The Magazine

Undercover Novelist

Fiction as weapon of mass destruction.

Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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"Valerie Plame’s career as a CIA operative was cut short when her cover was blown by George W. Bush’s White House,” reads the blurb of Plame’s latest imaginative stab. “Now, after dedicating herself to protecting the nation from its enemies, Plame turns to fiction .  .  .”

Valerie Plame, 2010

Valerie Plame, 2010

daniel joubert/epa/newscom

I, too, am really furious that Valerie Plame’s career as a CIA operative was cut short, for, as was only eminently predictable, the woman now has far too much time on her hands. Even worse, as the above blurb intimates, the nation’s enemies have by no means been eradicated by the author. Indeed, I am sorry to say that they have been perpetuated: clichés, a clumsy and  improbable plot, awkward references to weaponry with which she is obviously indifferently acquainted (“The bore of the Dragunov felt warm and true under Pauk’s careful touch” is my own personal favorite), weird bits of completely irrelevant background information on the heroine stuffed in toward the novel’s back-end like a flapping shirttail—all these evils are currently infiltrating your local bookstore.

Blowback, which Plame wrote in tandem with Sarah Lovett, is one of the more incomprehensible novels I’ve ever read, and not because of its twists. There are no twists, really. None at all. There are only characters (23, by my count—far too many to keep track of), several of whom have amazing ocular characteristics (more on this later). What, exactly, any of them does for a living, or why, is beyond any ordinary reader’s ability to fathom.

There are parallels in the book, however, with what we like to call “real life.” Because Valerie Plame was once a blonde, attractive, undercover CIA operative of minor importance, the heroine, Vanessa Pierson, who could easily swap monogrammed bath towels with the author any day, is a blonde, athletic, overwhelmingly gorgeous undercover CIA operative of huge importance. Because Plame ostensibly once worked on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, so does Vanessa. And with about the same degree of success.

Because Valerie Plame married tall, bulky Joe Wilson IV, a pompous former U.S. ambassador who once took a trip to Niger to discover whether or not Saddam Hussein was purchasing yellow cake uranium there, the heroine’s cautious, tight-lipped lover is “six feet tall, taut and lean. .  .  . Was she imagining the faint and lingering scent of Dior’s Eau Sauvage, [his] aftershave?” 

No, I have to say that I don’t think she was imagining it. Plame and her coauthor are utterly incapable of imagining anything at all, especially any element that might be “faint” or “lingering.” For one thing, all of their physical descriptions of anyone, however minor, somehow need DNA backup. The heroine’s lover, we are told very early on, as though this were a matter of extraordinary importance, “had inherited his mother’s green-flecked hazel eyes.” 

(An aside: I’m not too sure why the lover’s mother entered into this. We never do meet her or her facial features, and all we learn is that she doesn’t want her son to marry the book’s heroine. On the whole, this is understandable.)

Although the novel adds little to our knowledge of spycraft, wicked weapons-dealers, or the nation’s nuclear-coveting enemies (ostensibly the book’s subjects), Blowback has a great deal to offer on the gnawing issues of eyeballs, eyeball movement, eyeball interpretation, and eyeball soothers. The lover’s green-flecked variety, for example, occasionally narrow—“with wariness,” we are informed. The head of MI5, “strikingly attractive, even dressed as she was in a plain gray jacket [and] no jewelry” (i.e., totally dowdy because she’s British), possesses, unsurprisingly, a “piercingly intelligent gaze.” The American blonde-babe heroine, on the other hand, has blue eyes that, despite zero sleep for some three days running, “looked clear (thanks to Visine) beneath the strong brown eyebrows she’d inherited from her father.”

I know, I know. It’s hard to switch careers in midlife, and not just for Valerie Plame. But in her case, I think yet another change is in order. Think about it. Her sharp diagnosis of ominous green flecks, her passion for genetics and cheaper over-the-counter ocular medications—they all got me thinking: This woman has a future. 

In ophthalmology.

Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair