I was not at all expecting The Manchurian Candidate to be the book it is. It’s packaged, in this 2004 movie tie-in edition at least, as a slick-looking starring-Denzel-Washington-and-from-the-director-of-The-Silence-of-the-Lambs techno-thriller – ‘It’s not a nightmare if it’s really happening’.
But what you get is a mix of extended satire on American politics, a bit of a war story and a bit of a love story, and an absurdist black comedy.
The premise is simple. Sergeant Raymond Shaw, a Korean War veteran and holder of the Congressional Medal of Honor, in civilian life an influential political journalist with friends and family in high places, has been brainwashed by Communists to act as the perfect assassin. He can reach almost any circle in American political life, and can be activated by the suggestion that he play a game of solitaire.
Shaw’s family is dominated by his aggressively political mother Eleanor, a Messalina who is hell-bent on carving a path to the White House on behalf of her idiotic and boorish second husband. Senator ‘Big John’ Iselin’s platform is a war against communism in American government, a propagandic crusade that he and his wife prosecute with little or no attention to the truth. In fact, the less true the better.
‘What the hell do you keep changing the Communist figures for, all the time?’ he asked hotly just before the press conference was to open. ‘It makes me look like a goddam fool.’
‘You’ll be a goddam fool if you don’t go in there and do as you’re told. who the hell are they writing about all over this goddam country, for crissake?’
Meanwhile, the real Communist agents are waiting to activate Shaw for the first time. His brainwashing is deliberately nonsensical and the first demonstration of its power to various Soviet bigwigs is a blackly comic set-piece ending in the murder of two of Shaw’s platoon.
The critical application of deep suggestion was observed during the first eleven hours of immersion when the primary link to all future control was set in. To this unbreakable link would be hooked future links that would represent individual assignments which would motivate the subject and which would then be smashed by the subject’s own memory, or mnemonic apparatus, on a presignaled system emanating from the first permanent link.
Raymond Shaw is naturally unpleasant and has an off-putting personality (which made him more suitable for brainwashing), and has only one friend, his old Army buddy Marco. Major Marco has been brainwashed too, and is haunted by conflicting memories which are driving him crazy. When Marco falls in love, his brainwashing begins to loosen up. But will it be too late to save Shaw’s primary target?
At different points I was reminded of Catch-22, Dr Strangelove, Mickey Spillane, M*A*S*H, Kurt Vonnegut, and A Confederacy of Dunces. Apparently if I was better informed, I’d have spotted I, Claudius too: Condon has been accused of plagiarising Robert Graves. Even with that, I still think this is one of the more original books I have read – especially considering it was published in 1959. Well worth your time.
The Manchurian Candidate
First published by McGraw Hill, 1959
This edition Orion Books, 2004
Final destination: A keeper