Bookmarks Issue: 

A Novel of Dissimulation

A-LegendsMartin Odum, a former CIA operative, can no longer keep straight the zillion identities that have been created for him over the years. Existentially confused and a little bored, he decides to help out an old sparring partner—a Russian KGB agent, whose daughter is in a bind. The daughter in question is in the midst of a divorce, an Orthodox Jewish divorce at that, and her husband seems to have vanished. Because Jewish law requires that both spouses be physically present for a divorce, the missing husband must be tracked down. And so begins a search that takes us, ultimately, to Russian organized crime. The novel consists of both a wild romp through post-Soviet Russia and a quest for self-discovery.
Overlook. 386 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1585676969

Guardian 4 of 5 Stars
"Littell taps into issues in ways smarter than most—the emergence of global terrorism, the collapse of the Russian economy, and the insistence that everything links up and knocks on. The message is blunt: the United States will not be far behind the Soviet Union in crashing because capitalism contains within it the seeds of its own destruction." Chris Petit

New Yorker 3 of 5 Stars
"Littell conscientiously covers the new ground—the post-Soviet Russia of the oligarchs; the potential for financial shenanigans opened up by worldwide computerization; the stagnant antipathy between Israel and its neighbors; Bosnia; Chechnya; and (news to me) an international smugglers’ cove where the borders of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina meet and whores dance sleepily in one another’s arms—but he remains most excited by, and most at home with, occupants of the old U.S.S.R. as they strike up fresh relations with capitalism and the C.I.A." John Updike

Philadelphia Inquirer 2.5 of 5 Stars
"I know Littell is a guy, but if he’s going to incorporate perfume into a plot, he should know a little more about the stuff. A psychologist who is shocked at the notion of an out-of-office relationship with her patient would not wear Shalimar to their sessions." Sandy Bauers

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"He tries to universalize Odum’s plight by saying that not only spies but most other people in the modern world live multiple lives. He makes this case with more wit than rigor." Michael Harris

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"It’s always good to see a writer please himself, but Littell’s focus on his higher purposes leaves, in its wake, far too much sloppiness, repetition, even overwriting. His attention seems to wander for long stretches, as if he doesn’t care about the narrative’s fictional scaffolding and is saving his talents for the denouement." Neil Gordon

Washington Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Any reader with more than a cursory knowledge of intelligence has two choices with Robert Littell’s new novel, Legends. Toss it across the room into the discard box for the next library sale, or, if you prefer, push reality away for a few hours and enjoy an interesting if very fantastical read." Joseph C. Goulden

Critical Summary

What does a spy novel look like after the end of the Cold War? Littell provides quite an answer. A former Newsweek reporter, he has produced an entertaining romp through post-Soviet Russia. Reviewers found plenty to quibble with, most notably Littell’s surprisingly cliché-ridden prose. But in exposing the tensions of Russia’s transition to capitalism, Littell approached the genre with creativity. He doesn’t overlook the War on Terror, either; Al Qaeda gets a walk on. The plot line of Odum’s struggle to figure out his true identity struck some readers as a bit forced—but others thought it added depth, bringing rich layers of meaning to what otherwise might have been a stock genre piece.

Better Littell Choices

The Defection of A. J. Lewinter (1973): 4 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2003. American scientist A. J. Lewinter walks into the Soviet embassy in Tokyo and announces his intention to defect. Is Lewinter a CIA plant? Is he for real? What does he know?

The Company (2002): A semi-fictional look at the history of the CIA, from 1950 to 1995. Littell’s characters, whom we come to know over 900 pages, deal with the Bay of Pigs, the fall of Budapest, and the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. President Reagan, Vladimir Putin, William F. Buckley Jr., and others make walk-on appearances.