What if Lee Child wrote “Purity” and Jonathan Franzen wrote “Make Me?”

by Andy Martin

Franzen-LeeI don't know if anyone else has noticed, but there is a curious correspondence, almost an alignment, between Lee Child's Make Me and Jonathan Franzen's Purity, published in the same month, September 2015. Both have at their core, a murder story. I think there is only one in Purity, whereas there are approximately 200 more in Make Me. Industrial-scale. Jack Reacher has to solve that puzzle. Whereas in Franzen the murderer himself has to go and blab about it. He can't shut up about it. So the two writers must have been in touch recently – I like to imagine – just to compare notes and pass on a few tips.

JONATHAN FRANZEN RE-WRITTEN BY LEE CHILD

Begin with a backhoe. Obviously. Look at pp. 134-5 [of Purity]: Andreas spends far too much time digging. With a shovel. Get some decent machinery in there. Why struggle? Dig the hole deeper, shove the guy in, cover it over. Job done. Don't sweat it. And look, you postpone the murder till after page 100. Which is too long. Postponement is one thing, but you are going to lose a helluva lot of readers that way. (And then you take pages and pages just to do it! What is your problem?) You either need to kick off with the murder and then Andreas is the bad guy who must be hunted down (by the way, your solution for what happens to him… why the hell would he do that?) or… and this is more promising: what if he has a far better reason for knocking off this guy than… oh yeah, his girlfriend asks him to. ‘Hey, Andreas, would you mind if…?' Come on!

Stepfather? What about Godfather? What if you have Andreas, with all his skills, and his team of hackers, crack the mystery of this bad guy who must be channelling funds to Al-Qaeda while running drugs and girls and degraded nuclear material (probably polluting the environment too) and finally, and here we come to a climax, nailing this woman Pip, who is an ex-FBI agent (maybe abducting her, locking her up, and sadistically abusing…) And so Andreas is fully and righteously justified in offing him. No anxieties, no remorse. Maybe Pip could help bury him. A woman driving the backhoe. Which would be a breakthrough. Good revenge motive.

Question – what the hell happens to Annagret, the great girlfriend, anyway? It's like you've forgotten all about her!

Then again, maybe you should just have Reacher come along and straighten it all out. He gets off a train in Berlin and there is a mysterious woman waiting for him… Now I come to think of it, this is what your book (good read, by the way!) is missing: a decent hero. A big guy.

Just a couple of minor details. Does everyone have to have quite so many relatives? They all have mothers/fathers/aunts/uncles… it's like a forest of family trees. I recommend a quick glance at Camus' The Outsider. The mother is dead in the first sentence. Good move, Albert. My advice: Kill all your relatives. You'll find it speeds the whole thing up no end.

And leave Shakespeare out of it. If you're killing someone, kill him. Don't have the hero dick around like this: ‘If he let the native hue of his resolution be sicklied over with it [anxiety], he was liable to put down the shovel and go back to the city and laugh at the idea of himself as a killer.'

A final point: there isn't one. Your last 50 pages (maybe a hundred, I lost track) are a pointless add-on. Nothing happens! The parents are having another argument. The kids are sick of them. Which is no kind of ending. Your readers have probably had enough of that in their own lives – and you think they want to read about it too?

Here's a thought: I noticed that your characters are all quite small. Kind of weedy. What about a bit more size? And muscle mass?

LEE CHILD RE-WRITTEN BY JONATHAN FRANZEN

I loved Make Me. Really, I did. My first Reacher! I'm sure it won't be the last either.

We have so much in common, you and I, do we not? After all I have a hero (ok, protagonist then, or just agonist, whatever) who essentially wants to kill… himself. And you have all these people (hundreds of them, thousands, I forget) who seek a quietus with a bare bodkin. If only the almighty had not fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter…Oh, sorry, there I go again, fuckin' Bard always bubbling up. I'll try and get a grip.

And, look, you even have the Dark Web theme: all those sneaky addresses and passwords and what not – and nerdy guys who can hack into it. I've got all that too. We're on the same page here, surely? The idea that there is some schism between us, a cultural abyss, what I believe Kuhn used to call an incommensurability… it's a joke, isn't it? A figment of the over-active media imagination. Genre? It's just retail! Consider this conversation to be an official rapprochement.

If you think about it, why does Reacher finally stiff all those guys? Answer: because his girlfriend (Chang) asked him to! He never would have exerted himself otherwise. And she has been begging for that bone from around page 2.

But, now you mention it, when it comes to the stuff that is missing, the lack, the Lacanian lack one might say, le manque, yes that very deficit out of which creativity springs forth like a… OK, sorry, yes, Franzen, get to the point, my point anyway, is that if you compare Make Me with some of the classic novels, shall we say, Madame Bovary or possibly, I don't know, A la recherche du temps perdu, or ja! let oos get Germanic, what about Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, or Hesse, the archetypalbildungsroman, the thing that is missing is… consciousness. It's like everyone is unconscious. They are already dead. Yes, it's a zombie novel, isn't it, at heart? Or rather, if it had a heart. So that is what we need to do, yes, put the heart back in, give it a heart transplant. Or a brain transplant maybe. Just a few touches, nuances really, to upgrade and enhance the old Weltanschauung.

Here's how I see the final scene, for example. So Reacher has killed all these guys, right? But he's already pretty depressed, isn't he? I like that. Vulnerable. A little screwed-up. Verging on neurotic. The concussion is just an outward (or is it inward?) symbol of his core angst or existential nausea. So that bit where he just ups and hops into the car and drives away with Chang… what about if…

CHANG: Hop in.

REACHER: I don't know. I'm feeling a bit broken up about you know, the way the hogs got hold of that guy and just started chomping and scoffing…

CHANG: Oh god, I know it was awful, wasn't it? Nobody deserves that. We're sick, you know that?

REACHER: Sicklied or…To be or not to be, that is the question. And you know what, I had a dream about my mother last night…

CHANG: But you're supposed to be like my sublime father, you know, a stand-in or surrogate, because I never knew my own.

REACHER: I'm not feeling well. Is there a doctor in the house?

CHANG: Sorry, I have to go and vomit.

Something like that, what do you say? See what I mean? There's more of a swerve to the narrative, more depth I guess, it's not quite so linear. Don't hit me, I mean, yes hit me, you bastard, I probably deserve it! Chomp me up and shit me right out again, like the hogs, but… sorry, I guess I lost it there for a moment. What was I saying? oh yeah, erm, it's like, you have this great narrative, ok cool, score one for you. But what about DE-constructing it all over again, the way I do it, chop chop karate, Joycean celebrity chef-style. Turn it inside out, upside down, every which way.

And the backhoe – OK, but what about if, yes this is good, you know, the shovel just flops and drops right off? Like a bad dream. And the guy is left hanging there, drooping, impotent, totally limp and flaccid. Moving [first word]needle [last word]? How about: Detumescing… organ? Qu'en penses-tu, mein Kamerad?

* * *

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

Lee Child and Andy Martin will be in conversation April 14 in Cambridge (UK): More information here.

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