JULY 2, 2016
PEOPLE READ HIS BOOKS, but that doesn’t make Lee Child a prestigious writer. Sure, you see his novels piled high in airport and train station bookstores. Alright, he sells by the bucketful: he’s been published in 97 countries, translated into 42 languages, and shifted over 100 million units around the world. Still, the literary establishment finds Child (real name Jim Grant), the brain behind the muscular Jack Reacher novels, more than a little hard to digest. When Andy Martin, a professor at the University of Cambridge, suggested bringing Child in to give a talk, “some git” (“Justin […], or Alex maybe”) in the English department responded with disdain. Literary critic Rick Gekoski observed, while avowing his love of the Reacher novels in a 2013 Guardian essay, “no one […] values Child for the quality of his prose. One can hardly find, in the entire corpus of the work, a single sentence worthy of independent admiration.” This corpus includes 20 books, between Killing Floor, his 1997 debut, and his most recent, 2015’s Make Me. Child writes books that people want to read — and you regularly see them doing so on public transport all around the world (When was the last time you sat next to someone reading Orhan Pamuk on a bus?) — but the mandarins of literary culture are hesitant to embrace him.
Such literary elitism, the reluctance to admit Lee Child and his books into the inner sanctum of “proper” literature, hasn’t dissuaded Andy Martin from taking an intimate look under the bonnet at his writing. Indeed, Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me, Martin’s new book about Child and his creative process, gets to the heart of the establishment’s problem with Child’s work: the question of its value. Martin joins the ranks of Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Clinton as a self-confessed, hard-core fan of the Reacher series. He’s the ideal man for the task, and not only because of his obsession. As a Cambridge lecturer, Martin has established his hifalutin credentials with renowned scholarly studies of Jules Verne and the philosophical virtues of the state of ignorance (Oxford University Press, 1989 and Cambridge University Press, 1985); his last book, The Boxer and the Goalkeeper (2012), was a thoughtful and highly readable introduction to Sartre and Camus’s existential squabbles. But Martin, like Child, has never shied away from gestures that might épater the literary academy. His scholarship is wide-ranging and equally envelops the genuinely popular. When soccer player David Beckham made his transfer from LA Galaxy to Paris Saint-Germain, for example, he launched the gently parodic Becksistentialism blog. His hybrid elegy and memoir, Waiting for Bardot (1996), recalls his teenage infatuation with the iconic French movie star. Martin has also published a book on surfing, Stealing the Wave (2007), and was even the first surfing correspondent to hold a position at a major UK newspaper (The Independent).
Gladwell once said that he’d like to “break into Lee Child’s house and watch over his shoulder while he types.” Well, Gladwell didn’t get around to it, but Martin did. He didn’t, in the end, need the balaclava and the tire iron. A breezily tentative email (“Kind of crazy I know […]”) inquiry resulted in a guarded invitation from Child, but the outcome was the same: sitting on a couch behind the novelist and peering at the writer’s computer screen as he composed Make Me, the 20th Jack Reacher novel. Legions of Reacher fans around the globe are, one suspects, kicking themselves they didn’t have Martin’s chutzpah. Possibly Gladwell is among them.
The prospect of Reacher Said Nothing might at first seem faintly unappealing: fascinating for the devout fan who wants to watch the maestro at work, but pretty boring for the casual reader who gets vicarious kicks reading about Reacher’s violent moral retribution. The simple act of sitting down at a screen and plugging away on a keyboard is, after all, the least performative of all of the creative acts. It just doesn’t match up to gazing over Van Gogh’s shoulder as he slaps paint onto his canvas or perching behind Hitchcock on set as he torments his leading ladies. Sure, British novelist Will Self was exhibited as he wrote in a performance piece in a London Gallery in 2000, but one suspects this was most effective as a postmodern, ironic, beard-stroking gag.
The same self-conscious beard-strokers would no doubt describe Martin’s project, based around watching and mulling things over with Child in his New York City office space, as meta-literature. This is a book about a book, as Martin plays Boswell to Child’s Samuel Johnson. More usefully, I think, this book works as an “essay in dialogue,” as George Plimpton described The Paris Review’s interview format. In practice, this is an exploration of the little-exposed space of novelistic composition: Child’s raw reflections on his language, plotting, and characterization form a dialectic with Martin’s exuberant but considered reflections, filtered through his extensive experience of hard-core literary research. This isn’t to say, though, that Martin comes across as an academic smartass, not all the time, at least. His insights are pertinent and the pair’s conversation ranges from crime fiction and thrillers, to English Premier League action, to philosophy and “what it all means, man” (dope smoking forms part of Child’s creative process, we learn). The result is a playful, innovative bromance, written with brio and humor, which gives an insightful real time consideration of how Child writes a novel, from start to finish.
Reacher Said Nothing is a provocative book, certainly from a writer schooled in the canonical French classics (Martin name checks lofty idols Flaubert and Stendhal throughout). Perhaps Martin’s most audacious undertaking is to challenge the idea that Child’s literary style (when critics allow he has one at all) is somehow without merit. For Martin, Lee Child isn’t all violence and tight plots: he is a good writer with a distinct, identifiable voice. No, it’s bigger than that: Lee Child is a poet. Throughout, Martin stresses Child’s word-craft: his writing, his rewriting. The title Make Me, he suggests, could be a cipher for the sheer “graft,” the hard work, of Child’s literary enterprise: Martin stresses how he agonizes over onomatopoeias, contemplative commas, and metaphors. Yes, you can (and one suspects most people do) read the Reacher novels on their “horizontal, linear, syntagmatic axis” — for the plot — but they also work on a “vertical, paradigmatic axis,” Child’s writing is “just as obviously poetry” as tautly drawn narrative.
There is, Martin underscores throughout, a texture to Child’s writing overlooked by his critics, and probably even most of his readers, who are more interested in immersing themselves in the thrust of his narratives. Sentences like, “The wheat moved in waves, heavy and slow and silent,” aren’t exactly Byron, nor do they elevate Child to the stylistic heights of Raymond Chandler or Walter Mosley. Martin’s take on Child does, however, indicate a thoughtful poetics in the crime writer’s work. Although he sticks to a strict calendar, ritually starting a new novel every September 1, there is nothing industrial about Child’s writing; he doesn’t hammer this stuff out mindlessly. There’s a clear economy to Child’s artistic project, based on “making connections.” Everything is linked:
at some dark symbolic level. Adjacent ideas, obscure but harmonious images, resonances, affinities, recurrent phrases/words/refrains, syntactical echoes, the whole vast realm of the intransitive, governed only by association and similitude, all singing out to one another across the deeps, like blue whales miles apart in the ocean, like the distant rhymes of a lyric poem or song.
There’s another dimension to the poetry of Child’s work, which relates to how the crime genre emotionally engages its readers. This was mapped out in a fascinating, but little-read book by the French literary theorist, Jean Cohen (Le Haut langage ). Just as a poem invites a reader to collaborate imaginatively through suggestive ambiguity and unstable form, a crime novel secures the affective participation of a reader by withholding crucial narrative information. Agatha Christie’s work, Cohen argues, has a poetic quality since the identities of her murderers are withheld until the final pages of her texts, meaning that readers finds themselves emotionally and intellectually immersed in a way they aren’t, say, in texts by Joyce or Beckett. As an aficionado of Lee Child, Martin is himself explicitly caught up in this immersive process as it happens, as the words are typed. Child’s art is concerned with prolonging this immersion — Make Me opens with a mysterious burial, and Child avoids telling the rest of this story until the novel’s closing pages. Not telling the story involves, of course, maintaining tension, interest (through making and maintaining poetic connections) and, crucially, delaying the payoff and a reader’s gratification for over 100,000 words. There is a perverse pleasure, a form of literary jouissance, in all this, certainly for the reader, but also for the writer, drawing out his audience’s painful pleasure. Martin, as a writer writing about a writer writing, is thus uniquely placed to record and interrogate the start of this process.
In effect, this perverse delay means that for long parts of most novels, Child’s included, nothing happens. Flaubert, too, famously described Madame Bovary as a book about nothing. The art of negation is what Martin identifies as the core of Child’s technique. Make Me, he suggests, doesn’t only hurtle toward narrative resolution, on the horizontal plane, it also provides a rich textual experience. Child, he notes, has a series of recognizable stylistic tropes, all built around his short, anti-Proustian sentences and his “sawn-off syntax.” The four-word double negative sentence — “No eyes, no interest.” — which he christens the “double-tap” (two gunshots in quick succession) is one of his most distinctive devices. This technique underlines the nothingness, or existential void, at the heart of the Reacher books. Reacher, Child repeatedly tells us, “says nothing,” but the author’s consistent double-tapping builds suspense through telling a reader what isn’t there (“No creaking, no cracking … No talking, no movement.”). Effectively, this means Reacher spends much of the time doing nothing, too. To maximize his readers’ pleasure, Martin speculates, Child has created an inaction hero.
Counterinuitively, Martin asserts that Child is a non-teleological writer who doesn’t know how his stories are going to end up when he starts writing them. Martin’s book, on the other hand, has a very clear telos: the finalization of Child’s manuscript and the publication of Make Me. As I write, the promotional campaign for Night School, the 21st Reacher book, is underway: the Child juggernaut rumbles on. The critics, though, may have already made up their mind about Lee Child. Reacher Said Nothing, the highly engaging and innovative product of Martin’s time spent with the novelist, is a valuable practical reconsideration of how we attribute literary value and talk about genre fiction: should emotional engagement take second place to intellectual fascination? Martin’s book serves as a reminder that serious critical judgments, or write-offs, always exist to be challenged.