Some thoughts on Conrad’s The Secret Agent

I have read a bunch of stuff like Naked Lunch and American Psycho and consider myself to be pretty hardened when it comes to shocking content (although I did recently read some passages from Apollinaire that raised my eyebrows). And then I read Conrad’s The Secret Agent and I found myself absolutely aghast. Conrad renders a terrible situation, in which no one is exactly right or exactly wrong, with considerable skill and care, and the attention he pays to what information he is giving his reader is a masterclass that any writer interested in fucking with a reader’s expectations should learn from.

Anyone who’s seen The Usual Suspects will be familiar with the kind of present/flash forward/flash back kinda structure of The Secret Agent, and it really does work fantastically. You know a dynamite outrage has been commissioned, you know Verloc has thought long and hard about how to go about committing the act, and the flash forward lets you know that the act was bungled, claiming a life. You are not told who perished. There is conjecture of course, between old anarchists. Someone heard that Verloc was behind the whole affair, but you are given no confirmation from the ultimate perspective of the narrator. This is very disquieting. You spend the opening couple of chapters getting to know Verloc, his family, and his personal struggles. He seems to be a pretty good husband by 19th century standards. One sympathises with him and wonders how he is going to get out of this bind, and one is shocked that someone, possibly him, died in the attempt. The narrative might flash back to before the explosion, but it does not show you Verloc, alive, for a few chapters yet. He was the protagonist, right? What happened to Mr Verloc, and who was the second person involved in the bombing?

This is a masterful display of what a writer can do when they have the reader’s feelings on the end of a string. What really makes the novel utterly horrifying is the way it then shows you that Verloc did indeed survive the explosion. You follow the police as they attempt to puzzle out what happened. You see them discover that Verloc is still alive. You are fed drips of information. Verloc had been spending more time with his brother-in-law, Stevie. Verloc had sent Stevie to live with a friend of his for a while. It slowly dawns on you as it slowly dawns on Verloc’s wife, Winnie. It was Stevie, the one character in the novel (apart from Winnie’s mother, perhaps) who is free from sin, free from guilt, the one you really rooted for. He was blown to smithereens, off screen as it were. They had to collect him with a shovel.

And it was all Verloc’s idea.

The scene where Winnie slowly realise this as Verloc attempts to bargain, reason, plead, argue with her, is yet another fantastic display of technique. Free indirect discourse is the perfect tool if you are using a third person narrator but still want parts of the writing to be from the perspective of certain characters. Conrad’s switching between Winnie and Verloc’s discourses in this section is astounding in its effect. The same narrator puts you directly in the seat as Verloc attempts at first to commiserate and then to explain away his terrible mistake, growing to hate him more and more all the time, hating him along with Winnie, who you feel worse and worse for the entire time as the news that not only is her brother dead, but her husband effectively killed him, sinks in. Both discourses wind against each other tighter and tighter until the reader realises that Winnie has also noticed the carving knife laying on the table, and Verloc realises that Winnie has the carving knife in her hand. This conclusion again unfolds slowly, to character and reader alike. Verloc’s death is foreshadowed much like Stevie’s as Conrad gives you just enough rope to hang on to as he pulls you through his densely packed prose. You have some idea of where this could be going, but you are not sure until the decisive, explosive moment is upon you.

This is how you claim the distance of a 3rd person narrator whilst keeping the personality of a first person narrator. It is superb, and well worth reading for anyone interested in the craft, or anyone who just likes a well told story. It is, as the subtitle says, a simple tale, after all.

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