You Can Leave Your Hat On

Today, my best friend reached out to me via Skype from across the pond.  I had only been up for an hour, and as it has been a typically lazy Sunday, my hair hadn’t met the toothed edge of a comb, so I had to scramble for hat (hence the title), but it was great to see him nonetheless.  As the conversation got rolling, he began describing a murder mystery, set in London, that he just couldn’t put down–I’ll have to ask him again for the title if anybody wants to know. My wife noted that she is addicted to reading again; she just finished The Poisonwood Bible, and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is on our coffee table as I speak.  In the meantime, I realized that I am at a crux when it comes to reading.  Yes, I am reading–and, no, it is not Stephen King this time–but the book that I am reading escaped mention for a variety of reasons. One of which is the fact that I’m torn about the book itself. The book to which I am referring is Lee Child’s The Enemy, one of the Jack Reacher novels.

Though I know everyone and their mother will criticize a book if they don’t like it, no matter how imprudent or spurious the argument may seem (e.g., “I didn’t like it, there was just something so… so…I don’t know, I just didn’t like it”), there are some books that need criticism. The last thing I want to do is get into (as an old FEMALE colleague would say) a d*ck-measuring contest with a published author, especially one who has published numerous novels and has such an avid and dedicated readership.  Finally, it’s not as if I don’t like this novel.  Truth be told, based on what I’ve read so far, I’d consider reading Child’s other Reacher novels.

That being said, I’m giving The Enemy a second look after initially putting it down for other books.  Several years ago, I received this book as a gift.  I believe I was going on a trip to Oregon, though it’s been long enough that I don’t remember the exact details.  Though I started it, I had other books in my queue–which always seems to be the case–and The Enemy followed me on various bookcases, in spite of the fact that I’d only gone through the first five or so pages.  A few weeks ago, my computer crashed–there was some defect in the hard drive and it took some doing to recover (thankfully) the half of a manuscript that wasn’t backed up.  Due to frustration, a busy period at work, and probably a bit of exhaustion, I decided to take some time off from writing, which brings me back to the The Enemy, and the specific lens from which I approached it.

As I mentioned, The Enemy was sitting on my bookshelf, but I wasn’t quite drawn to reading it. A friend had sent me a copy of Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, and I wanted to be sure I gave it a cover-to-cover run.  With Brooks’ Story Engineering fresh in my mind, I picked up The Enemy, and soon remembered why it had remained on my shelf for such a long time.

Jack Reacher is a likeable character.  He might be a bit of a Marty Stu, but he is clearly the hero and has enough wit to carry him through various encounters with generals, officers, XOs, and civilians alike. However, the first dozen or so pages, leading up to Reacher coming across a dead two-star general in a cheap hotel, are kind of like hitting severe turbulence right after take-off. Reacher, Childs’ franchise star, is a good narrator, and Childs interjects Reachers’ personality and candor into the narration.  The rough beginning, starting with the cliche to kick off paragraph #1, continues with ill-fitting description.  For instance, as Reacher comes across the potential dare-I-say crime scene, he notes the dimensions of the bed and the room, as well as some other details of the room, and then says that it was like any other hotel room.  As I read that section, I had to reread parts of it, wondering exactly what it added.  Sure, it gives the setting, and sure, it adds to the characterization of Reacher as a man who is concerned with dimensions and measurements, but in the moment, it doesn’t add much. I’ll back off a moment, because, as Brooks might say, it does add a sense of the stakes; an MP is called to the scene where a two-star general has kicked the bucket in a sleazy love nest.  There’s a lot of tension in that situation alone, and there are certainly stakes, implicit or explicit, there. Though there’s a lot there in the scene that doesn’t work, the scene doesn’t fail; that is, it hooked me enough to give it a second look.

A lot of Reacher’s journey is accomplished with dialogue, which is fine, but the dialogue is uneven.  When Reacher first arrives on the scene and talks with a stock character (perhaps the M.E., I can’t recall), the dialogue is staccato. Reacher asks a vague question, and the stock character asks for clarification–a half dozen times. At first, I thought that this was establishing character. After all, it is possible to be so taciturn that every little bit of what you say gets lost with the wind, but this speech pattern does not carry over (thankfully) at all for the rest of the book–well, at least through the first three hundred pages.  There are parts where Child’s dialogue is rock solid; Reachers’ interactions with the new CO and with Summer are evidence of that, but for each interaction with Summer, there is also a history lesson in Leipzig.  As I said, it’s uneven.

Although Reacher is likeable, and Summer has enough personality to make her compelling, the plot has been frustrating. As mentioned, when we first see Reacher, he is called in to investigate the death of a two-star general.  From there, he has to deal with drunk local yokels, a mother who is dying from cancer, an aversion to / sibling rivalry with his brother, at least three more deaths, tension with the special forces, tension with another officer, the mystery of why he was suddenly transferred from a foreign base to a domestic one, a sudden change in his CO, and the barely percolating sexual tension with Summer.  Some of these are the core plot, what drives the characters from the alpha to the omega, while some of these are subplots. Of these, two seem to bubble to the surface more often than not, his relationship with the new CO, and the sexual tension with Summer.

Child gets a lot of mileage out of both of those two subplots, but the one that is more frustrating than the other is his sexual tension with Summer.  Of all of the characters that populate this book, Reacher spends more time with Summer than all of the rest–perhaps all of the rest combined.  It is clear that Reacher wants to jump her bones, as the narration discusses her physical form and his desire to see Summer in a bikini.  However, as often as Reacher comments upon Summer’s physical form, and how impressed he is with her figure, we learn very little about who she is as a person, and this is where what I’ve read about story engineering really starts to irk me.  In three hundred pages, what I’ve learned about Summer is her physical characteristics (a 5-foot tall, African-American female with short hair and a thin frame), her lead foot, the fact that she wants a promotion, and the fact that she’s from Alabama (or somewhere else in the South).  Though Reacher spends a lot of time with Summer, their discussions outside of the investigation could loosely be classified as ‘military stuff.’  It makes perfect sense, seeing as how this thriller is (to a large degree) a MP procedural, but it pulls away from that hint of sexual tension that surfaces every now and again.  In a way, it makes it hard to believe; in a way, it makes it no different than MP/police procedurals on the TV–though visual media–in which the possibility of intimacy lingers across seasons without real, substantive conversation.  Viewers of a television series may see the subtle hint, the long gaze, the moistening of the lips, and do not need to hear Joey ask Delia things that tug at her heartstrings.  At this point in my reading, a Reacher-Summer roll in the hay seems probable, if not predictable; there’s just enough to hint at the possibility, but not enough to take it from subtext to a subplot.

For what it’s worth, Mr. Child has published 16 books and won numerous awards.  I have not.  While I can look at The Enemy and say that I can write better, I am still in a place where I need my novels to get off the ground first. I may think that I have it, but Mr. Child gets it.  His descriptions might not be the best, and his staccato dialogue is not high on my fun-o-meter, but his novel is really well paced, his hero is likeable, the complications to the plot are not mere trivialities, and there are lots of readers (and writers) who are believers.

As always, when I look at this book, I think about what I can take away from it.  For the moment, not much.  My current novel does not have the action hero type, and my prior novel doesn’t deal with heroism in that way, either.  My next novel likely won’t have an action hero, either.  Without the hero to draw from, and with a distaste for Mr. Child’s dialogue, that leaves me with pace and complication.  Without knowing anything of Mr. Child’s editors, I have to assume that pace is something that Mr. Child just gets.  For me, it’s about whether or not I’m on the jazz.

In Story Engineering, Mr. Brooks talks about the kind of arcs that the characters follow during the course of the novel.  Sure, character arcs are nothing new–though Mr. Brooks does a great job of discussing character arcs within the context of writing a story.  Without seeing The Enemy or the Jack Reacher collection in its entirety, I have no idea as to how Mr. Child deals with character arcs, but I know that my next novel could stand to have characters that move at the Jack Reacher pace, and that there’s a lot I can gleam from Mr. Brooks’ observations on creating characters.

It has been a long time since I’ve added anything to my novel.  As I may have mentioned, my computer went down on the Sunday before Valentine’s Day — some might say that’s a good thing — and, up until earlier today, I hadn’t had the heart to continue forth since.  I know that there’s a lot of juggling going on here, and I’m not quite sure where everything ties in just yet.  After all, I have a great deal of pages left in The Enemy, a great deal of words left in my current project, and a great deal of architecting left in my next novel.  That said, I’ll leave you with a poll, and get my rear in gear.

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2 Responses to “You Can Leave Your Hat On”

  1. Eamon Says:

    So the book I’m reading is called London Fields, by Martin Amis. To say it ambles would be an understatement, but I am wrapped up in it.

    PS- I read the first Jack Reacher book recently as kind of a sorbet between heavier reading, and I was surprised at how fun a read it was. Interesting that Tom Cruise is gonna play him- seems a bad fit.

    • jowenenglish Says:

      No fooling, Eamon. Jack Reacher is supposed to be 6’5″, and from the sounds of it is probably 240-plus. Tom Cruise is neither of those.

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