The Secret Agent

by Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad can be challenging reading, and The Secret Agent—told via Conrad's trademark "time looping" narration—is no exception...but it's so worth it! The story is an absolute treat to read, gets you by the throat, and had Classic Bitch doing things like audibly gasping in shock and giving advice to characters aloud (if only they would listen). While Lord Jim remains my favorite Conrad offering on the list so far, The Secret Agent is a close second. If you are new to the writing of Joseph Conrad, try The Secret Agent first; it's a little easier to follow and is a rollicking ride.

This book tells the multifaceted tale of a spy who has penetrated an anarchist group and what is expected of him by his handlers, by the group he has infiltrated, and by his unsuspecting family. Different supporting characters are the focus of the story in different places, which works well with the disjointed chronology. Don't worry, the narrative is not so recondite that the reader is lost in a maelstrom, but rather it is effectively parsed and reassembled so that the suspense is ratcheted up ineluctably.

The Secret Agent is one of Joseph Conrad's "political" novels in that he was attempting to lay bare the instability and corruption of the political process itself. Without giving too much of the plot away, consider the fabulous section of the book that follows the ongoing battle between a police officer and his superior who are both responsible for finding the perpetrator of a scandalous act of violence. The police officer, acting perfectly reasonably, relies on procedure to lead him to the perpetrator (who, admittedly, is a "usual suspect"). But his superior breaks the law in order to protect this suspect, because protecting him stands to maintain the superior's way of life. And the catch? Although the police officer is on the side of right & using the proper techniques, and the superior is acting dastardly & only in his own interests...the usual suspect actually DIDN'T do it! So now who's right & who's wrong?

Another thing that propels the plot is the strict (and probably accurate) 1907 gender roles. It is understood quite clearly by all parties what it is that women absolutely NEED off of men and what it is that men absolutely NEED off of women. Hint: While these are two very different things, everyone's on the same page! Although brutish, there is some allure in this dynamic to a reader in the modern know...when relationships got so damned complicated!?

Joseph Conrad is a master of time looping, and this narrative technique is all the more appreciated when what hits you—at the very end of the story, once all the threads have come together—is the absolute INTRICACY of each plot element and thus how the plot works as a gestalt. Sure, you have to suspend your disbelief a couple or three times, but the book's success should be measured against everything we've LOST in the craft of storytelling in the modern era. Writers like David Lynch and J.J. Abrams never ever solve any layer of complexity before piling on the next. That isn't clever writing, it's merely obfuscation via audience fatigue.

Joseph Conrad, on the other hand, has written a book with a plot that stands up on its own and has got it all! Screenwriters who adapt material for Hollywood, take note: The Secret Agent, written by Joseph Conrad over 100 years ago would make a fabulous movie! all seriousness, I just popped over to IMDB promptly upon writing the first part of this paragraph to make sure... And you're never going to believe it, but Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent is already a movie! Made in 1996, it starred Christian Bale, Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, and Gerard Depardieu. I'm off to rent it.