"Because it's like literature, just not what we think of as literary literature."by Sam Leith / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Call it a reaction-formation. Having spent much of the last year judging a literary prize—a process that gave me stress-related psoriasis—I’ve found myself drawn ever more to the position of Kingsley Amis. As he got on in years, Amis said that he could less and less see the point of reading any book that did not begin with the words “A shot rang out…”
So it is that, at least to begin with accidentally, I spent a month or two reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series. I read the latest one, Make Me, and then, like someone having opened a packet of Fruit Pastilles, gobbled the one before… and the one before… and so on. It was said by PJ O’Rourke of Carl Hiaasen that his work was “better than literature.” Child’s very popular work is in the same territory.
For those who don’t know the Reacher novels, they are thrillers describing the adventures of a tough former military policeman who wanders across America. Trouble finds him. Trouble regrets it. He hitches a ride and vanishes. It’s a bit like The Littlest Hobo with ultraviolence.
I should say that reading them in reverse order (I stuck to my whim) was strangely instructive. Crime novels, and certainly thrillers of the Lee Child type, essentially unfold backwards themselves: you have a dead body, or several, and the plot is concerned with unravelling the details. The forwards-moving part of the narrative—how the baddies try to thwart the hero—is set-dressing.
Reading Reacher backwards replicates this. You start with the formula absolutely established—the folding toothbrush and the cash card (his only possessions), the routine with the clothes (when they’re dirty, Reacher buys new ones, changes in the shop, and bins the old set), the trainspotterish stuff about 9mm parabellums, the ships-in-the-night relationships with women…
So as you go in reverse order you get a literary howdunit: see the stuff that was whittled off and discarded in the course of turning Reacher from a character into a mythological artefact. The later in the series you go, the less impact anything has on Reacher’s life from novel to novel. In the early ones he re-encounters childhood sweethearts, owns luggage, thinks about the future, even toys with settling down. By Make Me he is as weightless and motiveless as thistledown.
It made me wonder—as a devotee or, possibly, victim of Child’s style—why his work is “better than literature.” My conclusion is that it’s because it’s like literature—just not like what we now think of as literary literature. In the first place, it’s not that important how the sentences go. Child writes pretty good sentences, unlike very many successful writers in his genre. But they’re not why you read him. Nor is he that interested in how the characters develop: as I said, Reacher moves in 20 novels towards a condition of not developing at all. Child’s genius is to approach not what Roland Barthes called a zero degree of writing, but a zero degree of character.
Reacher’s attraction isn’t that we empathise with him: it’s that we respond to the fantasy of his invulnerability, his lack of fear, his refusal to be encumbered, his uncompromising and uncompromised ability to do the right thing outside the framework of civilisation. He’s an archetype: a ronin, a paladin, Achilles without the sulks. In this respect he resembles Robert B Parker’s private detective protagonist Spenser and Chandler’s Marlowe. But also one of the Greek gods—an unmoved mover.
He has his sayings, his formulae, his Homeric epithets. A book collecting these, called Reacher’s Rules, was even published a year or two back. He moves through an America of identical diners and identical shabby motels—each book a sliding-panel puzzle of familiar parts in a new configuration. In this respect, good crime writers resemble poets more than literary novelists: interested above all in structure. But these are books in which Homer, the author of Beowulf, and those familiar with the open-ended mythscape of the Marvel and DC universes would recognise something kindred.
Better than literature? De gustibus. A cousin of literature? That, as Reacher would say, is for damn sure.