Victor in the Rubble. Alex Finley. Smiling Hippo Press, 2016.
“The individual bureaucrat cannot squirm out of the apparatus into which he has been harnessed…[he] is chained to his activity in his entire economic and ideological existence…he is only a small cog in a ceaselessly moving mechanism which prescribes to him an essentially fixed route of march…forged to the common interest of all the functionaries in the perpetuation of the apparatus and the persistence of its rationally organized domination.” —Max Weber
In the name of transparency, quality control and full disclosure, I have a two-fold duty. First, I need for you, the reader, to read—or at the very least skim—to the end of this article. Second, I need to ensure you are eligible to enjoy Alex Finley’s Victor in the Rubble.
Although it is likely that you meet the criteria of a worthy candidate to revel in this satire—based on your perusing of The Strategy Bridge—I am required to inquire as to the suitability of your readership. It should only take a few moments.
Do you have a pen? Be sure it’s black.
(1) Have you previously read Alex Finley’s Victor in the Rubble?
(2) Did you enjoy the twitter account @natsec_madlibs while it lasted?
(3) Do you understand sarcasm?
If you answered ‘no’ to either question (2) or (3) please contact your nearest physician to schedule an x-ray to find your funny bone. In the meantime, begin reading Victor in the Rubble immediately to raise your sarcasm level to that of a functional human.
Now that we’ve attested that you are a reader who possesses the capacity to relish this novel, and we’ve covered our assets—the ‘t’ is silent—I can assert that in my opinion, which is in no way attached to any three-letter organizations, governmental structures or financial incentives (although that would have been nice): you should read this book, it’s F#&%@*#$ hilarious.
Simply, Victor in the Rubble is a delight. It produces that same sense of glee that comes from opening an MRE to find a pop tart perfectly whole rather than smashed into a gazillion crumbles. Alex Finley, a former CIA officer, has crafted a magical satire of the Intelligence Community post-9/11, Iraq, and the 2004 intelligence reforms.
Victor in the Rubble is a delight. It produces that same sense of glee that comes from opening an MRE to find a pop tart perfectly whole rather than smashed into a gazillion crumbles.
The protagonist, Victor Caro, is a CYA (read: CIA) counterterrorism agent working in Pigallo, fighting the good fight for the US of A in its Total War on Terror ([redacted acronym]). In Ajakar, Pigallo’s capital, Victor works hard to prevent terrorists like Omar al-Suqqit from striking the US, and even harder to unstick all the red tape. Omar, however, is not your ordinary terrorist. He recently franchised his local gang, the Brotherhood, to join The Core, the global jihadist conglomerate actively feuding with the West. And, like Victor, Omar has his own administrative hoops through which he must jump. Bureaucracy proves the common enemy for Victor and Omar, as Victor attempts to thwart Omar and his brethren’s imminent attack against the United States.
What began as an anti-bureaucratic “catharsis” for Finley developed into a work that stands out from the canon of intelligence literature. John Keegan, in Intelligence in War, notes that, when it comes to intelligence, “The literature of fact is exceed in bulk by that of fiction.” We know of the super-secret-squirrel cloak-and-dagger world from former agents such as Ian Fleming, John Le Carré, and Graham Greene, but we are left in the dark about how the bureaucracies supporting these respective agents function. Consider: how much money has James Bond cost the R&D department at MI6? And, as a corollary, how much paperwork—ranging from broken gear reports to missing gear statements—must Q now fill out? Keegan reasons that since “much intelligence practice is mundane and bureaucratic” it is “unalienable to treatment in readable form.” Alex Finley, however, proves Keegan quite wrong.
Webster’s approved definition of satire is “trenchant wit,” and Finley’s work certainly leads to plenty of guffaws. Yet by placing the terrorists under the same deadlines as Victor, she is able to highlight the inherent contradictions and deficiencies within our own bureaucratic system. This works because, as Eric Kaplan points out in Does Santa Exist?, “Comedy embraces contradiction. It unifies the two sides of a paradox into a larger, livable whole without denying either side…it points out contradictions and gives us tools for criticizing them.” Humor enables Finley to reach a greater depth of fact than previous literary spymasters. While it is true that comedy and intelligence are no strange bedfellows—just watch Get Smart, OSS 117, Spy, or Archer—the humor in these treatments of the intelligence community is often intended for entertainment and not critique.
While Victor in the Rubble reads like a current affairs gossip piece, the amusement stems not from thinly-veiled allusions to real people, places, or events, but rather from their interactions with the bureaucratic machine. Keegan explains, “Intelligence is the handmaiden, not the mistress, of the warrior.” Thus, the power of intelligence is to serve, but like all services its employment proves the source of friction. Finley opens up the security vault and inside we see that even when bureaucracy is working, if “its work is interrupted by force, chaos results.” By cutting through the ahmar tape, Finley confronts big-B Bureaucracy: that beautifully-necessary, eternally-frustrating superstructure that makes the government go round (gee, thanks, Weber!).
Finley also extends the idea of terrorism to its abstract extreme. Following the logic of Jean Baudrillard’s The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays, the goal of terrorism, particularly that of 9/11, was “simply to wreck the system—itself indifferent to its own values—by means of its own weapons.” As a means to critique the system—U.S. bureaucracy—Finley takes Baudrillard’s conclusions to their logical yet absurd conclusions. What better Western weapon for a terrorist to use against the West than bureaucracy itself, “a precision instrument which can put itself at the disposal of quite varied interests?” The terrorists, like Victor, get lost in the paperwork shuffle and find that “once fully established, bureaucracy is among those social structures which are the hardest to destroy.” Victor has to fill out paperwork to prove he’s not dead. Omar has to go to employee retreats. And, of course, both Victor and Omar have to keep their receipts.
Bureaucracy means never having to say I’m sorry. Instead, you fill out paperwork.
The problem, which Finley highlights, is that when bureaucracy reaches its purest form, it forgets the people necessary to implement it. Ideally, according to Weber, “Bureaucracy develops the more perfectly, the more it is 'dehumanized,' the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from official business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation.” But despite attempts to strip the bureaucratic process of humanity, it cannot and will not be done. People, no matter how conditioned, are human, and as such will fall prey to emotions—just ask Clausewitz. Moreover, bureaucracy functions best as a synergy of people and paper, not just an inhuman inundation of paper that sucks innovation, flexibility, and creativity from those who merely check the box. Rather than just filling out the forms, people need to read them to understand why the form exists and whether its purported purpose justified the ink. Victor in the Rubble makes just such a point. It is exactly this incalculable combination of personal, irrational, and emotional elements that gets work done. Bureaucracy works well, until it doesn’t; and, when it doesn’t—when it is the system itself that fails—its logic cannot correct course like a real person could. Bureaucracy means never having to say I’m sorry. Instead, you fill out paperwork.
What matters more than office semantics—what cannot be captured on a form—is people: personal interactions, networking, and the human spirit. I am reminded of the television show Veep, which similarly chronicles the functional dysfunction of the executive branch, highlighting, instead, personnel over structural incompetence. Yet star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in an interview for The New Yorker Radio Hour, commented, “When this show started, it was political satire, and now it feels like a somber documentary.”
Reading Finley’s work, one could say the same. However, by using obvious acronyms (CYA), made-up real countries (Rubblestan) and cheesy names (Omar al-Suqqit), Finley’s work could easily fall prey to cheap laughs as parody. But it is more than a mere pastiche of reality. What prevents Victor in the Rubble from being a series of one-liners is that behind each jab is commitment to a deeper truth, a comment on not just the chaos behind our recent conflicts, but the paperwork and the people behind the chaos. Moreover, the greater your awareness and understanding of the Global War on the Terror, the CIA, bureaucracy, or even Office Space, the more incisive and satisfying the novel becomes. This is the perfect beach read for whichever sandbox in which you might find yourself.
Olivia A. Garard is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. She has an MA in War Studies from King's College London. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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