least reveal as little as possible. There is a great deal of humor in the book, all very dry. 

The clearest statement of the existentialist underpinning of the book comes on page 109:
the truth was that I had become a secret agent because I could not bear for another minute the pointlessness of life in the real world.... If the craft meant nothing, at least it was done in something like absolute privacy, as if everything was happening in another time, another universe, another state of consciousness. Its joys were palpable. For years I had been left alone to enjoy the pleasures of learning to speak and read an ancient and beautiful language and the company of a brilliant woman who loved sex. If that wasn't a blessed state of being, what was? What difference did it make if the work I did meant nothing, accomplished nothing, burned up money on an epic scale? What human endeavor was any different?
Colin Wilson would have recognized this man at once as belonging to his collection of "outsiders."

I spent a large portion of my teens, twenties, and thirties--well, let's just say the bulk of my young intellectual life--wildly enamored of Existentialism (although I never liked Sartre, who I think is overrated). I still like its focus on subjective experience, its questioning of values, and the driving search for meaning. The problem, I think, is when someone gives up on finding anything. Or, like Terry Gilliam's movies suggest, gives up on the external, real world in favor of the creative interior of the imagination.

Becoming a parent changed everything for me, although not quite in the way I had expected or hoped, but I became keenly, painfully aware of dependence and responsibility. When a child needs you to feed or clothe or comfort them, questions of 'meaning' and the futility of action really evaporate. If they don't--if there's still some 'maybe I will, maybe I won't,' or 'I could, but why?'--I think that qualifies as being a sociopath, unable to empathically connect or experience another human being's joy or pain. The outsiders Wilson studied were all men, unattached, (white). They are in some ways too free, too independent. They don't need others and don't see that others might need them. Because they can do whatever they like, they don't see a reason to do any of it. Even staying alive doesn't seem like a worthwhile endeavor. (I am loosely characterizing.)

It's revealing to me that the narrator of Shanghai Factor moves through his world without real human connection. The closest he comes to an enduring relationship is his regret over losing Mei, (the brilliant woman who loved sex), another spy who never asks him questions or tells him anything about herself. When he is told the missing Mei has been imprisoned and probably tortured, it doesn't change the trajectory of his action. In fact, he finds (yet another) woman to sleep with. When he learns Mei left him to have an abortion, for which he was 50% genetically responsible, he shrugs it off (and returns to another woman). Nothing sticks. Nothing motivates. There is a deadness inside, which he (I suspect the author himself) might just say is 'how he is,' or be perversely proud of as a sign of intellectual superiority, but I think it's a failure to make the effort to engage. Even if you do not see a need for other people, you ought to be able to see you are needed. If there's no meaning to acting for yourself, there are other people who desperately need you to act on their behalf.

It doesn't have to be children, of course. Having an artistic endeavor (or long-term project) can also powerfully orient one's life. But I've become more and more interested in the social component to human thriving. I heard a fantastic podcast recently in which Ezra Klein interviewed Johann Hari about his new book, which interests me greatly as an antidote: