Jack Reacher Outsmarted

Reacher Said NothingAndy Martin’s deconstruction of Lee Child’s twentieth, and hopefully last, Jack Reacher novel, Make Me, is at first glance an exercise in flamboyant grandstanding pretending to be hagiography.   At least 80% of the book is filled with tangents not even remotely germane and peppered with mystifyingly irrelevant anecdotes. It is extremely annoying for that. But on closer reading, I think that’s all obfuscation, part of a near-fantastical feat of mental conjuring worthy of Jack Reacher calculating the trajectory of an incoming bullet.

My hypothesis is that the structure and content of Martin’s book is a response to a heavy hand of censorship from Child’s publishers (also Martin’s own, Random/Vintage). That pressure is alluded to in the text. The publisher apparently had complete editorial control over Martin as he wrote and essentially enforced a content-free policy so he would not say anything even the slightest bit critical, protecting the Reacher brand from any expose, or even the slightest shade. Elephant bucks are involved. Child’s Reacher series is one of the most successful in modern publishing history. Forbes called it “the strongest brand in publishing.” Reacher books have sold more than 70 million copies, making it a billion-dollar brand.

Despite that, Martin manages to present a serious literary criticism of the Child novel, and to present meaningful biographical information about Child himself, all without invoking the Damoclean sword. Reading between the lines, here are some issues and questions  about Child and Reacher that Martin sneakily brought forth right under the noses of his wary censors:

  1. Martin attempts to write in Child’s Jack Reacher style, especially in the first couple of chapters. It’s painfully bad. Martin seems to humiliate himself with some horrible writing and very lame imitation. Yet it does, deftly and indirectly, call attention to Child’s bizarre writing style. Martin provides a scathing criticism without stating a word of criticism.  What is the Child style? In some ways it’s redolent of a Cormack McCarthy minimalism (without the poetry), short, direct, declarative sentences and sentence fragments, the grunts and whistles of a taciturn cave-man.  And the Reacher books are characterized by the catch-phrase, “Reacher said nothing” a phrase Martin glorifies in a brilliant feat of misdirection.

Martin displays these and other elements of the Child style critically, again without commenting directly on them. For example, he shows several instances of cringeworthy purple prose along with some extremely clunky sentence structures and almost uninterpretable quirks of narration, qualities Child’s writing shows in abundance.  It’s an  extremely subtle, even artistic form of criticism, showing, without saying.

Example: “… about the one thing he couldn’t do was write a novel about his own experience. Which was why Reacher still needed him. He’d written the first line on September 1, 2013. It had to be September 1. Every year. Without fail. Now it was over.” (p. 5)

I submit that is parody, even ridicule, of Child’s writing style, and Martin slipped it past the censors.  There are many other similar examples.

  1. On page 41, Martin says to Child, I like the way you use which,” I said. Which made sense anyway. Subordinate clause, but you give it a fresh start.”

It’s another beautifully disguised criticism on many levels, ridiculing Child’s excessive use of fragments and including the deliciously cryptic italicized phrase which renders the passage nonsensical but is supposed to be a thought-balloon (I think). Child, oblivious to irony, eats up the praise while Martin parodizes him.

  1.  On page 56, Martin inserts another dirk into Child’s cloak when he over-praises the title of the novel, Make Me. Masterful!  It is, of course, an uninformative title, having nothing to do with the story. It evokes the mood of a schoolyard bully for no apparent purpose except to reveal something about Child’s own mentality, perhaps, and that is reflected in the novel. Jack Reacher has the social development of a nine-year-old, and after reading Martin’s book, I began to believe that was true of Child as well. So the title is perhaps an inadvertently embarrassing self-disclosure by Child, highlighted and interpreted by Martin. Again Child unwittingly basks in Martin’s praise.
  1. Money, money, money!  Child is all about money (pp 65 ++, 85, 89, elsewhere), and he has done extremely well indeed with the Reacher series. Child portrays himself (per Martin) as being like Reacher – an unmotivated drifter with no agenda. Martin effectively exposes that self-description as either delusion or pure cynicism. Writing is all about the money for Child and that’s what drives him, not any artistic muse, as Child claims with abundant self-flattery. Martin skillfully demonstrates that contradiction without stating anything directly.

“So you’re a poet … and a ruthless bastard at the same time?”

“One does not impact on the other…” (p. 86).

  1. Martin reports Child’s appreciation of the “Flaubertian point of view” (more commonly in the U.S. called “Free Indirect Discourse,” or FID – a type of narration supposedly invented by Flaubert).  Child enthusiastically agrees, for he is a fine literary artist after all. Child does make extensive use of FID in his narration, but so does everybody else these days. It is required in modern writing. However Child corrupts the subtlety of the technique by inserting unbelievable, often incomprehensible, italicized thought-balloons into the text, essentially constituting a different narrator entirely, a first-person narrator that often competes with the close-third narrator exercising FID. Child, of course, is oblivious to this garbling of the technique. Martin is not. (See pp. 131 ++, 133, and 138).
  1. What is the plot of Make Me? You’d be hard pressed to outline it. The story throughline is very nearly lost in the endless meandering that makes up most of the book. Reacher is unmotivated and wants nothing. The “MacGuffin,” his friend’s missing partner, is known by the reader to be dead on page 1. The so-called plot seems to be merely episodic, a long, saggy series of almost unconnected scenes leading nowhere in particular. I admit I couldn’t even keep track of why the main characters were furiously scooting off to Los Angeles or Oklahoma – I had completely lost the thread of what was going on because the story was directionless and nothing mattered. The “grand denouement” of the ending could have been written as Chapter Two, so unrelated was it to the rest of the story.

But Martin skillfully reveals Child’s self-serving “theory of plot” (see pp. 138-139). Child’s incomprehensible “theory” of plot is that it is the job of the author to “kill the plot.” What? On the other hand, maybe he did that, though I’m skeptical that it was on purpose. More likely, Child can’t get a grip on a solid Reacher plot. The books are extremely episodic, not story-driven, and obviously written by the seat of the pants. But nor are they character-driven. Reacher is an unchanging rock. By the last page of the book he has barely mussed his hair.  My conclusion, prompted by Martin, is that Reacher books are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. They are author-driven.

  1. Who is the audience for Reacher books? Martin probes that question ever so gently, aware that he simply cannot insult any of Child’s readers, not even one. The publisher/censors would be all over that with a flame thrower.

So instead, Martin presents a long anecdote about how Child routinely beats speeding tickets. While that conversation is presented in a humorous tone, it is the sneering humor of a bully.  I think the point Martin is making with this extended diversion is that Reacher Creatures (as avid readers call themselves) are thrilled by simplistic and brutal vigilantism because they have an extremely undeveloped sense of social justice and no clue about the principles behind the judicial process (like the Constitution, for example). The readers have the moral and social development of nine-year-olds. Martin skillfully makes his point about Child’s readers without insulting anyone. (See p. 175 and also p. 196).  It’s brilliant.

  1. Ever clever, Martin reports some juicy trash talk from Child in the final few pages, as Child expresses (often indirectly) disparaging attitudes toward James Patterson, John D. MacDonald, the James Bond series, John Grisham, Dorothy Sayers, Thomas Harris, and many others. Of Harris’s Hannibal Lecter character, Child says, “…It could be parody – either that or Harris just fell in love with his own creation.” This is exactly what I’d been thinking about Child and Jack Reacher, and maybe Child wanted to confess as much about himself, but even if he did, Martin would never get something like that past the censors, so he makes the thought a speculation about Harris, by Child, not about Child himself.  Very sly.

Child muses, “Do you think it’s possible some smart cookie at Google is going to come along and read all this and turn it into a piece of software that can write virtual Lee Child novels from now till kingdom come?” (Page  313). Indeed.

Conclusion: Reacher Said Nothing is a difficult book because you have to sift through a lot of dross to find the jewels, but they’re in there. Once you understand that Martin had no choice but to write as a fanboy and not leave the slightest smudge on the Reacher franchise, you can see through the veneer to his subterranean agenda. Though it is a brilliant artistic achievement,  Martin’s frustration is palpable and summed up in a statement camouflaged by a seemingly very  irrelevant tangent on Wittgenstein: “There is a line right at the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Proposition 7) which anticipated “Reacher said nothing”: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”… (p 294).

Martin has managed to convey important literary criticism about Child/Reacher, cleverly disguised within an ostensibly brain-dead fluff piece. Martin has outsmarted Child, Random House, and even Jack Reacher.

Martin, Andy (2015). Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and The Making of Make Me. New York: Random/Vintage (345 pp.)

 


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