Bond’s Many Cold Showers: Evan Johnston Interviews Michelle Disler
|August 1, 2012|
Goldfinger, United Artists, 1964
by Evan Johnston
[BOND, JAMES]: alphabet, anatomy, [auto]biography is a character study conveyed through an index, a book length listicle-with-commentary of one of literature and film’s most distinctive characters. Author Michelle Disler starts with an alphabetical list of situations that Bond has been in throughout the Fleming novels (Approximate Number of Times, Bait, Close Shaves), moves onto the character’s anatomy, and then concludes with an autobiography inspired by Dr. No.
There’s a dreamlike quality to these indexes that you don’t typically associate with Bond (or indexes for that matter). You don’t see him so much as a stylish archetype as someone who has been through a lot, and I mean, a lot of weird hardship: disrobing for torture, paralysis due to poison from a Japanese globe-fish, various forms of torture below the waist. He can’t manage even a real friendship, let alone a relationship.
The book is written in the style of Oulipo, whose name roughly means “the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy”, and whose practitioners include Italo Calvino, Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau. It’s both a good introduction to Oulipo, and to Bond. After reading it for a second and third time, I had to ask author Michele Disler about the process of writing it, and her interest in Bond.
What lead you to the idea of breaking down James Bond into a series of interactions?
I’m not sure what lead to breaking (down) Bond; I remember I was reading both MFK Fisher’s An Alphabet for Gourmets and Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons while I was engaged in writing my dissertation. I had also read several Bond novels in advanced theory classes with Robert Miklitsch in my doctoral program at Ohio University, and the more I read the novels, the more I became interested in the fantasy life Bond leads in the novels. In almost every novel he takes several cold showers, smokes 70 cigarettes a day, hates killing in cold blood etc., and these things formed their own narrative for me. Like many Bond fans, I saw the movies before reading the books; I recommend the books now, which seems perplexing to Bond fans, as if the books might ruin something about the on-screen Bond.
My favorite statistic of the book is Shakes hands with CIA agent and friend Felix Leiter: 0.
I remember reading that line and thinking, “how curious.” Bond develops a real affection and admiration for Felix as they work together during several missions, and I think it’s actually oddly touching, a poignant moment for Bond with a man he admires.
Could Felix Leiter could be broken down into a book of statistical encounters?
I hadn’t thought of that, probably since Bond so easily dominates the narratives of the Fleming novels, but it’s a new possibility for future work on the spy and his American counterpart.
People have internalized facts about James Bond to begin with in a way that they don’t about say, Nancy Drew, Batman or Odysseus. There are people who can tell you his preferred shoe or tuxedo, and the culture at large knows his preferred method for preparing a martini. And this just makes me wonder if James Bond really is a set of preferences that fit together as a character – is this an unkind assumption?
Bond has over the course of the film history turned into a pretty uncomplicated character who likes his martinis and his tuxedos and his casinos and the like, but the Bond in the Fleming novels is – dare I say – more complicated despite the tropes appearing in almost every novel (cold showers, 70 cigarettes a day, etc.). He trusts his gut to his detriment, he imagines love and marriage with several key women characters (some of whom save Bond’s ass rather than the other way around), he’s flawed and fearless all at once, which I think is a more honest and intimate portrait of Bond. The novels are the place to start; that’s where Bond fans will find the man Fleming had probably really intended at Bond’s creation. It wasn’t until Daniel Craig and the new Bond movies that I saw on screen what I had read in all the Fleming novels: an imperfect iconic spy who loves and loses and takes chances that are more problematic than fantastic.
You teach a course on espionage and Bond…
I teach Casino Royale, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger and Dr. No – books and films – and students are almost always reluctant to admit that they’ve either never seen a Bond film and certainly never read a novel. But we read the novels and the films and deconstruct them, which complicates the BOND SAVES THE WORLD sense of 007 students usually come to class with. I use supplemental readings that continue to push the idea that Bond and The Girls and The Villains all have more in common than at first blush, and I focus on interrogating to some extent the conventional Bond narrative that puts Bond as the savior of the Western world when Bond is imperfect and shows fear and is saved by a girl and envies the villain his freedom and lawlessness.
My favorite novel is Casino Royale, and my favorite Bond is Daniel Craig (with all due respect for Sean Connery). My father is a homicide detective, and Bond is depicted as more a detective in the novels and a spy in the films, so I suppose there’s an element of heredity in my interest in Bond.
Right around the time that you must have been looking at marked galleys, the Q. R. Markham scandal broke. What was your reaction to the plagiarism and pastiche of The Assassin of Secrets?
I’m not as familiar with Markham. But I think it’s really too bad when someone represents another’s work as their own. I find Fleming’s writing fascinating, and I wrote Bond, James so very inspired by it. I’m also interested in Kingsley Amis, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dashiell Hammett, and I’d like to work more with their novels.
The book is in the tradition of Oulipo: writing as a game or under a constraint. Which books would you recommend to people who are interested in littérature potentielle? Do you have a name for the constraint under which you wrote Bond, James?
Ah, the Oulipo. So very fantastic. I’m so very inspired by Georg Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, and when I share writing like this with my nonfiction workshop students their surprise and confusion and delight is almost palpable. I am clearly inspired by Oulipo, though I couldn’t say I made a conscious effort to design a set of constraints when writing Bond, James. My book started with the alphabet, which many writers have used, but when the individual essays letter by letter began to emerge so very experimental in form and content I was delighted. The “pieces” emerged organically, with great attention to detail and with a heightened awareness of the tropes in Fleming novels. This was a crucial writing experience for me, as one piece after another emerged carrying in form and content, and Bond comes apart and is put back together with each page of my book.
The most influential for me is George Perec and his Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, which is wildly inventive and organically formed. It shows off the flexibility of the Montaignean essay and is very forward looking in its mechanics, its creativity. He is my Oulipo hero, and I have my dissertation director Dr. David Lazar to thank for introducing me to writing so very important to the essay and creative nonfiction.
About the Author:
Evan Johnston is a writer and graphic designer who has had work published in McSweeney’s Online Internet Tendency, graphicdesign.com and The Brooklyn Rail. His favorite Bond is Italo Calvino.
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