books the black widow 1#1 book, fiction, 7/24/16

This is a fun one, in that it’s one of those things I had never even heard of before finding out through this blog that it’s apparently incredibly popular. If you’re also unfamiliar with Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow, turns out it’s a spy novel about an Israeli assassin who recruits a mild-mannered doctor to go undercover as a suicide bomber for ISIS. Silva, a prolific writer and former CNN producer(!), says in a foreword that he “commenced work on this novel before the Islamic terrorist group known as ISIS carried out a wave of shootings and bombings in Paris and Brussels… I take no pride in my prescience.” I bet he takes a little pride in it, though. At the very least he’s probably glad he didn’t focus his spy novel on the Khorasan group or Al-Shabaab or whatever.

Anyway, a lot of media critics would say that all culture, popular or otherwise, inherently carries some sort of political message, no matter how frivolous or innocuous it might seem. I might actually go a step further and say that the cultural objects that attract the least intellectual scrutiny often have the strongest ideological thrust, precisely because they don’t expect that any politically minded critics are going to bother picking them apart. So it is with The Black Widow, which looks like (and is) a pulpy supermarket thriller but often seems less interested in secret agent heroics than in defending Israeli foreign policy and criticizing the US for not intervening enough in the Middle East. Obama is never mentioned by name but he does appear as a character (“the President”), and there are several derisive references to his 2014 comparison of ISIS to “a JV team.” As you might imagine, the whole thing comes across as pretty Islamophobic; there’s even a Muslim sleeper cell agent who presents himself publicly as a religious and cultural moderate, as if the book is saying, “See? You never can tell with these people!” Hey, book, DJ Khaled had the #1 album in the country last week.* Get with the times.

*This week’s #1 record, on the other hand, is… sigh… Suicide Squad: The Album.

You can probably guess that Silva’s politics seem to skew more to the right than my own. Beyond that, I just didn’t think this was that great of a book. It’s readable enough (or I should say listenable, since I got the audiobook rather than the print version) and well-paced, but the characters have no nuance and the political messages are delivered too frequently via clunky exposition. Still, I respect that Silva engaged with the real world as he saw it and incorporated his view of it into his work. I’d rather read a novel with a perspective I disagree with than one with no perspective that just rehashes genre tropes.

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