Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels
Jack Reacher is a fusion of the contemporary and the traditional hero. He works with people like a contemporary hero, has romantic relationships like a contemporary hero, but his skills and judgement is almost superhuman, very much like a classical hero. In some ways he’s more capable than James Bond (Ian Fleming’s Bond not Hollywood’s Bond). His strength and intelligence is on the scale of Doc Savage.
Reading a Jack Reacher novel in first person is a bit like playing a first person shooter computer game in ‘god mode’, you know that Reacher is invulnerable. Part of the fun is finding out how he outsmarts his opponents. He’s as sharp witted as Sherlock Holmes.
Reacher is a fictional hero with contemporary and classical traits. He’s selfless, helping others, exposing lies and injustice. He’s not materialistic and has no interest in getting rich. He is free of society’s ills – greed, vanity, and bullshit.
Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels have two different beginnings. The first begins with a subdued normalcy. It’s just an ordinary day. But it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong. What? When? The second type of start is the running jump, which goes straight into the action. The narrative is basically a good old mystery story (sometimes with hints of Alfred Hitchcock). It’s carefully presented not to confuse the reader. The narrative goes from a mystery story – unanswered questions (the sleuth deciphering clues) – to an action adventure.
In the action adventure phase, Reacher takes the initiative by confronting the baddies. In the first person stories the reader gets to experience Reacher’s thoughts as he works things out for himself. We only know what he knows. We experience the discoveries as he uncovers them. The action has to always be where Reacher is. Things that happen away from him are either unknown or have to be reported back to him in some way, usually through the dialogue.
The third person stories provide more storytelling flexibility. They allow the reader an insight into what the baddies are doing covertly, behind the scenes. They can also link up different elements of the story, during it, rather than through some kind of wrap up at the end, through hindsight, or through an end-of-story confession by an antagonist.
The Hunger Games
It’s weird to think that The Hunger Games was published in 2008, that’s twelve years ago. Legend has it that Suzanne Collins got the idea for the trilogy while she was channel surfing between a game show and footage of the Iraq war.
The story unfolds through the first person, present tense narration of Katniss Everdeen. Her story quickly reveals the hardships and injustice of living in District 12, which exists in a 19th Century-like state where the coal mining industry is the main employer. In comparison to their extreme poverty the elite in the Capitol live idle lives of decadence.
The story is a brilliant example of a writer constantly putting the protagonist in harms way leading to a sequence of reversals of fortune. Threats are followed by narrow escapes, and this formula is repeated, again and again. The pattern creates a series of tonal peaks and troughs, tension followed by relief, emotional ups and downs.
The story has many of the tropes of Ancient Greek mythology (citizens being sacrificed as tributes, tests, and the spectacle of combat being played out in front of an audience (the Greek gods, and the elite of the Capitol).
The Hunger Games is also a retelling of Cinderella. Katniss is the hardworking overlooked girl chosen to transcend her lowly status. Her mentor Haymitch Abernathy is the fairy godmother. He arranges for her to be transformed by wearing her spectacular fire dress. Peeta plays the role of the handsome and chivalric prince. Their time in the combat arena is akin to them dancing at the ball. They get to know one another, find trust and learn to work together. The fairytale roles, especially the interaction between Peeta and Katniss, have been updated and changed to make them more relevant to a contemporary YA audience.
- The first person story viewpoint tells the story intermediated through the experience of a single experiencer. This viewpoint provides it’s own subjectivity and context. The third person perspective focuses on telling the story, by the ‘storyteller’, which may be swayed from a particular character’s perspective or from multiple character viewpoints. Multiple first person viewpoint stories are, by definition, not told from the perspective of a single experiencer. They are really third person stories wrapped in chapters that use the stylistic immediacy of the first person viewpoint. The third person viewpoint does allow the reader to experience a character’s thoughts. The difference between the two depends a lot on what the reader finds most immersive – the protagonist’s experience or the storyteller and the storytelling itself. There’s a huge amount of personal preference involved. I like the first person experience, living inside the protagonists head. It emphasises the character’s experience over a more complete telling of the story. But, the first person can veer towards solipsism if handled badly. The third person perspective places more importance on the bigger picture, how characters relate to other characters and wider events. The first person viewpoint works well with surprise and revelation. The third person works well for suspense (which is based on knowing more of the story elements but not knowing when it how they will come into conflict with one another). In many ways, the third person viewpoint is the more optimised storytelling option. But a lot of it comes down to personal preference – where the reader prefers to be when they read a story.
- The Simple Sabotage Field Manual is a declassified CIA manual from the Second World War. The aim of the guide is to show how ordinary people, sympathetic to the Allied cause, could damage the Axis war effort using simple, low-tech, non-violent, and easily deniable means. The manual reflects the industrial nature of the 1940s – literally throwing spanners in the works. Today this would probably be more information and technology based, much of it done through software – spreading misinformation, putting viruses on computer networks, etc. The manual’s language also reflects the sexism of the times, referring to the saboteur as male, which also seems like a lost opportunity in terms of the recruitment of potential saboteurs. I’m not sure how the document was intended to be used – obviously, being caught in the possession of such a manual would likely have been a death sentence. Inadvertently, the manual provides the storyteller with a guide to many of the conditions that create a dysfunctional, dystopian environment. By reducing trust and efficiency, and by increasing bureaucracy, the morale of an organisation (the wider society even) can be diminished – simply through the work of a few silent ‘bad actors’.
- The fascinating history of the Zoot suit. The Zoot suit was the 1940s equivalent of dressing up as a Teddy boy in 50s England. Teds listened to rock and roll and wore similarly anti-austerity suits modelled on Edwardian outfits (an outward rejection of post-war austerity). The 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in the US were sparked by hostility between military servicemen and the Hispanic community in Los Angeles. Servicemen armed with sticks and clubs, escorted by police, attacked Zoot Suitors who had been held responsible for attacking US servicemen. The riots had a clear racial element to them. Many Zoot Suiters were beaten up and their suits were stripped from them, burned, and even urinated on. Zoot suits are weirdly fascinating because of their outlandish cut and the political association with black, Latino and Hispanic self-expression. They are often depicted in contemporary paintings of the time. Malcolm X was a Zoot Suiter in his youth. They’re an early example of politicised clothing identified with a youth culture, their music, and spirit of rebellion, a precursor to the many other youth movements that have followed.
- 20th Century Fox had two science fiction films slated for 1977. Their blockbuster ‘A’ project was the post-apocalyptic adventure, Damnation Alley, with another less promising ‘B’ project slated for release later that year. Jan-Michael Vincent (who was great as the cheeky upstart in 1972s, The Mechanic) took the starring role with George Peppard kicked into second billing (after this fiasco he was destined to go into TV, to lead the A-Team). The storyline is basically a post-apocalyptic RV trip in a custom built Landmaster vehicle (which was supposed to look cool but it looked ridiculous). The vehicle cost the studio $350,000. It’s always a bad sign when the transport takes the starring role. The special effects are pretty bad and they cost the studio a fortune. Someone in a meeting had the terrible idea of rendering every sky in the film into a post-apocalyptic aurora borealis – and it’s completely unnecessary. That decision cost a fortune, but it also stalled the production. The name of 20th Century Fox’s ‘B’ project was, Star Wars.
- Plan 9 From Outer Space is an independent ‘B’ movie that’s often put in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. It’s one of those films I’ve heard about – with its memorable title – but never seen. Having watched it, I can say that it’s so bad it’s… just plain bad.
- Protagonists and groups – the protagonist is usually trying to: escape from a group, join a group, or cross over from one group to another. There are many reasons for doing this: to get ahead in life, to discover a secret, to sabotage an enemy, to gain status, for material gain, to avoid something, to hide, to evade repression, to get a job, to see the world, to feel more human, to live more honestly, to carry out a mission, be more truthful, to escape lies. These are all character motivations. The divide between two groups is often a divide between those with power and those without power, or between two groups seeking to dominate the other – competition. Membership implies advantage – those with less seek more. Those in possession of something stop others from possessing it (territory, market access, customers, wealth, knowledge, water, etc). The space between groups represents a divide: a class divide, a taste divide, a behavioural divide, etc. These are the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, between law abiding citizens and people acting illegally, and often between the perception of good and bad. Protagonists either fight their way out of a group, or they fight their way into one. They begin in the wrong group, or are thrown out of their favoured group (striving to rejoin it, or joining another group to fight against it). A protagonist’s journey involves crossing over into another group, possibly multiple groups, and learning how those new groups work, adapting to their rules and behaviours to achieve his or her goal.
- Liam Brown’s 2019 novel Skin has weird similarities to the current Covid-19 lockdown, but the situation in this story is far more extreme – an existential threat to humanity. Families are self-isolating from the world, and from each other, forced into their bedrooms and onto the web. Living in the same house, but emotionally worlds apart. Life in the house is a kind of 21 Century family version of I am legend. In the midst of the self-isolating lifestyle all is not well. Angela is estranged from Colin even though they live only one room apart. Colin’s focus is on his job, virtual reality, and online VR sex clubs. The daughter, Amber spends her time on her running machine, pandering after her ex-boyfriend that she can no longer meet. The son, Charlie is eating himself to death, playing computer games, and maliciously hacking into other peoples’ computers. Angela is part of a neighbourhood watch scheme. She sees it as one of the last vestiges of the local community (although in reality it’s little more than a government snooping scheme). One day, walking around her desolate neighbourhood on a routine patrol, wearing a hazmat suit, she returns home and replays her video report when she becomes convinced that she’s seen a figure in a shadow, someone watching her. The story feels like it was written with the hindsight and experience of the 2020 lockdown, but it was published last year.
- When a person is browsing for a book in a bookstore or when he or she is reading a novel – the book buyer is the real critic. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know what ‘good’ writing is, if they know nothing about writing theory, or the history of Literature, they make their own judgement and, qualified or unqualified, it’s their opinion that matters.
- Rewatching 12 Monkeys left feeling underwhelmed, again. The film didn’t quite work for me. Where all the ingredients had magically come together in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), the same thing hadn’t happened with 12 Monkeys. It was lost somewhere in-between an art house production and a genre action flick.
- Turbo Kid (2015) is probably the bloodiest film I’ve ever seen (followed by Mandy, 2018). It’s a homage to the kind of 80s ‘video nasty’ that I used to hire from the local video store when I was at school. Somehow, I managed to rent them out unchallenged, even though I wasn’t technically old enough to hire X’ rated movies (as they were then designated). Anything less than an ‘X’ rated film seemed… pointless. At the time, there was a kind of connoisseurship of horror film video special effects with realism taking the prestigious top slot. How my tastes have changed over the years! The violence in Turbo Kid is comic-book with ridiculous levels of spurting blood and dismembering. The film is a weird mishmash of retro-nostalgia with its cheesy 1980s music, blood-fest gore, and sentimental boy meets girl storyline. The alternate ‘future’ 1997 is a nod to ET and Power Rangers. The characters go around on push bikes, even the baddies (who resemble every cliché of characters from an old Max Max film) have pimped push bikes.
- Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog (1969) is written like a modern-day Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that’s set in a dystopian alternative reality future – but Vic’s post-apocalyptic world is aimed at an adult audience. Beneath the apocalyptic landscape, the middle-class live in underground towns leading an ersatz small town existence. Vic despises the ‘down under’ people and their polite society. He is literally a ‘wild man’ (who lives without any concept of civilised society). A Boy and His Dog is a simple story. There’s no sense of an underpinning philosophy, it’s just a simple what if… scenario. What if, after an apocalyptic war all concept of a society and civilisation has broken down.
- Lockdown… There’s that word again. ‘Lockdown’ feels like it needs to be said in one of those ridiculous Hollywood voices used to promote action films, and spoken with booming music in the background. Everything’s strange now, because we’re living in a made for Netflix sci-fi movie.
- Just given myself a lockdown haircut. My daughter observed that, Daddy’s hair’s gone! Which was a fair assessment. I asked she if she liked it, and she told me that she did. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and have that WTF! reaction – who’s that? So now I look like Bruce Willis in 12 Monkeys, which is weird because the last time I had a hair reboot like this (about five years ago) I looked like THX 1138 from the film THX 1138. The buzzcut is fitting somehow, as I walk to Tesco’s Express at 7.30 in the morning to buy food – there’s no one around, no cars on the road, complete silence... it really does feel like 12 Monkeys.
- ‘Drinking coffee in Italy is a quite different experience from drinking coffee in many UK coffee shops. In Italy, first you go into a bar – “bar” in Italian doesn’t really have a direct translation into English, as it’s not the same thing as British pub, although they do have large and impressive counters – the bar itself. The person behind the bar is called a barista, which is Italian for “barman”. The barman is normally casually dressed. Assuming you want a coffee rather than food, you ask for a coffee in Italian which is, of course, the local language. The barman will turn around, fiddle with the coffee machine for a moment or two, give you a coffee and then take the 1 euro or so that is the normal charge. Most people drink this at the bar, without sitting down.’ And… ‘In the UK, you enter the coffee shop experience; the shops are often quite large, and involve sofas. The shop assistant is not a shop assistant but a “barista” which is not English. Baristas are, of course, trained and have the stars on their name badge to show it. You will ask for what you want, which you will describe also not in English, such as a “skinny, grande latte” which is Italian for, well, actually very little. The barista will fiddle with their machines for several minutes – thump, thump, thump to clean the old grounds, tsch, tsch, tsch to create the new, clunk, clunk clunk – pssssss, ahhhh. The coffee will then be served, often with a sprinkle of chocolate patterned with a pleasing corporate logo. You will give them the 3 pounds which is the normal charge. They will stamp your loyalty card.’ … ‘The reason for all of this fuss is called market segmentation: in the UK, coffee is a luxury experience; in Italy, it is a drink. You need all of this additional fuss to validate the price that you are paying; otherwise, you would feel like you were being ripped off. The irony, of course, is that the fuss does cost to provide, so then the price goes up even more. In the UK, I rarely drink coffee, which is a pity as a coffee (or espresso as we like to call it here) is quite nice in the morning.’ Phillip Lord’s coffee shop analogy of work as ornamentation.