Book Review: The Avengers, “The Floating Game”

“Will you marry me?”
“No.” Emma stood up indignantly and pointed to the black leather jacket and slimma slacks she was wearing. “People will think we’re homosexuals.” At which the three little maids from school collapsed in helpless laughter.

Is Emma Peel being homophobic in this scene? I’m not sure, but I hope not. Here’s the context: extravagantly beautiful and evil Russian spy Tamara Petrova, stooge of the Italian-American mafia, has disguised herself as a man and is planning to smuggle (really, kidnap) Emma across the pond as her wife. Her specific purpose is never made clear, though I’m guessing (or hoping?) that it’s something far more sinister than same-sex desire. To that end, I’m hoping that Emma’s reaction to the situation reflects not homophobia but rather sophisticated sarcasm, a commentary on her own gender (and perhaps sexual) deviance that reflects her similarity to Tamara, rather than her difference or disgust.

Then again, you can never be quite sure with The Avengers. I tend to give them the benefit of the doubt because I like them, and want to think well of them. Another case in point: toward the end of The Floating Game, Steed is being tortured by a Chinese girl wielding a wooden cane, and tries to find pleasure in the pain by “concentrating on developing a thing about Chinese girls.” This line might be insanely racist, but Steed might also be satirizing orientalism (especially since the poor man never succeeds at convincing himself to enjoy the girl’s attentions). Admittedly, the very presence of an emotionless Chinese dominatrix (there are actually three of them, in matching judo outfits) is a racist convention, just like Emma’s engagement to Tamara, in its exploitation of cross-dressing and/or transgender identification for titillation value, can be seen as sexist, transphobic, etc. Yet I still want to believe Emma and Steed are smarter than their own narrative, that they’re capable of stepping outside the racism and sexism permeating the culture and genre in which they find themselves. The way I imagine Emma and Steed, they’re too cynical, too “hip,” to be interested in anything as pedestrian or old-fashioned as bigotry.

My favourite parts of The Floating Game bolster my belief in Emma and Steed. The main plot involves Steed running for office in an effort to root out the Russian/Italian-American mafia conspiracy. So of course there’s plenty of political satire, mostly involving Steed’s sarcastic manipulation of social platitudes as he’s forced to weigh in on things like “the teenage problem.” Steed’s winning combination of smarm and ironic disaffection brings the funny in these political set pieces, although I’m not completely comfortable with the way he sometimes uses political apathy as a badge of cool. While I certainly understand the impulse to check oneself out of the political rat race, apathy can be a pretty irresponsible strategy of “resistance.” When it comes to politics, refusing to engage problems doesn’t do much to address them, let alone solve them. Then again, I’m not confident in my own ability to keep a straight face in front of a taciturn bevy of oldsters demanding I broker peace between mods and rockers.

Ultimately, I think Steed comes across best in some of his smaller moments. Examining the apartment of his political predecessor Smeck-Hudson, who is driven to suicide through his association with Tamara and Co., Steed bemoans the deceased’s lack of style:

“It was such a dourly impersonal flat, all oak panelling and antique furniture, heavy oil paintings and thick carpet, the sort of things that money can buy… Steed wished there was at least one etching of then Zulu War on the wall, a postcard on the bathroom door saying ‘This is It’ or a copy of Fanny Hill among the books. There’s more to the printed word than The History of the English Speaking Peoples. Even Mein Kampf would give balance. S.H. hadn’t gone downhill in the right direction. His cocktail cabinet contained only whiskey, and that a non-proprietary brand.”

In this passage, Steed feels that even if Smeck-Hudson were a worse person—the kind of person who displays prints of the Zulu War and reads Mein Kampf—he’d still be a more pitiable person, because he’d be a more complex person. For Steed, Smeck-Hudson’s real tragedy isn’t his death, but the bland conformity of his life.

A later scene in a psychiatric hospital suggests a deeply personal, and even (gasp!) political bent to Steed’s hatred of conformity:

“He never liked mental hospitals… During a brief period of sensitivity some years ago he had dreamed that he was in an asylum and all the reasonable doctors were saying, yes, Mr. Steed, of course you can go home, as soon as you convince us that you are sane… just prove it. Years ago.

‘Do you think,’ Steed asked the doctor, ‘that places like this are society’s revenge on people it doesn’t understand?’”

Naturally, Steed drops the subject, preserving the dignity of his apathetic facade. But his brief loss of control is still intriguing for suggesting a history and a purpose behind his cynicism. This is Steed acknowledging that checking out isn’t always a choice—it can also be a hard-won or impossible privilege.

My only substantial complaint about The Floating Game is that compared to Steed, Emma comes across a smidge one-dimensional. Although she plays a crucial role in the plot, and gets to hurl plenty of judo chops, her emotional complexity is a bit lacking. This isn’t terribly surprising, since Emma’s complexity within the show is very dependent, I think, on Diana Rigg’s masterful portrayal. Yet for a woman in the 60s spy genre, book-Emma is still somewhat remarkable; although she’s clearly Steed’s subordinate, there’s never any indication that he doesn’t absolutely trust her to complete the dangerous, highly skilled, physically demanding missions he assigns her. Certainly, she’s a far cry from some of the seen-but-not-heard women of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels.

Speaking of being seen… Book-Emma’s outfits try very hard to compensate for her otherwise limited complexity. She’s introduced wearing a black fur coat over “a purple wool boucle jacket and dress that fitted elegantly over the slim curves of her body.” Later, she dons more purple in the form of a “velvet trouser dress” accessorized with a “white kid helmet” (Steed knocks this particular outfit, telling her she looks like she’s just come back from the Crusades). In one of the book’s final scenes, she scandalizes the political establishment with this particularly flamboyant ensemble: “She was quite sensational, in a glossy black bombe hat with a silver buckle that matched her knee length aluminium boots. The dark glasses, unnecessary at midnight, seemed restrained compared to her black and mauve Lister fun-fur coat.” Somehow, trying to imagine these outfits (I had to Google a few of the period-specific terms) makes them even more fabulous.

The cover, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with the story. As far as I can tell, it’s just a totally random, totally hilarious still from the show. Feel free to apply your own subtext 🙂

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The Floating Game

By John Garforth

Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1967

144 pages

back cover
back cover

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