Alex Gherzo's Reviews > You Only Live Twice

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming
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's review
Mar 16, 2012

it was ok
Read from March 12 to 13, 2012

** spoiler alert ** Easily the worst of Fleming's "Blofeld Trilogy." After the death of his wife Tracy, James Bond is distracted at the office, bungling missions, and leaving work to sit in silent reflection. To break him out of his funk, M sends him to Japan on a diplomatic mission to persuade Japanese Intelligence to give the British access to a cypher called MAGIC 44, with which they've been decoding Russian correspondence. Tiger Tanaka, the head of Japanese Intelligence, agrees to let Bond have it in return for a favor: Bond must infiltrate a nearby island, gain access to the castle within and kill Dr. Shatterhead, a madman who is coaxing Japanese citizens to come to his island and commit suicide.

As a follow-up to the events in the excellent On Her Majesty's Secret Service, You Only Live Twice is very disappointing. After Blofeld's murder of Tracy, Bond loses his drive. He doesn't seem to want or care about revenge. He's just resigned to the fact that his life is what it is, and it isn't that great. That's a bit anticlimactic, and inconsistent with his character. In Live And Let Die, Bond is aching for revenge against SMERSH for scarring his hand, as well as for Vesper's betrayal. In Goldfinger, he hungers to avenge the death of Jill Masterton, a girl he knew less than twenty-four hours. When Tracy, his wife and his greatest love, is murdered, he should be at his most bloodthirsty. Instead, he's just got a case of the blahs. How disappointing. When he discovers that Dr. Shatterhead and his wife are actually Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt, his vengeful side finally comes out, but it seems lazy, like he never would've bothered if Blofeld wasn't gift-wrapped for him. Contrast this with the film series, which followed up Tracy's death in On Her Majesty's Secret Service with the imperfect-but-unfairly-maligned Diamonds Are Forever. When the latter film begins, Bond is hunting Blofeld all over the world and won't rest until his vengeance is sated. It seems like he actually gives a damn. In the book, it's as though he's just had a run of bad luck.

Another problem is the incredible coincidence of Dr. Shatterhead turning out to be Blofeld. Really? Boy, didn't that work out perfectly! The exact person that Tanaka needed Bond to kill! And, worse, Blofeld is completely inconsistent from his earlier appearances. His evil scheme this time is... to make a bunch of people commit suicide. Because... it's never been done before and he wants to be famous. Huh? This is the greatest evil genius of all time. A man who has held superpowers hostage. And this is to be his legacy? The fantasy equivalent of a Marilyn Manson song? Later, when he and Bond spar verbally, he says that everything he has done has been in the service of bettering society, trying to steer the world towards things like nuclear disarmament and protecting citizens from poisonous foods and plants. That makes no sense at all. Blofeld's actions have always been about personal gain. He's evil, not some misguided humanitarian. Why would he name his organization the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion if those were not his goals? It's like Fleming suddenly wanted us to sympathize with Blofeld, which is strange as he's never been afraid to make his villains completely, irredeemably evil before. It's possible Blofeld was just blowing smoke, but that was never indicated. Even just having Bond roll his eyes would've done.

They could've fixed all this by having this book be about Bond's hunt for Blofeld (essentially the pre-title sequence of Diamonds Are Forever). Have him wrestle with his demons while going after his mortal enemy and finally putting them to rest when he finished Blofeld once and for all. Or maybe have M recognize that this is the only way to save Bond and, although against regulation, send him after Blofeld. It would eliminate the massive coincidence at the heart of the story and allow for Bond to seem more consistent and more human.

As always with Fleming, there were good things about the novel. He paints a vivid picture of Japanese culture. My favorite parts were the comparisons between the Japanese and Western (English in particular, of course) mindsets. Bond and Tanaka arguing over the honor, or lack thereof, in suicide is a terrific examination of how different world cultures view life and death. Bond's defense of British values in the face of Tiger's criticism (feigned though it may have been) was refreshing to read and makes me wish Fleming were still writing in today's P.C. times. The supporting characters were enjoyable as well. Tiger Tanaka is quite different here than he is in the movie. He's kind of a prick, and relishes giving orders to Bond. It makes him less likeable than he was in the film, but it helps stress the culture shock through which Bond is going. Dikko Henderson is fun for his small portion of the novel, a surly Australian asset whose gone Japanese, but not so much that he's given up cursing and drinking up a storm. Kissy Suzuki has an interesting back story and serves as a refuge for Bond from the rest of the formal, uptight people with whom he must deal.

You Only Live Twice is worth reading once. While it has its good points, it's definitely a lesser Fleming.
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Quotes Alex Liked

Ian Fleming
“You only live twice:
Once when you are born
And once when you look death in the face”
Ian Fleming, You Only Live Twice

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Carmen I agree that Blofeld's plot was ridiculous.

Alex Gherzo Yeah, it was really disappointing after the two great ones that came before.

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