The Magazine

Love at Langley

Claire Berlinski's comic novel about the romance of spying.

Dec 1, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 12 • By STEVEN J. LENZNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Loose Lips
by Claire Berlinski
Random House, 255 pp., $21.95

IN "LOOSE LIPS," Claire Berlinski has written a story about the CIA's training school. Then again, one might equally well describe the novel as a love story about the ex-Sanskritist Selena Keller. What allows Berlinski to weave the two stories together is her insight into the odd kinship between romance and spycraft. "Loose Lips" is a primer on the moral ambiguity of seduction.

The story begins with Selena's decision to become a spy. Less than enthusiastic about her prospects in the cutthroat world of Sanskrit studies and "teaching at some godforsaken Midwestern university--a place with a name like Mongeheela State," Selena, on an impulse, applies to the CIA. "I got the job the way you get a job anywhere: I answered an ad on the Internet."

To her surprise, she receives a phone call inviting her to an interview: "'Your résumé is a bit unusual for us, . . . but you have overseas experience and a great education, and that's something we like to see. And we're always looking for people with foreign languages. I see you speak Sanskrit and Pali.' 'Well . . .' I coughed. 'Well . . . yes.'"

Selena thus passes, if a tad shakily, her initial test in economizing truth, in the process providing a novel explanation for the dearth of language specialists in our intelligence community. And once she gets into the spirit of the exercise, she demonstrates Clintonesque ability for imaginative representation of youthful experimentation in tobaccoless smoking: "I'll never know how I got through that background investigation. Mind you, I didn't really have any skeletons in my closet. . . . But I'd smoked a lot of dope. For God's sake, I was a Sanskritist. . . . When the background investigator, a gray man in a gray suit, came, he asked me exactly how many times I'd ever gotten stoned. . . . I searched for a number that sounded plausible but not excessive. 'About ten?' 'Are you sure of that number?' 'Um, . . . it's a little hard to remember. It was a while ago. Maybe less?'" Selena has an innate talent for deceit. She's a natural.

Selena's narration of her educational and romantic adventures at "the Farm" retains a nice comic air. And the account of her training to be a case officer has the ring of truth. A case officer is one who recruits and runs foreign "assets"--that is, induces others to betray their country--and it is an inherently seamy profession.

Selena and her fellow trainees' introduction to recruitment is an unintentionally amusing lecture that sounds as if it were being recited "from some unwritten manual on high-school courtship." The process of recruitment is "a game of guile and forbearance, akin to coaxing an honorable woman into an illicit affair."

Berlinski clearly brings forth the moral ambiguity inherent in the activity of spycraft: "The ability to bend a man to one's will, all the while convincing him it was the other way around, was the hallmark of a good case officer. Rarely did anyone at the Agency remark that this was not necessarily the hallmark of a good human being." Yet Berlinski never falls into the cheap moralism that divorces the unsavory means from the ends for which they are necessary--self-preservation and the protection of liberty.

At the same time Selena is undergoing training in recruitment she is being recruited by Stan--an overweight, purportedly brilliant, fellow trainee who goes to great lengths to win Selena's love, with mixed results. In the process, Stan employs the very techniques Selena and he are being taught. His efforts to court Selena include reading what he later describes as "that god-awful Sanskrit literature," adopting her habit of smoking (a heroine who smokes!), and assuring her that she's "far more intelligent than anyone else here."

Similarly, during a training exercise in recruitment, Selena enthusiastically praises with questionable sincerity, a page-turning volume called" A Tour of the Calculus," something none of the other trainees are likely to read. (It is probably worth mentioning that there is a real book called "A Tour of the Calculus," by a man named David Berlinski, quite coincidentally Claire Berlinski's father, and that both father and daughter have written for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.)

The most serious shortcoming in "Loose Lips" is Berlinski's depiction of Stan as Selena's love interest. Although the text often proclaims his brilliance, Stan altogether lacks the qualities one associates with brilliance--above all, unusual insight expressed with quickness and wit. Rather than brilliant and high-minded, Stan comes off as arrogant and petty, a man possessing the twin vices of self-righteousness and humorlessness. One can only hope that Selena will do better in the future.