Joseph Weisberg, a former CIA
officer, has said that he wanted to write
"the most realistic spy novel that had ever
been written," and so An Ordinary Spy
portrays not the glamour and suspense of
working for the CIA but the everyday tedium
of slowly cultivating informants for tiny
scraps of intelligence. The protagonist,
Mark Ruttenberg, is also a former CIA
officer, writing a memoir about when he was
a new agent on his first overseas
assignment, desperate to advance his career
by recruiting his first informants. In
Ruttenberg's world, the real gains for
national security are minimal, the risks are
enormous, and the opportunities for heroism
practically nonexistent, as his actions are
muffled by bureaucracy. But Weisberg
compensates for the lack of heroism and
intrigue by filling Ruttenberg's narration
with the fascinating details of
"tradecraft," the methods and means of
espionage. The verisimilitude is,
paradoxically, heightened by omission. It is
Weisberg's conceit that Ruttenberg's memoir
has been redacted by the Publications Review
Board of the CIA, and that he has chosen to
publish the story with the redactions
intact, big black bars striping the page,
rather than deleting or rewriting the
At first, I was suspicious of An Ordinary Spy, as perhaps one should be of a novel written by an expert at deception and secrets. Ruttenberg coins the verb "case officering" to describe the way agents charm and manipulate their recruits in order to win their trust. Is Weisberg case officering his readers? How much should I trust the narrator with his too-careful prose and his earnest naiveté? Is he a double-agent for the author's hidden agenda? An Ordinary Spy seems less like a thriller and more like a metaphysical detective story in the tradition of Vladimir Nabokov or Jorge Luis Borges, which unfolds as a game between author and reader. I found myself trying to best Weisberg by outguessing the redactions, like an agent trying to decode an enemy's encryptions. I think I figured out the country to which Ruttenberg was posted from the climatological details, the scant descriptions of his new city, and the length of the redacted name.
I gradually realized that I'd been reading the novel incorrectly. Weisberg does not, in fact, mean to make a parallel between the act of spying and the act of reading. Ruttenberg's steady, careful narration is not a front for a more cunning mind, and I slowly became seduced by his thoughtfulness about the craft of espionage. An Ordinary Spy turns out to be not a puzzle but a moral drama. Ruttenberg struggles with his conscience over the danger to which he exposes his potential recruits, people he comes to care deeply about, asking himself if their meager knowledge of national secrets is worth the risks to their lives if they get caught. The novel's suspense comes not from wondering who did what and who works for whom, as in a traditional spy novel, but from sussing out the right choice in a hazardous and culturally uneven social terrain. Perhaps, then, Weisberg means to make a parallel between the act of spying and the act of befriending someone. Ruttenberg and his recruits "case officer" each other in utterly heartfelt attempts to create lasting friendships. And so the redactions symbolize the impartial knowledge that perennially blinkers the relationship between two people, and the intricate, chess-like logic that Ruttenberg employs to analyze the political scene mirrors the logic that he must use to evaluate the ethical landscape of recruitment.
My initial misreading, though, is revealing. I think I misunderstood the novel because Ruttenberg does not match the image of the secret agent that I've come to picture from recent nonfiction books, such as Tim Weiner's Legacy of Ashes, which describe the calculated, self-interested, and nefarious deeds of the CIA. Weisberg seems out to correct the public image of the Agency, claiming that it is neither as effective nor as evil as the news would have it. Weisberg's agent is a decent man in a cynical profession. Of course, Ruttenberg lasts less than a year in the CIA, bumped out precisely because he lacks the ruthlessness for espionage, and Weisberg has said that he left for the same reason.
An Ordinary Spy is deeply engrossing and gratifying, first for the details of spycraft, but lastingly for the contortions to which it puts the reader's mind as it wends its way though its complex moral questions.
This review was originally published in January 2008, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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