Oft-criticised as ill conceived and insubstantial, The Man with the Golden Gun is the last of Fleming and stands as a curious conclusion to the literary Bond. The popular analysis of the novel as a weaker entry in the series is understandable. The book was unfinished or, perhaps more accurately, unpolished at Fleming’s death, and the plot is not the missile-napping and germ warfare of earlier books, nor is this tale (which on one level is that of a Cuban thug trying to raise a mortgage) the apparent equal to the histrionics of Goldfinger the film, released in the same year.
On that analysis, the story is indeed flat. There is no immediate threat to the world. There is no colossally evil ultravillain. Accordingly, the book appears to be a significant discrepancy, a disappointment even, after the narratively extravagant On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice.
Query whether this maligned reputation is deserved. Hiding its nature, Golden Gun has several bullets in its chambers which suggest that Fleming was at work on his most geopolitically and psychosexually expansive work, disguised as a spy tale of a relatively minor scale. Completed by others it may have been, but there are clues in the book to indicate that Fleming was determined to expand this James Bond novel beyond the others. Had he lived to complete and redraft it where necessary, Golden Gun may have gained what is arguably its proper reputation: Fleming’s most mature book, perhaps even his best.
The key to Golden Gun is, of course, Bond’s resurrection at the opening of the novel. The assassination attempt on M as an incident is striking and its narrative purpose is plain, to tie up loose ends hanging over from the previous book. It is also significant thematically, and has a marked effect upon the development of the book’s ideas.
In this opening, we are presented with Bond back in the introspective and self-obsessed world of espionage, where Bond is utilised as a pawn between M and Colonel Boris, ostensibly men with a huge effect on the world, but using Bond on a very small scale, a personal vendetta. Men with too much power using it, not for survival, but for their own amusement. This is not the real world; this is a game played out on a plane divorced from the world. The only context is their own, and one of their own devising. The result of Bond’s actions is banishment from this world. That the next occasion we encounter Bond is at Kingston airport, having descended from the clouds, is not accidental.
The fallen angel is a routine religious metaphor, as indeed is its unsurprising conclusion, the redemption at the end of the novel, the key back into the gods. Golden Gun follows that basic Judeo-Christian construction. What is interesting is that Fleming effectively kills Bond off from that other world, and for the remainder of the book, prior to his ascension, he is reborn into a politically and socially authentic world, where there are no supervillains. It’s time to get real.
Furthermore, this is not the same Bond. Bond has been “unbrainwashed”, and the cleansing subtext is intriguing. A common criticism of the book is that there is little or no reference to Tracy, or indeed anything from the previous novels. That is not undeliberate. The book does not need it. This is New Bond, and because of the way that the political background of the book is presented to us, it is important that this is New Bond, not Old Bond, he who is dead. This is because the regeneration metaphor is prevalent to the book’s analysis of the real world into which Bond is reborn. The world has changed and Bond will change with it.
Being a Jamaican by extraction, I have in equal measure been amused at the quaintness and depressed at the elitism of Fleming’s depiction of Jamaica in Dr No, his other major “Jamaica book”. The world presented to us in Dr No is Old Bond’s world. There is little to doubt that Dr No himself is to be destroyed because he is impinging on the Empire, on Britain’s possession. That book sends out a signal, which is fundamentally “Hands off. Ours”. Although the stuffiness of the Governor and his staff is mocked, Bond can rely upon the backbone of the Imperial system to get him out of a fix if need be. Additionally, British agent 007 foils Dr No’s plot, which is attacking the interests of the United States, not directly Britain’s interests. To the rescue of the world, here comes Britain. You cannot pull the lion’s tail, you half-German, half-Chinese freak.
All very jolly, but fundamentally historically naïve. The Suez Crisis, contemporaneous to Dr No, would expose the lion as a gummy old cat. The Cuban Missile crisis, despite its geographical proximity to Jamaica and political proximity to a war, Britain did not get involved in, leaving it to the Americans. Dr No is not real world. Dr No is Old Bond world, where those in Whitehall can convince themselves they still have global relevance. Even as late as You Only Live Twice, with the negotiations over Magic 44, we see Old Bond world deluding itself as important.
Golden Gun is revolutionary. The dregs of Empire into which HazardBond descends are politically more realistic and more mature on the part of the author than his futile flag-waving had been. There are express changes: at the conclusion of the novel, the inquests and congratulations are dealt with, not by British civil servants as in Dr No, but Jamaican dignitaries. Government House, such resolute support in Dr No, is impotent. Ross is killed, Mary Goodnight offers little real practical support (also relevant to the sexual themes of the book) and it is the Americans, the new colonisers, who have managed to infiltrate the Thunderbird Hotel. It is the Americans who rescue Bond. The British are now bit-players in a three way drama between the US, the USSR and Cuba. They are of little real significance. This is the New World.
Could Old Bond have survived in this world? Old Bond, who wraps himself in the flag and the language of the bigot (cf: dialogue with Drax, Tanaka, Dr No)? Would he have coped? Arguably, no. To be pertinent to this new, real world, to function at all, New Bond must be “clean” of that baggage. Thus Bond must be cleansed and the subtextual importance of the assassination attempt is becoming clearer. It is critical and consistent that this Bond is undeveloped His character is not that of the Bond of the previous books; like Britain itself, he is a child newly thrust into this world, Empire and personality and all their respective memories are eradicated and of no practical use.
Not everything has changed. With Scaramanga’s scheme, Fleming still persists in bizarre polemic, lumping terrorism, black power and Cuba together as one, likening the civil rights movement and trade unions to those promoting communism. Although these observations are made by the villain rather than Old Bond (how times change), it’s pretty plain what Fleming’s spin on the issue is. On its surface, therefore, this book retains the reactionary nature of its forbears. What has changed, however, is the undercurrent of utter futility.
Scaramanga’s concerns are the US and Cuba, not Britain. He kills British agents for fun. They are not to be taken seriously. The Bond/Scaramanga duel at the end of the book will ultimately change nothing. It will not end the Cold War, in the manner that Bond ended Blofeld’s plans by destroying Piz Gloria, or Goldfinger’s plans by putting a message in the toilet bowl of a small aeroplane. The demented personal politics aside, Golden Gun is a notably more politically astute book. Nothing changes as a result of the climax. Scaramanga’s death will ultimately mean very little. The optimistic certainty that destroying a great, if evil, man, like Goldfinger or Dr No, will achieve something, will change or better the world, is replaced with the more prosaic ambivalence that the destruction of Scaramanga could well be futile. Unlike its parallel of the duel between M and Colonel Boris at the book’s opening, great men playing games in a small world, the concluding sequence in the swamp is a small scale fight between small scale men but set against a huge world they do not control. New Bond world is not an arena for great men. They are fantasy. It is now the world of the Scaramangas.
The achievement Bond has at the end of the novel is not having bettered the world to any noticeable extent, but a far more credible personal one, his redemption and his ticket back to the gods. Although, of course, for otherwise there would be no pat happy ending, Bond accepts that ticket, he rejects the knighthood, and that has thematic resonance in this New World: of what importance could that offshoot of Empire now be? Logically, to refuse the bauble is the correct action. Even if accepting it would have made for an even happier ending, it would have been inconsistent with the subtext, it would have been a jarring theme. Bond is welcomed back amongst the gods having lived amongst men and having seen their world. It remains an ambiguous ending; is wilful resurrection to the Old World the right choice?
At the book’s conclusion, the rebirth is complete, and rebirth is not a word chosen lightly. Birth was Casino Royale, and of all the preceding Bond novels, it is Casino Royale that Golden Gun most closely resembles. The overall humourless tone aside, the basic plot has marked similarities; Bond foils an attempt by an enemy agent to raise funds to promote disruptive USSR interests abroad. Bond has come full circle. He has died, and this is his second life. The book is not distinct from OHMSS and You Only Live Twice; it is the necessary conclusion to its trilogy. This second life just happens to start in a similar manner to his first. This is the authorial joke behind Golden Gun. Bond has come the full 360 degrees and emerged out of the Old World into the New. Fleming is starting again, leaving the baggage of personal and political history behind. That we never saw how this New World developed is unfortunate, but because of this circularity, fate renders Golden Gun the appropriate place to conclude the literary Bond. The character has revolved as the world has evolved. Had he been afforded the opportunity, it would have been fascinating to see where Fleming took Bond beyond Golden Gun. Sadly, with the chance to recreate his character in a developed world denied to Fleming, that future is only one of themes, schemes and impossible dreams.
So much for Religion, Politics and Death. Part two of this essay will examine the sexual themes of the book. In a book as rich in subtext as The Man with the Golden Gun, that concluding paragraph must mean something, surely?