The prose in this book was as compact and exciting as it has been for all the previous books, but Fleming was pretty obviously losing steam. The idea of dressing him up as a Japanese miner (including skin dye!) and training him in Japanese customs and then expecting him to pass muster in less than a week is patently ridiculous. The Japanese culture is incredibly nuanced, and at the time Fleming wrote this novel, the influence of the West had not extended so far into their culture as it has now, making Bond’s transformation even less believable. I suppose the only consolation is that it doesn’t work. Bond is found out very quickly by almost every Japanese person he meets. I won’t comment on the Euro-centric attitudes that border on racism; I’ve already mentioned how poorly Fleming fares with non-European cultures when reviewing previous Bond novels. All that should be said here is that, while Bond himself makes little effort to respect the Japanese culture, Fleming himself at least tries to do so.
Exciting as these books are (and I don’t care what others say; there is a lot of stuff in the Bond books that don’t boil down to action) the bits in which Bond is revealed as weak and human are still the best. At the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the novel before this one, Bond’s new wife was murdered in the final pages. The first hundred or so pages of You Only Live Twice are taken up, not so much with Bond getting used to his assignment and meeting new people (although those things happen), but with Bond’s depression and apathy. The Bond of You Only Live Twice is not daring and reckless; he simply does not care whether he lives or dies. He has even botched several missions and is on the verge of being fired!
Part of me is sad that there are only two Bond books left for me to read, but given that Fleming seemed to have been running out of ideas (which you can read more about in this Guardian article) I’m glad that I don’t have to look ahead to a long and painful fall from grace. If you’re new to the Bond novels or simply a long-time fan looking for an attractive full set (I quite like the garish trade paperbacks that I’ve been reading, but tastes vary), then might I suggest you look at these amazing new hardcovers.
Next, a truly never-ending book, The Recognitions, by William Gaddis.