In 1973 Harry Mathews was an American writer living in Paris. With sufficient means so he did not have to work, Mathews's days were apparently filled with operas and ballets, erudite conversations with the local literati, the occasional bit of writing, and innumerable sexual encounters with any number of women, some of them married, who seem to have fallen on him after little more than a handshake. The picture that emerges is part Somerset Maugham, part Austin Powers, the expatriate shedding his "snug black velvet bell bottoms" for the odd sexual romp.
Mathews explains that he had a reputation in Paris for being gay, rich, and CIA--none of which was true. The last misconception particularly irked him, and he habitually attempted to convince people that he wasn't an agent. Finally, unable to quell the rumor, he tried a different approach: he pretended that he was CIA. He took every opportunity to behave mysteriously, going so far as to fake dead drops and to adopt as cover the job of secretary in a fictional travel agency for which he had stationery made up. Mathews took the whole spy game rather further than was sensible or ethical, and he wound up exciting the attention of people who ultimately decided that he'd be better off eliminated.
Mathews's adventure is certainly an interesting one--the sort of thing one might like to try oneself--but one reads the book not knowing whether it is fact or fiction, or rather, how much of the story is fact and how much fiction. That, apparently, is the point: the book, billed oxymoronically as an "autobiographical novel," plays with truthfulness and credibility. Certainly some of what Mathews has to say seems impossible, as for example his account of one particular sexual escapade in an Oriental rug emporium: when he and the woman are interrupted, she rolls him in a carpet to hide him, and he is then carried off by ostensibly unwitting laborers, who load him in a truck and deliver him across town; emerged from the carpet some time later, he insinuates himself into a dinner party and soon runs off for another bit of (unfortunately also interrupted, but in its early stages interpedal) intercourse on a nearby church altar with a woman he's just met. Part of the game for readers is deciding whether and when to believe what the authors is telling us.
Mathews's book is not all as compelling as the above story would suggest: the author writes a lot about the little engagements that made up his (character's) life in those days, down to guest lists and meals consumed, and these slow down his narrative--though they add to the story's verisimilitude, which, again, may be the point. In short, My Life in CIA is an odd but interesting book about an unlikely game that became--maybe--for a time disturbingly real.
Reviewed by Debra Hamel, author of Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece (Yale University Press, 2003)