Monday, 22 February 2010

Gone Tomorrow; literally

I don't know why I buy every Lee Child book when they come out. I do know why I don't keep the books once I've read them in a rush, but I don't know why I bother buying them and reading them.

A friend recommended the books to me back when they were still fresh-ish, and I bought five and read them in a lump at the turn of the century. Even as I was reading them, I knew they weren't very good, but somehow the narrative pulled me along and I rushed through them in a matter of a few days. I remember doing the same in the 1990s with John Grisham, which for some reason my sisters were buying for my Dad; I'd be home in Ireland for a few weeks and rather than buying more books to read I'd just scavenge whatever was around me in my parents' house. Lots of Grishams, for some reason and I would rush through them in a matter of a few hours of reading time per book, forgetting what I'd read nearly as quickly as I'd read it.

Even though I'm trying at the moment to blog something about everything I read or see at the cinema, I wouldn't even have bothered blogging Child's latest book if it hadn't been for a passing comment I made in an email. Making sense of that comment forces me to give some back story.

If there's manlier fiction out there than Lee Child's books, it's probably a legal requirement that it be sold wrapped in oestrogen for safety reasons. Lee Child writes about Jack Reacher, a character so manly that he literally consists of nothing of manliness, with no confusing personality or baggage of any kind. Jack Reacher is a very high concept. He's an enormous ex military policeman who makes a point of owning nothing and living nowhere. He walks around the USA with an ATM card and an expired passport, buying clothes when he needs them, throwing them away when they get dirty, and getting into trouble all the time. The whole buying clothes and throwing them away thing started to feel quite meta to me yesterday when I had finished the book and was debating whether to give it away to Oxfam or what. The books are completely disposable; you read 'em, you get whatever brief sugar rush you can from them, and then like Reacher discarding his clothes rather than going to the laundrette, you chuck 'em away.

I've actually got a lot of stuff I want to read at the moment, and a nagging feeling of wanting to re-read some books I haven't read in a long time. So I'm puzzled that I took a few hours to rush through Gone Tomorrow, when I'd already read a dozen books with Jack Reacher in them and I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. There'd be an interesting set up (there was) which would involve abstruse information that would appeal to nerds who wish they were manly and active (there was). Reacher would be drawn into the mess, and would be diverted down side alleys (he was). Random mooks would be beaten briskly and efficiently to a pulp (they were). A chick would be introduced with whom Reacher would have a romantic dalliance just before the climax (one was, they did, and I totally meant that double entendre). The mystery at the heart of the thing would be stumbled over forty pages before the end (it was) and prove to be a lot less dramatic than the set-up and the blind-alleys had suggested (you may fill in the blank for yourself). Reacher would arm up and march on the bad guys, shooting them up and beating them up and generally prevailing but only just (yup), before walking off into the sunset (yup again).

If that last paragraph suggested a checklist, it's not accidental - the book opens with Reacher running through a mental checklist of ways to spot a suicide bomber. A lot of my thinking about this book seems to keep echoing with the book's own style and character.

From a purely stylistic point of view, one of the things which puzzles me about Lee Child is that he's done all his writing with a single very limited viewpoint character, but he repeatedly switches between writing in the third person and the first person from one book to the next. I can't think of another writer who's done that; either you're comfortable in the first person and you do that, or you're comfortable in the third person and you do that, or you're batshit clinically insane and you work in the second person plural. Or you start out writing in the first person, realise it's limiting and switch to third; I've seen all of those. But even with writers who switch between first and third person for different books, I can't think of another example of a writer who switches between modes in different books with the same character - particularly when the character never really changes.

I don't know why Child is doing this. Of course, I don't know why I'm reading the bloody things. I don't know why I'm putting down much better books to read them. Perhaps it's precisely because they are so mindless; sometimes my head is just tired and I don't want to have to think so hard. At the moment, my main reading project is getting to the end of Glen Cook's Black Company novels. They aren't exactly high art either, but there's an awful lot of ink to get through and Cook doesn't explain anything if he can suggest it instead. Lee Child, bless him, is very fond of pausing the action while Reacher ruminates through exactly how things work. It's all very Andy McNab. Near the end of the book, Reacher gets given a silenced sub machine gun. There's WAY too much explanation of the way that silenced sub machine guns work when all you really need to know is silenced sub machine guns get hot, so you need to wear a glove when you're firing one. Actually, that strikes me as a serious design flaw, up there with the people who think it makes more sense to sell bike pants with padding in them than design bike saddles which just work with ordinary pants. But Reacher ruminates on this for a bit; like most characters in manly fiction, he's apt to ruminate on stuff that's fascinating to men who themselves aren't especially manly.

Reacher gets a silenced machine gun, but weirdly only one clip for it. It's important from a plot point of view - his opponents have been carefully arrayed and numbered so that one magazine will be just not quite enough bullets to do them all in. Since I am that man who wonders how supervillains get planning permission, I am also that man who wonders how someone can get hold of the latest version of an exotic sub machine gun and not get hold of a second clip. The gun in question is a fancy-dan version of a gun widely used by police departments throughout the US; spare clips would be comically easier to find than the gun itself. But I admit, that's a bit too boy-man who reads manly books of me; for a logical error which anyone can appreciate, Reacher, at one point, shoots a bad guy, takes his gun, and takes the bullets out of the clip. Then he puts the bullets loose into his pocket. How much time would it have taken to load the bullets into his own gun - he even makes a moment to say they'd fit? More sensibly, why not just pocket the whole gun he's just found? Reacher doesn't do either of those comparatively simple things, and as far as I can tell the only reason he has a common sense failure is so that he can have a knife fight at the end of the book.

I think that what I spent Saturday afternoon doing (apart from backing up a hard drive and reformatting it, an activity completely compatible with reading manly fiction, in SO many ways) was the literary equivalent of a big mac. You know it isn't good for you, you know exactly what it's going to be like, and you know that consuming it isn't going to take long and isn't really going to be that satisfying. And you know that it will be Gone Tomorrow.

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