Following Jean-Paul Sartre’s claim that “[b]efore you come alive, life is nothing; it’s up to you to give it a meaning” (Existentialism and Human Emotions 49), this essay will examine the methods for constructing and construing meaning outlined in James Sallis’ 1997 post-Cold War espionage novel Death Will Have Your Eyes. Drawing primarily on existentialism, as well as postmodern theorists such as Jean Baudrillard and Frederic Jameson, this essay will analyse the attempts of former spy David, the novel’s protagonist, to construct a meaningful identity alongside the novel’s larger geopolitical implications vis-à-vis the demise of the Cold War. In his exploration of the state’s efforts to forge meaning, Sallis invites readers to question what lies behind the state’s projections of power, competence, rationality, and reality. I argue that the crisis of state sovereignty articulated by Sallis is analogous to David’s crisis of selfhood. Through his depiction of David’s efforts to construct meaning and purpose, Sallis encourages readers to question whether or to what extent our own attempts to make meaning bridle against the efforts of the state to do likewise. Finally, following an exploration of the novel’s formal intricacies, this essay will assert that Death Will Have Your Eyes’s fusion of subversive content with stylistic innovation challenges readers’ expectations and impels them to consider what they construe to be meaningful. Although Sallis’ Lew Griffen series (1992-2001) and his novel Drive (2005) have been the subject of significant literary criticism, Death Will Have Your Eyes (1997) has received scant critical attention. Thus, this essay aims to insert Sallis’ novel into the arena and initiate critical conversation.
This essay will apply an existentialist critical framework, a particularly fruitful approach as existentialist thought permeated American thinking in the cultural and political mood that preceded the Cold War. As the Soviet Union developed its own nuclear weaponry, it became apparent that the capacity to produce nuclear weapons could not be confined within American national boundaries. Due to this heightened awareness of nuclear menace, anxiety, and angst, salient themes of existentialist philosophy pervaded the American psyche. Greater anxiety led to increased conformity, a retreat into the domestic, and reinforced the boundaries between self and other. Moreover, during the struggle against soviet totalitarianism, the anti-absolutism of existentialism, with its emphasis on freedom and openness to possibility, preserved the value of American individualism, a value that stands in opposition to communist control. Although existentialism was used to support American hegemony, emphasising individual agency could also serve as a form of liberation. By incorporating existentialist thought with Cold War and postmodern conceptualisations of identity, Death Will Have Your Eyes highlights the enduring socio-cultural legacy of existentialist philosophy and how its influence on Cold War-era conceptions of identity have impacted post-Cold War notions of selfhood in a broader sense.
The application of existentialist philosophy to the analysis of the espionage novel is particularly apt considering the genre’s foregrounding and problematising of identity (both personal and national), the meaning of existence, the complexity of action, and the ethics of responsibility. The spy is, in some ways, the existentialist man personified as he scrutinises existence and finds “meaning” only in temporary “truths” rather than in unambiguous absolutes. The espionage novel’s exploration of performance-based articulations of (multiple and fragmented) subjectivities casts doubt on the possibility of attaining an authentic self amidst the strata of false selves and disguises. In so doing, the sense of a unified individual or national identity, inherent to the politics of bipolarity that suffused the Cold War metanarrative, is subjected to scrutiny.
Sovereign identity and invented realities
The Cold War metanarrative, which informed U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, and conceptualisations of national identity positioned the Soviet Union as a “moral threat to freedom, a germ infecting the body politic, a plague upon the liberty of humankind, and a barbarian intent upon destroying civilisation” (Ivie 72). The American perception of the Soviet identity was largely defined by what Americans were (ostensibly) not: uncivilised, communist, totalitarian and opposed to the democratic freedoms of the virtuous U.S. This metanarrative was used to justify, explain, and authorise certain courses of political action. Sallis, however, challenges this metanarrative and questions the state’s decision-making rationale.
In Death Will Have Your Eyes, the formation of the elite corps of killer spies during the chilliest days of the Cold War illustrates the volatility of the government’s decision-making processes on issues of national security. It was initiated when “Someone with sufficient political clout had decided the only answer to terrorism was an elite killer corps and went about calling in sufficient favours to make it happen” (Death 42). The programme’s establishment is not based on careful deliberation of evidence, on offering other potential security measures, or questioning the need for the “killer corps.” Rather, the decision is made on the dubious basis of “calling in favours” rather than persuasive evidence, sound reasoning and objective judgement. Eliminating terrorism by extermination is a powerful expression of sovereign power as it is premised on maintaining boundaries and totalising categories of “us” and “them,” “good” and “evil,” and “here” and “there.” R. B. J. Walker describes traditional accounts of sovereignty as “a permanent principle of political order” (163). This is based on clear-cut boundaries between an ostensibly controlled and orderly domestic domain comprising the “here,” while a disordered international sphere constitutes “there.” Sallis reformulates the conventional ideological orientation of the Cold War espionage novel which was based on the notion of identifying and eliminating an enemy. Rather than focusing on the threat of the Soviet Union, Sallis indicates that self and other are unequivocally bound as David hunts Luc Planchat, a rogue CIA agent. Planchat is described as a “killing machine” who was constructed at the US government’s behest, thus he was a member of the national security community that managed external threats. The government who created Planchat, however, now constitute “them” as David contends, “if the machine needs unplugging, it’s their responsibility” (Death 39, emphasis added). Sallis therefore strips down the sovereign state’s traditional identity and demonstrates that the dichotomous “us”/“them,” “here”/“there” are inextricable as the state must eliminate the monster it created. By destabilising the Cold War metanarrative and the subsequent post-Cold War identificatory collapse in this way, Death Will Have Your Eyes foreshadows Jean-François Lyotard’s influential suggestion that postmodernism is characterised by an “incredulity towards metanarratives” (7). As such, the novel implies that postmodernism is far more a product of the Cold War than has typically been acknowledged by critics and theorists.
Jim Kuypers writes, “U.S. presidents now find themselves hard pressed to justify international political and military action—no Cold War metanarrative exists—so to what common knowledge do presidents turn to invent (ground) their arguments?” (3-4). Sallis focuses his attention on the intelligence community and their invented realities. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek asserts that intelligence agencies act as “the Other of the Other,” that is, a “hidden Master who keeps everything under control” (96-97). Žižek’s summation implies that their absent presence reassures the public that they can rest assured knowing that intelligence agencies have a quasi-providential knowledge of potential attackers and can contain them. The intelligence community’s capacity to neutralise threats was crucial to the Cold War ideology of containment which was deployed to prevent the spread of communism. David’s agency bears the hallmark of an Invisible Master as the public would “never know about most of it” (Death 78). Defined as the “agency that does something,” David’s agency strives to enforce control and order (Death 124). Sallis, however, exposes the inherent disorder and insecurity at the core of the agency. Rather than a hidden master protecting society, Johnsson, David’s superior, invents “truths.” The mission to find and kill Planchat is premised on subjective information which emerges in a piecemeal fashion. Furthermore, due to personal animosity between agencies, the information has potentially been distorted. David asserts, “in the first place, that information remains circumstantial […] most of that information was piped in from another agency – […] One with which you have had disputes in the past – […] – and is therefore suspect” (Death 37-38). Information that is “circumstantial” and “suspect” reduces its status as intelligence and its capacity to provide security. The discord amongst the agencies unsettles the notion that they are united in their aim to protect the nation. Johnsson admits that he lies, “Freely. Outrageously. The good reporter looks at his scattered facts, then starts cobbling them into shoes that will fit. There’s always an agenda: political, aesthetic, personal. Connect the dots. Constellations” (Death 38). Johnsson’s literal blindness mirrors his metaphorical blindness; his lack of foresight and inability to find truth. The story is crafted from arbitrary “dots” thus its “meaning” is ideological and tinged with fantasy.
This groundlessness of meaning is similar to Martin Heidegger’s notion of “nothingness” whereby an individual is no longer able to “be” anything when the roles which constituted their identity are no longer available (Crowell n.pag.). The concept of “nothingness” is particularly relevant to the post-Cold War period wherein “many agencies lost their central mission and many policies lost their rationale” (Ripley and Lindsay 15). David’s contemplation of the poem “The Barbarians” captures the tangible atmosphere of futility in the post-Cold War climate. He explains:
[T]he city’s always gearing up for imminent attack. People working together […] Because soon the barbarians will be at the gates […] But the barbarians never come, and finally people realize they aren’t going to come, and then everything begins to fall apart […] Those people, he writes, were a kind of solution. (Death 174)
In the bipolar era of the Cold War, there was a sense of a united front with “People working together” to ward off the “barbaric” Soviet threat. The unpredictable end to the Cold War, analogous to the barbarians’ absence, however, sparked the crumbling of societal purpose and cohesion which fanned the flames of confusion and uncertainty. The intelligence community was forced to defend its potency and function after its failure to predict the end of the Cold War. As political scientist Glenn Hastedt notes, “There were even calls in the Senate for dismantling the CIA” (58). Subsequently, proponents of espionage had to mount their case for its necessity and importance. As the majority of the United States’ espionage efforts were directed, implicitly or explicitly, towards Soviet targets, it is not incomprehensible that many saw a decreased need for classical espionage in the post-Cold War period. David’s muses on the necessity of threats to construct purpose:
No more cold war, no Big Bad Bear. When society has no further need of its warrior it has created, do they perhaps come to be perceived as a threat? Does that society come to believe threat it must reject them, isolate them, find some way to set them against one another? (Death 142)
This implies that there must always be something to fight for or against no matter how unfounded the cause may be. Moreover, in its attempt to “find some way” to navigate itself through meaninglessness, society forges dubious connections. The state’s creation of threats as a means of establishing and maintaining control over its people echoes or prefigures Didier Bigo’s “govermentality of unease.” Bigo writes, “The popularity of the security prism […] is the result of the creation of a continuum of threats and general unease in which many different actors exchange their fears and beliefs in the process of making a risky and dangerous society” (63). This suggests that the state’s efforts to secure the nation undermine as much as they strengthen traditional accounts of state sovereignty. The presence of a threat implies the state’s failure to provide security but its subsequent elimination of that threat bolsters the impression of the state protecting its citizens. Bigo adds that the “management of unease” includes “intelligence services and some military people seeking a new role after the end of the Cold War” (64). Thus, it also confers purpose to agents, like Johnsson, who were adrift after the close of the Cold War. Sallis’ portrayal, thus, exemplifies Bigo’s “governmentality of unease” and depicts a state which sacrifices national security to maintain the illusion of itself as sovereign.
Sallis indicates that the sovereign state’s obsession with control, predictability and security is ubiquitous to the extent that “reality” is a mere performance. In Cruel Optimism, Berlant raises the issues of living within a crisis of the ordinary and the realisation that the world can no longer sustain one’s organising fantasies of the good life. On sovereignty, she writes:
Sovereignty, after all, is a fantasy misrecognized as an objective state: an aspirational position of personal and institutional self-legitimating performativity and an affective sense of control in relation to the fantasy of that position’s offer of security and efficacy. (97)
A play of which David dreams, entitled Dailyness, is a microcosm of the performed sovereignty of which Berlant speaks. “Dailyness” is synonymous with “ordinariness,” a fundamental concept used to enhance the impression of the state as omnipotent power. Berlant notes, “Without the ballast of ordinariness to distribute our analyses of ‘structure’ as a suffusion of practices throughout the social, crisis rhetoric itself can assume a similar kind of inflation” (101). As a crisis appears to be acutely catastrophic in contrast to the banality of ordinariness, heroic intervention is deemed necessary. Observing the play Dailyness, David notes that when the protagonist moves behind a screen they “abruptly, unpredictably” change (Death 50). Upon his re-emergence, the play “comes back to keel” (Death 50). This act parallels the hero quashing the crisis and restoring order. However, the menace which threatens to disturb the superficial domestic harmony is played by the same actor who restores the staged production of “reality.” This epitomises the sovereign body in which both “us” and “them” dwell in Sallis’ reformulation. As the performed hypodiegetic reality and diegetic reality reflect each other, Baudrillard’s fear of “substituting the signs of the real for the real” is realised, indicating that reality and sovereign identity are theatrical performances (2).
The actor’s erratic behaviour and the idea of the Self/Other binary as illusory is an enduring one in postmodern criticism and psychology. The protagonist of Dailyness embodies Jameson’s notion of a postmodern schizophrenic subjectivity whereby an individual cannot “accede fully into the realm of speech and language” to attain a discrete and coherent subjectivity (118). The schizophrenic, therefore, has an unstable or non-existent subjectivity which blurs the boundaries between self and other. The actor in Dailyness does not seem to have fully entered into the symbolic order, or the “realm of speech and language,” as “dialogue curdles to diatribe” the moment that he “goes behind a screen” (Death 50). It is also significant that the actor’s speech changes instantly as postmodernity is, according to Jameson, characterised by a loss of individual temporal continuity and a larger “loss of historicity” due to phenomena such as globalisation, technology and capitalism (ix). In order to maintain a stable and authentic identity, an individual must perceive her/his-story as continuous, developing over time. Due to the loss of temporal continuity and a vertiginous sped-up present, however, identity becomes increasingly volatile as the actor’s “split second” change from “kindly” enquirer to a “mad” “menace” demonstrates (Death 50).
Dailyness is performed against a series of painted backdrops depicting “domestic scenes, still lifes, vegetation […] beyond a country hillside, behind a table and chairs” (Death 50). At a time when anxiety and paranoia pervaded human consciousness, Sallis’ allusion to still lifes is particularly apt. Vanitas still lifes (especially those of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) frequently engaged with themes of death and mortality, for instance, rotten fruit symbolising decay, peeled lemons indicating the bitterness of life, and skinned animals as representations of death. As such, still life paintings are closely related to the memento mori, an artwork which reminds the viewer of their mortality and the precariousness of human life. Moreover, art historian Norman Bryson writes that still lifes are synonymous with routine, stability and domestic order as they are stylised representations of objects of the “everyday world of routine and repetition” (14). It is appropriate that Dailyness invokes the notion of domesticity as Cold War ideologies of domesticity were used to secure American identity and to provide the illusion of a safe haven free from the apocalyptic terror of escalating tensions. Elaine Tyler May argues that in addition to the concept of “containment” in relation to foreign policy and the containment of the Soviet Union, there was also a domestic form of “containment.” She writes, “More than merely a metaphor for the cold war on the home front, containment aptly describes the way in which public policy, personal behaviour, and even political values were focused on the home” (14). The domestic sphere, thus, was positioned as a “psychological fortress” and a “secure private nest removed from the dangers of the outside world” (May 1). Ironically, then, whilst America abhorred communist conformity, it endorsed and enforced conformity to socially-constructed domestic roles. What emerged was a polarised model of a potent masculine breadwinner and female housewife suited to a post-war generation intent on “secure jobs, secure homes, and secure marriages in a secure country” (May 13). Playing these roles ostensibly secured the fulfilling and “meaningful” lifestyles that were advocated by the state. In his exploration of domesticity and ordinariness through the fittingly named Dailyness, however, Sallis exposes the inherent inauthenticity of such identities and realities.
As still life paintings always-already exist as representations, the still lifes depicted on the stage screens are reimagined as Baudrillardian simulacra: “models of a real without origin or reality” (1). By repositioning still lifes, and their intrinsic link to the domestic, as simulacra, Sallis reinforces Baudrillard’s assessment of American culture as an inauthentic masquerade as domesticity, the apotheosis of harmony and stability, is exposed as a synthetic edifice. This revelation parallels the fundamentally constructed nature of American identity as socially-constructed gendered roles must be continuously performed. It is appropriate, therefore, that when the actor in Dailyness retreats into the domestic sphere, his behaviour and speech erratically change. Sallis indicates therefore that playing ‘meaningful’ domestic roles induces an unstable schizophrenic subjectivity rather than facilitating the attainment of an authentic selfhood or meaningful reality. Moreover, in Sallis’ reformulation, the domestic sphere is not a peaceful sanctuary but a volatile and hazardous space as the actor utters a “fierce, mad monologue” the moment he enters it. In fact, upon the actor’s re-emergence from the symbolic domestic space, the play returns to “keel” (Death 50). Subsequently, readers are privy to the absurdity of existence in a non-referential “hyperreal” America which is constructed from meaningless simulacra and bereft of any profound political, social, or moral project (Baudrillard 1). As a spectator of the absurdity of performed realties and identities depicted in Dailyness, the reader is invited to become the existentialist “outsider,” a figure who is no longer deceived by the falsity of those whose identities are defined by the roles they play.
Sovereignty of self
David is an existentialist outsider whose spy mission is inextricably linked to his existentialist quest for meaning. Indeed, Sallis’ exploration of the crisis of state sovereignty is a microcosm of the crisis of David’s sovereignty of self. Discussing his Lew Griffen novels, Sallis remarks that memory is used “to cobble together images of ourselves” (quoted in Sinclair 10). Similarly, in Death Will Have Your Eyes, memories become the ink with which David attempts to write the story of his self. In the process of doing so he shirks the shackles of socially-imposed stifling roles. His epistemic experience exemplifies Sartre’s concept of pre-reflective self-awareness, that is, the perceptual experience itself void of introspective reflection (Gallagher and Zahavi n.pag.). Sartre writes that the subject’s pre-reflective consciousness occupies a state of “absent-presence” (Being and Nothingness 103). This “absence” can be drawn into consciousness by an act which strives to comprehend and reveal it. David is instructed to dwell in a state of pre-reflective consciousness as Blaise, David’s mentor, advises, “You must not think. Cast away everything, David, let it go, let your spine become brain” (Death 20). Deterring David from thinking, Blaise advocates a robotic state of existence. In what seems like an attempt to craft the perfect spy through hypnotic construction, Blaise impels David to operate on bodily instinct alone at the expense of psychological autonomy. As such, perceptual experience cannot be integrated or reflected on to attain self-consciousness. Emotionally desensitized, there is subsequently an absence at David’s core. Gabrielle, David’s partner, insists, “there has always been something else as well, a closed up room inside you, an attic where long ago you put things away […] and never went back” (Death 126). Literary critic Allan Hepburn notes that, “The little room serves as a spatial depiction of the secret self, a place of strictest privacy” (284). Indeed, David’s “closed up room” harbours his “secret self,” the perceptual experiences of his old life which he “at first denied” (Death 103). The concept of something “closed up” within the self evokes Freudian notions of the uncanny whereby “everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden has come to light” (225). David’s identity is marked by uncanniness as there is a locked room filled with the repressed and unfamiliar ghosts of his past. Gabrielle’s assessment thus positions David not only as the existentialist “alienated” self, estranged from the world and itself, but more specifically, he is a “stranger to himself” as there is a strangeness or uncanniness deep within his being (Kristeva 1991). In order to become reacquainted with himself, David reflects on the repressed, non-linguistic contents of his pre-reflective consciousness comprised of “memories, [which] thus far were only images, images unaccompanied by words or understanding, images without referent” (Death 122). As he strives “to understand them, to incorporate them, to absorb them,” they become “more substantial” and a “biography” begins to form (Death 103).
David’s attempt to fill the metaphorical void within himself is intertwined with his pursuit of Planchat. During “[t]he quiet years,” Planchat is veiled in a mist of obscurity. Once he becomes an “object of interest” his presence is “finally almost tangible” (Death 180). Subsequently, Planchat is resurrected and re-enters “the world again” (Death 180). It is the act of investigation which hurls Planchat from vacuity to significance. This process affirms Sartre’s assertion that an act of examination can illuminate the dark abyss within one’s self. David recognises that he and Planchat are intrinsically linked as he envisions “the configuration of my face a Venn diagram overlaying his, Planchat’s” and finally concludes that “we’re the same” (Death 57). Planchat is the physical manifestation of David’s “other,” his pre-reflective self-awareness, which has lingered latently in his “closed room.” This idea is reinforced following David’s admission that when Planchat and his pursuer died, “I had died along with them, locked irrevocably to each by those rushes of otherness I’d experienced in the past in times of crisis” (Death 190). Hitherto, his two selves “had not come together” (Death 103). This marks the collapse of the quest to conquer Planchat, and the self and other struggle within David. The contents of David’s pre-reflective consciousness seep into his consciousness through his ruminations and reflections. Rather than repressing the ghosts of his past and the “killer” aspects of his character, David is no longer a stranger to himself as he is conscious of and embraces the fact that these repressed elements are integral fibres woven into the fabric of his self.
Through the lens of Berlant’s conception of sovereignty, Sartre’s postulation that the “organic individual is sovereign” overidentifies with the notion that the sovereign state, and the individual, are autonomous (2002:636). David straddles both Berlant’s and Sartre’s notions of sovereignty of self. David scoffs at the conventional narrative of his mission as he remarks, “the obligatory car chase was taking place rather early on in the movie” (Death 73). Thus, he is aware of the performative “conventional gesture clusters” of the role he is expected to play (Berlant 99). As spies act on behalf of the nation and are, ideally, loyal to the state, their reputation as self-reliant individuals is questionable. Berlant notes that the performance of sovereignty makes “manifest [the] lack of self-cultivating attention” (99). David, however, nourishes his flourishing of self. His decision to leave the agency on realising that, “I was becoming what I did – that there was little else, little more, to me” is an act of consciousness (Death 19). David’s self-cultivation realises one of the key tenets of existentialism that man “will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself” (Sartre, Existentialism 46). Berlant, however, also suggests that “chang[ing] something from within” and “training in one’s own incoherence” are characteristic of “non-sovereignty” (quoted in Davis and Sarlin 15-16). Similarly, David’s realisation that both creator and killer are intrinsic to his authentic self is induced by his awareness of his incoherence. Berlant further asserts that love “always means non-sovereignty” (quoted in Davis and Sarlin 9). If the sovereign is he who is the autonomous decision maker, David’s love for Gabrielle impedes his assertion of sovereignty. Gabrielle is fundamental to David’s decision making for he states, “I had known, intuited, suspected, that Gabrielle would become important to the end of this affair, that I would need to find her” (Death 149). Subsequently, and quite paradoxically, David’s quest for meaning contains elements of non-sovereignty. David reconciles himself to the fact that part of his authentic self is his inner ‘killer’ which is nourished by spying, a role which requires pretence, masquerade, chameleon-like identities, and, ideally, allegiance to the state.
Redefining genre fiction
Within a postmodern cultural arena, it appears the distinctions between “high” and “low” art have collapsed in a manner similar to the collapse of Cold War geo-political binaries. This has enabled popular, marginalised or denigrated genres, such as the thriller and the espionage novel, to assume a new importance. Contrary to perceptions that genre fiction consolidates conventional ideological positions pertaining to reductive homogenised forms of American identity, Sallis demonstrates that the espionage novel is not simply a vehicle for post-war jingoism or vociferous anti-Communism. Death Will Have Your Eyes discredits prevalent ideologies of containment and exacerbates, rather than quells, fears of declining sovereign power. In addition to unsettling generic identites, such as an evil Soviet “enemy” and a virtuous American “victim,” Sallis’ narrative form and structure resists generic, stylistic conventions. By eschewing resolution and conformation with conventional political and fictional generic discourses of the Cold War, the novel therefore challenges popular cultural presumptions and urges readers to see the world through a renewed critical lens.
In his discussion of Sallis’ Lew Griffin series, Andrew Pepper astutely notes, “In Sallis’ deft hands, the component parts of the private eye novel are stripped down and reassembled in such a way as to question even its most basic assumption” (102). In a similar vein, one reviewer of Death Will Have Your Eyes correctly asserts it is the novel’s “flip, absurdist tone—part Thomas Berger, part Richard Brautigan—that subverts the conventions of the spy novel’ (Kirkus Reviews n.pag.). Indeed, Death Will Have Your Eyes does unsettle the certitude of the espionage novel and generic Cold War identities. The title of the novel itself unequivocally states that death is a blinding, all-consuming, indiscriminate force which overpowers any political, economic or social power an individual may possess. Fearing the loss of eyesight is, according to Freud, an emblem of uncanniness and a metaphor for symbolic castration (231). It is significant, therefore, that the director of David’s intelligence agency, Johnsson, is blind. Sallis implies that the intelligence community is impotent and malfunctioning in the face of the meaningless contingency or “accident” of death as Simone de Beauvoir puts it (92). Furthermore, by figuratively castrating Johnsson, Sallis deconstructs the gendered paradigm of Cold War (hyper)masculine identity. In addition, although David is a lone, male spy pursuing a threat to protect the nation, he does not conform to typical depictions of a spy as a predatory hawk mercilessly pursuing his prey. David is not a virile predator nor does he kill Planchat—who is neither a Soviet nor an evil villain—and an electrifying climax does not occur when both men finally meet. Instead, they ponder life in a romanticised setting, “sitting quietly, watching as one of the riverboats filled with tourists […] listening to the stream” (Death 182). Although Planchat is killed in the end, Sallis does not offer an explicit resolution which ties the loose threads tightly together. He does not divulge detailed information regarding Planchat’s killer and her involvement in the plot nor is Planchat’s pursuer identified. Consequently, Sallis deviates from the generic profusion of explanations at the denouement of the espionage novel.
Although espionage fiction is typically structured as one linear narrative, the structure of Death Will Have Your Eyes is episodic and loosely connected. The kaleidoscopic sequence of David’s account of his visionary experience compels the reader to experience the disjointed temporality and ambiguity which confronts David. David meets a mystery woman at an art exhibition whose physical appearance recalls that of Gabrielle, whom David also met at an art exhibition. The woman wears a “T-shirt that fell to midthigh” which rekindles the image of Gabrielle “wearing one of [David’s] T-shirts, which hit her midthigh” (Death 120, 15). Following David’s response to a question posed by the mystery woman, the narrative trajectory takes an unexpected turn as readers are told of David’s belief that he “surfaced, at once a part of their coupling, and divorced from it” (Death 121). As Sallis does not reveal who the couple are or explain what exactly is happening in this random narrative fragment, he crafts a precarious reading experience and invites the reader to partake in the existentialist task of forging connections from ambivalence, entropy and meaninglessness.
In conclusion, this essay has explored the meaning-making mechanisms of the state, David, and the readers. By capturing the pervasive sense of existential despair which choked the nation after the thawing of the Cold War, Sallis unsettles the epistemological certainty characteristic of the espionage novel both thematically and aesthetically. Sallis magnifies the crisis of sovereign identity as he demonstrates that the definite distinctions between “here” and “there,” “them” and “us,” “inside” and “outside”—all of which were propagated by the Cold War metanarrative—are inextricably intertwined. Faced with “nothingness” following the collapse of such reductive identity politics, Sallis indicates that the American state chose to reinvigorate conformity and potency through its attempts to restore a lost masculine fortitude in order to preserve its (illusory) sovereignty. The novel demonstrates that the state’s quest for meaning does not yield an authentic truth but, paradoxically, authorises and enforces superficial, meaningless, invented realities and identities. By illustrating the performativity of blissful domesticity, and its attendant identities, Sallis casts doubt on the capacity to actualise the existentialist ideal of an authentic, autonomous selfhood in a hyperreal America. This doubt also lingers over David’s quest for a meaningful identity and his (non)sovereignty of self. Sallis’ reformulation of “sovereignty” alone illuminates the slipperiness of its meaning and the inadequacy of its definitions. Although David’s conflicts between autonomy and duty and between self-reliance and dependency are not resolved explicitly, David does establish an authentic selfhood over the course of the novel. His pre-reflective perceptual experiences exist as an absent presence until he breathes life into their ghostly form. The contents of his psychological “closed room” emerge from their crystalline shell and dissolve into his self-consciousness. David writes a meaningful story of his authentic self through reflection and examination of these experiences rather than through convenient ruses premised on sustaining the semblance of state sovereignty. Critical reflection and examination are also two faculties which Sallis impels readers to exercise. Through its formal innovations, the novel challenges readers’ expectations and compels them to exercise autonomous thinking in order to navigate themselves, like David, through a precarious (text) world in which the relationship between cause and effect is tenuous. As the novel embodies traits of postmodern literature, it, in truly existentialist fashion, cannot be defined by the conventions of the genre. By resisting overarching generalisations in relation to form and Cold War identity politics, Sallis reconfigures the espionage novel and liberates it from the formal constraints of genre. In defamiliarising the familiar, eschewing closure and refusing to impart definitive meaning, Sallis calls for an empowered readership as readers are required to re-examine their pre-conceived presumptions, rather than passively accepting the validity of represented realities and identities. In this way, the existential crisis of meaninglessness is reimagined as a progressive force as it can inspire alternate, non-conformist, unique modes of thought and comprehension.
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Image credit: “Berlin Wall Monument (Full view)” from the Central Intelligence Agency, via flickr, is a United States Government Work and in the public domain.