You Only Live Twice, by Ian Fleming: Book Review

You Only Live Twice Book Covers“You only live twice: Once when you are born And once when you look death in the face.”

Twelve books into Ian Fleming’s James Bond series, the strain to keep things interesting is showing. This is a Bond novel that laughably pretends rock, paper, scissors can be a high stakes game like Bond’s casino showdown with Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. I wish I were kidding, but there’s an entire chapter named after the game.

If you visit my Bond page you can see that I’ve put a lot of time and effort into the Bond series. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a fanboy, but I am something of a completion freak. If I’m going to do something I need to see it through and I want to learn as much about it as I can along the way. I think one reason I don’t read more nonfiction is that for me the process is somewhat exhausting: I keep reading and interrupting myself to make notes or hop online to either learn more or find out the background of a person/place/event mentioned. The whole process gets drawn out considerably. My husband and I found the boxed set of James Bond DVDs from the Bond 50 celebration on sale almost four years ago now. In those years I have written reviews and summaries of every single Bond movie. I’ve rated every Bond Girl and movie and villain and henchman. This year, I decided to complete the experience by reading Ian Fleming’s original Bond novels, and this may be where I finally over-reached.

Ladies and gentlemen, the joy is gone.

If you’ve been following along (and I’m not nearly vain enough to believe that you have been if you’re reading this since it has been almost four years, after all), you probably remember that things really spun out of control for me two books ago, with The Spy Who Loved Me. A lot of that had to do with The Spy Who Loved Me going over-the-top with Fleming’s rampant misogyny and mistreatment of women. The only reason I went into the next book, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was because I hoped that Bond’s love story with Tracy would redeem the series a bit. It didn’t. It only exacerbated the issue.

Now we arrive at You Only Live Twice, the penultimate James Bond adventure (not counting Octopussy and The Living Daylights, which were novellas that were published together later). The final showdown between James Bond and Ernst Stavros Blofeld. The revenge song for Bond’s murdered bride. Bond’s last chance to fix his job after the shame-spiral Tracy’s death sent him into.

With all of these stakes, you’d think there would be more to the story than there is. Instead, it’s boring as all hell. Take the fact that Fleming attempts to elevate a simple game of rock, paper, scissors to a life-or-death matter of urgency and you have a pretty good handle on the desperation at play here.

Bond runs into Blofeld purely by accident, for one thing. There’s no narrative urgency to his need for revenge. He isn’t hunting Blofeld down until the moment the opportunity falls into his lap. M sends Bond to Japan on a seemingly-impossible diplomatic mission despite the fact that Bond is untrained for diplomacy because a shrink advises him that Bond tends to thrive in impossible situations and it may break him out of his funk. Bond arrives and immediately makes headway where no other agent could simply by playing rock paper scissors. We’re meant to think that a combination of Bond’s cunning with games and his devil-may-care personality appeal to the Japanese official he has been sent to seduce (in a manner of speaking), but the fact remains that this is narrative laziness on Fleming’s part. No one is cunning at rock, paper, scissors, and attempts to apply higher strategy to the game only illicit eye rolls.

Once he gains access to the inner circle of this Japanese official, Tiger Tanaka, Fleming seems to realize that if Bond can’t go on a daring mission it won’t be a proper Bond novel–and diplomacy is boring, anyway. So Tanaka tells 007 the truly ludicrous story of a European serial killer who has recently taken up residence in a volcanic castle (of course), where he lures Japanese men and women into his garden of death to commit suicide. If Bond can kill this man, Tanaka will agree to help British Intelligence. Naturally, it turns out this deadly gardener is none other than Ernst Stavro Blofeld–giving 007 a chance for a final showdown with his nemesis.

Concluding what is commonly known as the Spectre trilogy in Fleming’s books, You Only Live Twice is the final nail in the coffin of Blofeld’s legacy. He had such promise when he was introduced in Thunderball as a fiendish villain whose disdain for ornament signified a deadly patience and precision. But when he returned in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service he was no longer the same diabolical genius. Suddenly, he was so consumed with the idea of claiming an old family title that he inadvertently revealed his location to MI6 and bungled his plan for revenge on the world. What happened to the precise, super-intelligent, patient villain who so disdained ornament that he required sentences to be as utilitarian as possible? All we get is a vague explanation that disappointment over Operation Thunderball’s failure drove Blofeld insane. Now, surfacing again in Japan, Blofeld makes even less sense than ever before. He seems to have let go of his megalomaniacal ambitions in favor of becoming a serial killer in the most improbable, ludicrous fashion imaginable. There’s no consistency at all, no through-line to cling to that would allow Blofeld to make sense, let alone be Bond’s ultimate nemesis.

There is only one full novel left in Fleming’s original series, The Man With the Golden Gun. Needless to say, I am not looking forward to the experience of reading it. If I weren’t so close to the finish line I would happily give up altogether, but as I said: I am a completion freak, and not crossing the finish line when it’s so close would feel like something of a failure. But I am in no rush–even if it means dragging this thing out another four years. What used to be a fun little side project has become a tiresome chore.

Grade: D-

For more of 007’s adventures check out my Bond page–which has movie recaps and best-ofs. Up next: The Man With the Golden Gun.

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