Trimmer Yet Intense: Tremor of Intent Book Review

scanned cover of Tremor of Intent

In the case of Anthony Burgess, it seems his great misfortune was that he was forever tied to his albotross A Clockwork Orange.  Something similar happened to Joseph Heller, who for his entire career was thought of just as the author of Catch-22, as if his other books didn’t matter (many of them are quite good).  The difference between the two is that with Heller, at least Catch-22 was an excellent book.  Burgess himself had long mixed feelings about A Clockwork Orange, as I do as well.  A Clockwork Orange interesting for it’s linguistic inventions, but the story itself is somewaht sensationalist, and at parts rather dull even for all its violence.*

Tremor of Intent is in my opinion a much better book by Burgess.  Imagine James Joyce writing a spy novel and you’ll have some idea of what Tremor of Intent is.  It was published in 1966, around the same time that Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels were catching on.  Tremor of Intent is, to give it a name, a spy-spoof, but please don’t read into that that the novel’s anything like Austin Powers (by the way, I heard there’s going to be another Powes film–why?) or In Like Flint or the original Casino Royale.  Instead, it spoofs spy conventions by creating a character who’s essentially the anti-spy (similar to the idea of the anti-detective).

The book is broken up into two parts.  Part 1, which covers the first 50 pages or so, is actually a quite beautiful and thoughtful rumination on life in England before, during, and after World War II, dealing with wartime attitudes, the English’ stiff-upper lip, and a few cases of intelligent people stooping to folly by becoming complicit with the enemies’ ideals.  It deals with the main character Hillier’s friendship to the dissolute Roper, who Hillier has to spend the second part of the book trying to track down across Russia, commanded by his superiors to repatriate or kill if necessary.

Part 2 doesn’t just switch gears but also style and tone.  The book becomes a comic caper, with Hillier constantly bumbling while searching for Roper, mixing in with dangerous sorts, including a bourgeois parody Theodorescu and his exotic compatriot Miss Devi.

The tonal shift between Part 1 and Part 2 I can only find comparison for in Notes from The Underground, where part 1 is a long philosophical tract, and part 2 is basically slapstick.  With Tremor of Intent, it’s the serious part that’s short, and the comic part that makes up a majority of the book.  I found this combination to be something that greatly helped the book, but I’m sure some of the more traditional-minded readers will be put off by this.

The writing’s full of verbal invention and wordplay.  For instance, there’s a long stream-of-consciousness paragraph that includes the lines “Hillier started to pass out of time, nodding to himself as he saw himself begin to take flight.  Goodbye, Hillier.  A voice beyond, striking the light, humorously catechised him, and he knew all of the answers.  Holy Cross Day?  The festival of the exultation of the Cross, September 14th.  The year of the publication of Hypathia?”  And it goes on in that vein for an entire page of densely packed yet comical prose.

I remember thinking several times while reading this of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow which came out 6 years later.  At many points, the writing is just as erudite and free-wheeling, and the story has a similar mixture of mindless pleasures and heavy doses of paranoia.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that Pynchon had read this book–especially since the man seems to have read everything on Earth.

In it’s own right, Tremor of Intent is a very unique and highly enjoyable novel.  It’s a pretty trim book, at 221 pages, and shouldn’t take long to read once you adjust to the writing style.  It remains my second favorite Burgess novel, my first being his underrated novel The Pianoplayers.  I haven’t yet found time to read Earthly Powers, which is the Burgess novel widely claimed to be his masterpiece among people who read more than A Clockwork Orange.

*Interesting piece of trivia: it’s been rumored that since Anthony Burgess was–for a time–a supporter of New-Wave sci-fi, the genesis of A Clockwork Orange came from the brief scene in Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick where the protagonist is confronted by young hooligans who seem like Americanized Russians, or Russianized Americans (the language in A Clockwork Orange is basically a blend of Russian and English slang).

Read other book reviews.

Read my review of The Doctor is Sick, by Anthony Burgess.
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