If you blinked last summer, you probably missed the year's most daring, unusual, and insane literary experiment. This one came not from the pen of John Barth or Philip Roth or David Foster Wallace, nor from one of our era's preening post-ironists, but from Helen Fielding, creator of the wildly popular Bridget Jones phenomenon. While her Jane Bond spy/counterterrorism novel Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination went unappreciated by fans and critics alike–a typical fate for works of art ahead of their time–it demonstrates why Fielding has been such a successful postmodern impresario and multimedia trickster figure.
Such a move would hardly have been necessary for the woman who almost single-handedly invented the Chick Lit fiction genre and undoubtedly invented the genre's most popular segment. (At last count the Bridget Jones franchise boasted two novels, two movies, several dating guides, a Happy Meal or two, and countless copycat books in which a single girl in a media-saturated echelon of New York, London, L.A., or another metropolis must choose between a charming cad and a slightly dull Mr. Right while fending off a beautiful and treacherous rival.) But it turns out that Fielding, like the rest of us, had to do some re-adjusting after the 9/11 attacks.
Thus, Olivia Joules probes an area of wish fulfillment that hasn't heretofore received much attention (and, given the book's lackluster performance, probably won't receive much more). At the heart of the novel is a woman's desire to get in there and kick some ass in the war on terrorism.
Considering the author's penchant for cultural borrowing and sly self-reference, it's not surprising that the book essentially transposes the familiar character types from the Fielding universe (heroine, cad, rival, and Mr. Right) to a globetrotting espionage adventure. Nor, considering the book's subject matter and context, is it surprising that Olivia Joules frequently flirts with questionable taste: When an Osama bin Laden look-alike is described as a "compelling mixture of soulful and powerful" with "finely drawn features, a straight nose, fine, arched brows, hooded brown eyes," and an "aristocratic" and "languid" bearing, you may find yourself swooning for all the wrong reasons.
Then again, that's a pretty apt physical description of bin Laden, and the conceit of an international terrorist as the ultimate dangerous dreamboat is, at the very least, an idea you don't run across every day. At its best, Olivia Joules takes the most dreadful and serious business of our time and cheerfully places it in the context of a genre known mainly for its star-struck, media-engorged frothiness. Several times, the title character escapes from jams that would, in the real world, more likely have ended with her having her head sawed off after delivering a horrifying, tearful plea for her life on videotape. Readers may differ on whether this combination of Chick Lit and techno-thriller succeeds, but it's hard not to admire the audacity of the experiment.
Alas, these are tough times for both single women and experimental novels. Fielding's use of real-world terrors in the service of a beach read is, in the words of one critic, "inappropriate at best and offensive at worst." Maybe, but this puts Fielding in venerable company. World War II was an occasion not only for solemn unity of purpose but for stupid comedies like Abbott and Costello's Buck Privates and Hal Roach's The Devil With Hitler, a two-reeler so bad it should have been deployed as a terror weapon itself. Later, James Bond's SMERSH opponents were straightforward Soviet agents, servants of an enemy whose chief products were heavy industrial planning, falsified crop reports, and mass murder. That didn't prevent Bond from traveling to every exotic spot in the world to dispatch them in ever more ridiculous ways. The Anglo-American alliance may be better than everybody else in the art of war, but it's way better than anybody else in the art of fun, omnivorous commercial culture.
That culture gets short shrift in times of grim crisis and "moral seriousness," but we ignore its value at our peril. The war on terrorism has been marked by a strange cultural bipolarity; the hemisphere of policy is a place of relentless tragedy, while the hemisphere of culture and communication stays sane by walling off the other hemisphere. Like Matt Stone and Trey Parker's puppet-driven Bruckheimer parody Team America: World Police (another fiscal disappointment), Olivia Joules was a madcap effort to bridge those two worlds. It's probable that the book's poor reception will render Fielding hors de combat in the terror war, but here's hoping she takes another crack at what was clearly conceived as a new series.