Monday, March 21, 2016
LEE CHILD, JONATHAN FRANZEN, AND JOUÏSSANCE ON 57TH STREET
by Andy Martin
It was typical Lee Child.
Not long before he had been ranting on about how you really ought to ‘kill off all your relatives' (speaking aesthetically, but with a definite sense that art is murder) and how much he hated all those family trees in the classic novel. He was anti-genealogy. No begats. You can't have an XXL ex-military vigilante drifter roaming about and he has to call up his old mum every couple of weeks.
Now he was saying, ‘What if his mother comes back? Madame Reacher. You know, but young. In the Resistance. A kid. Before she became a Reacher. I love that period. The Nazis marching down the boulevard. Sartre and Camus writing in the Café de Flore. Most of the Resistance fighters achieved nothing, beyond getting themselves tortured. Useless, a lot of them. But the couriers – they were really something. They saved lives.'
We were crossing the street at Columbus Circle, weaving around cars and buses, riffing on the phrase ‘San Fairy Ann' (the Anglicization of Ça ne fait rien), deriving from our Second World War-era franglais-mangling fathers. Neon-lit darkness. Only a hazy idea where we were supposed to be going. We'd just finished the New York Times job in the Starbucks across from Lincoln Center Plaza. Lee was looking particularly disreputable for some reason. Maybe it was the stubble or the jeans-and-t-shirt look. Piratical. Like, if you were sheriff, you'd want to run him out of town before he started anything.
‘I thought you had a rule about relatives?' I liked the old ma, but you had to get the aesthetics right.
‘Maybe I could kill off all her relatives? That could work. It is the bloody war after all, much harder to keep ‘em alive then.'
‘You can't kill her off, that's for sure. No Mum, no Reacher. He's not born yet!'
‘Yeah, that's a problem. Everyone will know she has to live to a ripe old age. What was it? 60 I think. My age…Then she conks out.'
It was all down to a reader, as usual. A Canadian reader. Lee had been up in Toronto at a bookstore, doing his usual author gig, and a woman had stood up and asked him if he would ever bring the mother back. She liked the mother. There was a definite ripple of enthusiasm for the idea – probably from all the mothers in the audience. He said no one had ever asked him that question before and he was quite struck by it. Maybe he would, one day. Hence, thinking about it as we crossed the street.
To me it was like asking Albert Camus if he wanted to bring his mother back in the novel after L'Etranger. That's what readers were like these days: controlling. It wasn't enough to read a book, they wanted to write it too. Or press the buttons on the remote anyway. Maybe it was all the channel hopping. Can we have the one with the mother back, please? Lee recalled a similar issue with Marilyn and Chester Stone, in Tripwire. People wanted to know what had happened to them at the end. The author hadn't said. Just left them swinging in the breeze. After everything they had been through. ‘What do you think happened?' he replied, sophisticate that he was. Cue outraged reader. He was supposed to know, not them! They were just paying customers. But it was like the reader was getting him to re-write everything.
‘Makes you wonder, though, doesn't it? I could just extend every novel. Stretch it out a bit more. Go forwards, go backwards. Easier than writing a new one.' Which is what he was in fact trying to do, when not distracted by about a hundred other things. And readers pulling his strings.
‘Starts to sound like my distant relative George,' I said. ‘George R. R. "Game of Thrones" Martin.' There has to be a connection.
‘Our colleague at Random House. I think he slipped in the R. R. Just to sound more like Tolkien.'
We were only a block out from the Random House building. ‘You could bring back everyone we thought was dead,' I suggested, helpfully. ‘Like Gandalf.'
‘Isn't that the kind of thing you do?' This was prefaced by an explosion something like a ‘Ha!'. He was not a great Lord of the Rings fan, mainly on account of Tolkien having been at his old school. Reacher vs the little hairy hobbit. It was no contest. Ring or no ring. Maybe he had even come up with Reacher as a kind of protest againsthobbits. ‘I bury ‘em and you keep digging ‘em up again. So I guess I don't need to..'
This was his notion of hermeneutics. The writer goes about killing people, and the critic goes about excavating the bodies all over again. A would-be resurrectionist. Like Pet Sematary. Or archeologist. Maybe forensic pathologist.
Lee was good at French. Spoke it fairly fluently. Had a house in France. Here is proof (of the fluency): the other day a French couple had come up to him a block or two from the Apple Store on 56th. They wanted to know where the Apple Store was. They spoke only French, no English. And, this was the problem, they had just walked straight past the Apple Store, didn't even realise it was there. Lee had to explain to them, in French, that the Apple Store was in fact concealed beneath a glass cube in a square and they had just looked right through it, what with it being transparent and all. Not unlike the Pyramid outside the Louvre (not that the Apple Store should be equated with the Louvre, or a cube with a pyramid, but you get my point). I was wondering how well I would do. I would have struggled in English.
Thus the bestseller writer knew all about the difference between le plaisir and la jouïssance. The classic Roland Barthes distinction, in The Pleasure of the Text. Flaubert (jouïssance), Dumas (plaisir). Translated into our current terms, it was Jonathan Franzen v Lee Child: classy literary novel v commercial airport paperback. The standard English translation of jouïssance was ‘bliss', which was OK, so long as you didn't forget the sexual connotation, or possibly denotation (orgasm). Lee was definite: he too wanted to stake a claim. ‘The reader has to have an orgasmic experience, reading Reacher, it can't be anything less.'
‘Of course, it's ambivalent, the jouïssance. There has to be a degree of pain alongside the pleasure. That's the difference.'
‘I can do pain,' he said. ‘No shortage of pain.'
Maybe that is the way the Reacher books work: they are an equation, a pendulum, bisecting pleasure and pain, ultimately with a slight tilt in the direction of pleasure. (Although there are at least a couple I'm not in a hurry to go back to.)
‘I'm held to a higher standard,' Lee was saying. Obviously, he was biased. This was Lee Child himself speaking after all. But it was good to get the non-canonical perspective. We were wandering about looking for the Trattoria del Arte. We were in no hurry. ‘Great city, isn't it?' It was a warm night and the streets around 57th and 7th had a certain joie de vivre going on, verging on jouïssance. A Jack Reacher thriller had to be like the New York of literature, with the lights on.
‘Think about it,' he was saying. ‘I can't afford to let the reader off the hook. It has to be intense all the way through. If the reader ever says, "Yawn, I'm bored", I've failed. Whereas, consider Franzen. The Franzen reader actually expects to be bored, some of the time. The point is buying the book in the first place. The actual reading is almost secondary. You got more out of the buying than the reading. There can be long stretches, longueurs, where nothing is happening. A hundred pages maybe. Of ennui. Where the reader doesn't even care. You can put it down for months.'
‘Years in my case,' I said.
‘You finished Purity, didn't you?'
‘Freedom. Still about 50 pages to go. I'd better pick it up again and finish it. If I can find it.'
‘You see, that's exactly it. There is no compulsion. You can take it or leave it. Pick it up or put it down.'
‘You often use the analogy of being in a car going somewhere. Usually a nice car. A BMW or something. Maybe Franzen is more like just wandering about, on foot. What we're doing now in fact.'
Lee thought about that one. We still hadn't found Trattoria del Arte. We were relying on the city to find it for us (neither of us was tempted to use a phone). ‘Reacher does a lot of wandering of course, doesn't he? It's his whole raison d'être.' He chuckled, probably on account of sounding a little like a character in Franzen, more European than American. But it was true: Reacher gets off the train in Make Me only because he likes the name, Mother's Rest. He's not going anywhere as such. ‘But look: he has to find the diner. He has to get the cup of coffee, eventually. Otherwise, he curls up and dies. Then it's pure Beckett.'
‘Or Kafka. The endless waiting. Nothing happens.'
That was the cynegetic paradigm (in Carlo Ginzburg's phrase): directed wandering; aleatory, but teleological. Lee Child wasn't the opposite of Franzen (or Beckett, or Kafka). It wasn't linear. Maybe it was just more transparent. If you wait long enough for Godot, then Godot really will manifest himself. All 6'5" and 250 lbs of him. Maybe this, finally, was the point of Reacher: to level the playing field and abolish the hidden hierarchies (aka ‘bad guys').
Which is when we finally came across the Trattoria del Arte. Exactly opposite Carnegie Hall. I could have looked it up properly and we could have gone straight there and we would already be putting away the hors-d'oeuvres but, then again, we'd have missed out on the wandering. We got somewhere, but without knowing exactly where we were going. I think it was the Lee Child method at work. Seek and ye shall find.
He also fancied the look of the ‘Grill' place next door and said he'd rather go there next time.
* * *
Andy Martin is the author of Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of ‘Make Me’. He is currently writing, ‘With Child’. He is also a lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @andymartinink
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