Four years ago-back when we Americans used the phrase “in this economy” like we all suffered from Tourette’s syndrome-I watched a documentary about the Great Depression. Survivor after survivor voiced a deep lament. But the refrain wasn’t about how bad it was in the 1930s. These survivors lamented what they had lost after the Depression was over. It seems that during the economic collapse of that decade, many humans acted a bit more humanely. Neighbors helped neighbors in need. Shared housing and shared food was a common avenue for survival. Having no security, these survivors found security in each other. Of course, memory is a funny thing. Ruinous times are measured differently in retrospect.
Daniel Melligan’s Codename Hannah unfolds a story of ruin. The setting is no less grim than those of J.R.R. Tolkien or Cormac McCarthy. But Melligan’s is not a story of post-apocalypse, nor a transport to a fantasy world of stark opposites. This is not The Road or Middle Earth. It is the world of cubicles, smoke breaks, and white-collared mischief. Milo Caldwell is no super-spy; he is a cog in an espionage factory. As Milo becomes a “cog” of particular worth in the world of counter-terrorism, he finds himself-as C.S. Lewis once described with such skill - in the “Inner Ring.” Lewis observed:
“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside …Of all the passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” …Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still - just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naive or a prig-the hint will come. It will be the hint of something, which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play, something that the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand. Something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about, but something, says your new friend, which “we”-and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure-something “we always do.” And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face - that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face-turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude: it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel.”
C. S. Lewis
“The Inner Ring”
King’s College lecture, 1944
In Codename Hannah the illusion of normalcy plagues Milo, which makes his peril more insidious and more intimate. The trouble with the subtle descent toward scoundrelism is that the need for redemption is all the more difficult to recognize.
Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said that there is only one story repeated over and over: “Man in hole.” In the settings of post-apocalypse or fantasyscape, the “hole” is easy to recognize and the need for redemption is clear. Ask the survivors of the Great Depression: when the problems and pains are obvious, the redemptive solutions are eagerly sought and readily welcomed.
Milo has no such luck. He occupies the pitfalls of fiscal egoism and institutional expectation. His is not the temptation of a magic ring; his is the temptation of hard work and just reward, those keys to entering the Inner Ring. His is the dull pain that we all live with and learn to ignore so that real healing is postponed.
How does an “everyman” navigate the monstrous tumults of big business, industrial militancy, and governmental scoundrelism? Melligan’s Codename Hannah offers a fresh look at these real-world rings of power and suggests the need for real redemption. But reader be warned: this spy novel is no neat death and resurrection. The real business of redemption has always been bloody.
“All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
Anthony Le Donne, Ph.D. (Durham) is an expert in Second Temple Judaism and the Bible. Currently, he serves as adjunct professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. Dr. Le Donne and Daniel Melligan have maintained a twenty-five year conversation about life’s most important topics.
Posted on October 22, 2013 by Anthony Le Donne, Ph.D.
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