Sunday, 2 September 2012

The Affair: Lee Child

If you only ever read one Jack Reacher book, this is probably the one to read. It's the origin story, kicking in belatedly as the 17th book in the sequence. Seventeen books, I thought to myself, rather numbly. It was a little disconcerting to realise that I'd read all of them, in much the same way, I suppose, as I've sometimes looked down at a bag of peanuts and realised that I'd eaten the whole bag without noticing. 

The Jack Reacher books have been a big success for Lee Child, to the extent that there's even going to be a movie with Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Cruise's casting has caused much hilarity on the intarwebs, since Reacher is six foot five and Tom Cruise is … not. Cruise is five foot eight, which was an average kind of height for a human when I was a teenager, but is apparently comically short for a Hollywood star these days, much as the five foot eleven and a half inch George W Bush was remorselessly depicted as some kind of pygmy in the media despite being well above the average height of most of the world. Adorably, Child has said that in the books, Reacher's height and bulk are a way of showing his forceful unstoppability, and that Cruise will show the same characteristics in his own way. That's just genius, in its own warped way.

Because The Affair is an origin story, it has to go all the way back to just before the very first Reacher book, published in 1997 or 1998. And Child is very concerned to keep reminding us that it's 1997, and Reacher is 36 years old, and that the world was very different then to how it is now. That leads to a weird tone in the book, which isn't present in any of the others. I've mentioned before that Child switches between first and third person from one book to the other. Reportedly he does this because while first person narrative is easier for him, sometimes it doesn't let him maintain suspense the way he wants to. Regardless of whether he's working in first or third, there's always an immediacy to the prose; they read as though Reacher or the narrator is jotting down the book practically as it happens. In contrast, The Affair is suffused with nostalgia; Reacher is clearly casting his mind back from the present day to a bygone time in which there was no war on terror and an off duty soldier could get drunk for a nickel, or whatever weird money they used in those far distant epochs. 

It all had a weird and presumably unintended effect. Like most action heroes, there's something timeless about Reacher; he shows up, he flexes the problem to death with sheer manliness and then wordlessly heads off on his way to the next disaster. With recent books, there's been more of a sense of continuity and consequence to the dramas; one has bled into the next, and the recent Worth Dying For had Reacher still plagued by the muscle aches from the pounding he'd taken a few (narrative) days before in the agreeably preposterous 61 Hours, and the just published A Wanted Man seems to begin with him on the run from the consequences of Worth Dying For and still all clogged up from a broken nose. I read Worth Dying For sometime last year, and while I can recall the rough outline of the plot, I can't for the life of me remember the detail of how it ended or how the broken nose happened. But through it all, consequences be damned, Reacher is this big man mountain of unstoppability. Which gave me pause for thought when the opening line of the origin story reminds the reader that in 1997 Reacher was 36 years old. Hang on, I thought; so was I. And these days, I damn sure can't beat anyone up unstoppably. Moving furniture around is more trouble than it's worth. So the very first thing Child had managed to do was make me doubt the plausibility of everything he's written and published in the last six years. I'm sure that wasn't the plan. But, with the best will in the world, Reacher's current age in the books is not far south of fifty. The pace of the action since 61 Hours  has been pretty tight; if you take it that only a few weeks have passed in Reachers world in the intervening time since 2009, when 61 Hours is implicitly set, the man is still 48 or 49 years old, and even for a superhuman man mountain, he seems way fitter and more able for rough stuff than I felt in 2009. For a lot less wear and tear, I feel a lot more arthritic.

Eh, it's a book, it's nonsense, it doesn't have to make sense. But there's something about The Affair's rather grounded tone that left me running through things looking for them to make sense.

As I've commented before, all the Reacher books are essentially the same book; drifter drifts into messy situation, makes it worse, then makes it all better, handing out beatdowns and gundowns until it's time to move on. This is the origin story, Reacher's last case as a military policeman, and yet for all the emphasis that Child places on how the world was different then, the story is curiously the same. Through contrivance, Reacher has to impersonate a drifter, and as he awkwardly goes about it, we see him experiment with all the little things which will define his character in the other books which have already appeared in the real world and which are yet to appear in his own. [Commenters, should ye be out there and itching, I'm eliding the pre-origin The Enemy for the sake of simplicity, not from ignorance]. So, for the first time, he throws a shirt away and buys a new one rather than bother with washing it, and he finds out about how you can get money from Western Union, and so on.

As to the story; Reacher has uncovered corruption and malfeasance at the heart of US government so many times, it's a marvel that either Reacher or the US government is still moving around. Nothing that happens is unexpected, but perhaps that's as it should be in an origin story for someone with so many books behind him. There's a modicum of misdirection, and then it becomes clear that the bad guy is, as always, The Man. But there's something curious to Reacher's response to all the provocation that comes his way, because he straight up cold bloodedly murders three people in the course of the action. Now, that's perfectly reasonable as the way an older, embittered man who's seen a lot of corruption might react to the irredeemability of human nature, but it's jarring as the response of the proto-Reacher. If the early Reacher will just shoot a guy in the head casually, the later one ought to be even tougher, but he's not.

But, eh, it's a book, it's nonsense, it doesn't have to make sense. I'm way over thinking this, and I know that I am. Jack Reacher books are every bit as disposable as Jack Reacher's toothbrushes and spare shirts. It's just that in this one, Child managed to hit a tone which somehow made the book feel a little less ephemeral and silly than they usually do, and I started picking it apart. It's still curiously weightless; just as with all the others, I read it in a matter of hours, racing from one chapter to the next, not because I was on tenterhooks or even particularly involved with the narrative, but because there's something about Child's prose that makes you rush through it to the next thing, and then put the book in the pile for the charity store because you know you're not reading it again. 

In the end, it was something I bought expecting to mock, and which left me instead rather earnestly picking apart its logic. So it's a step above most of the books, and as I said, if you only read one, it should probably be this one. Though you may find you wind up reading all of them, without afterwards being quite able to figure out why, or remember what happened in any great detail. To use a pun which I thought of at the outset and have been trying to resist, it's not quite an Affair to remember.

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