Lulu needs a new job

In Lulu in Marrakech, we meet Lulu Sawyer (not her real name) as she is traveling to Marrakech to reconnect with a boyfriend in order to gain entree into the local expat community to discover any financial donors to radical Islamist groups. Good premise. I’m on board.

The novel is written in first person so we know on the first page that this is Lulu looking back on her time in Morocco. The first section ends with a series of questions:

And when did the gullibility principle begin to work on me? Maybe not until I was on the plane to Marrakech, or even when I got the assignment to go there. Am I once again it’s victim? I still don’t know, even now, how much of what happened had been orchestrated, how much was the collusion of unforeseen events.

I would like to point out that by the end of the book, in retelling her tale, Lulu doesn’t figure out any of these answer and neither does the reader. That was the most frustrating part of the book.
I loved the scene descriptions and the ample opportunities to compare Western culture with Islam sufficed. But Lulu didn’t feel active to me. She doesn’t even seem like a particularly good CIA agent. She is meant to collect information but her time is spent more on the dramas of her boyfriend, his suspected affair, and the other houseguests at her boyfriend’s abode.

For that matter, this had been my whole life experience, to radiate some inadvertent primness, to be sheltered from what everyone else knew, me only noticing belatedly, if ever, the hanky-panky to which everyone else was drawn as horses to water. Alas, this credulity was not a good profile for someone in my profession, and, for that matter, may explain why I was drawn to it, in compensation, seeking the feeling of being for once in the know. (274)

That sounds like a terrible reason to become a CIA agent. So we learn why Lulu wanted to get into this profession and we know she was ‘recruited.’ Nothing about her recruitment or any hints as to her perceived strengths is explained so why did they recruit her?

And even when exciting things happen – a mission, finally! – by the end, Lulu still is not an agent of her own life. It is a suspected double-agent that provides a positive change and she takes it. She doesn’t get in trouble. She doesn’t seem to learn anything.

Maybe I’m just disappointed in her as a protagonist or as a CIA agent.

Oh, wait. Is this a satire?

*sigh*

Okay, so let’s take this as a satire. Johnson is holding up the concept of the American foreign agent in a modern setting (the book was published in 2008), specifically as it relates to Islam.

Lulu as a crappy, self-absorbed, defending-her-boyfriend-to-the-end CIA agent is the poster child for what is wrong with agents?

The bungled mission that is eventually covered up and Lulu being taken care of and rescued by the end as a scathing look at America’s role in international espionage and our unwillingness to own up to when we muck things up?

Lulu’s admittance to being intimidated by Islam – oh, never mind.

Maybe it’s the first person narrator, but it’s hard to take this book seriously as a satire. This could be my personal preference/set of blinders, but I feel satires are best served with a third persion narrator or, if it must be first person, one separated enough from the action as to observe.

You would think Lulu would be able to observe well – it is in her job description. But she has blinders of her own and is terrible at basic observation. And when she does make an observation, she isn’t indicting anyone, pointing anything out that makes me laugh and nod my head, yes, that is true, isn’t it?

If anyone was going to be the satirical narrator of this tale, Posy – the pregnant wife of a British poet who is willing to have an opinion and is sharper than given credit – would have been a better choice.

Did I miss the sarcastic tone that usually permeates a satire? And they’re usually funny, right?

Ultimately, Lulu in Marrakech could be a great example of when expection and intention miss each other widely. I expected a light-hearted novel about a female spy lurking about Morocco. I kind of got that, but the intention (based on the inside cover, even) of a satire or satire-lite novel whizzed over my head. I suppose I could have read it with a lens of expecting a satire but to be honest, I still don’t think it would have held up as one.

Don’t get me wrong – it was an entertaining read. I kept picking it up and turning the pages. The dramas of the houseguests sucked me in. (See my love of Days.) But I wanted answers, resolutions, a protagonist who changes by the end, and I didn’t get any of that.

Post-script: As I was collecting some links for this post I saw more praise for this novel. It’s a comedy of errors. It’s a mesmerizing novel of double standards and double agents. Maybe I just missed the boat on this one.

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