Reading List 2010 (7/99)

More books!  (And musings on creativity, below the cut.)

  • Gone Tomorrow, Lee Child
  • Relentless, Dean Koontz
  • Undone, Karin Slaughter
  • The Reapers, John Connolly
  • The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford
  • Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford
  • The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh, Evelyn Waugh

Wow!  I was clearly in the mood for murder, violence, hairbreadth escapes and bloody justice, whether literal or satirical.   Child has Jack Reacher deal out what’s coming to the bad guys, while Waugh lets his characters’ own natures punish them, but they’re both surprisingly interested in just how people get what’s coming to them.

I’ll admit I’ve got a serious soft spot for Lee Child and his footloose hero, Jack Reacher.  It’s not the ridiculous situations Child sets up, or the way Reacher consistently busts out of them.  It’s the details of how Reacher does it, the skills he deploys, the knowledge he has – and how he does it all without owning anything more than a toothbrush.  I imagine it’s a bit like watching MacGyver, which I’ve never seen, or even Top Chef.  There’s a deep pleasure in watching someone who is very good at something exercise their craft.  Child is a solid craftsman himself, but he’s created a character who is a paragon of improvisational yet deeply-learned skill, and that makes Reacher a delight on the page.

I’ve been thinking about Jack Reacher since reading Marie Brennan’s post on Mary Sues.  (Mary Sues and their male counterparts Gary Stus, for those following along at home, are perfectly idealized author-insert characters who are incredibly irritating to read about.)  It would be really easy to read Reacher as a Gary Stu, precisely because he’s so damn good at the things he does – and, of course, the things he’s good at are the ones that matter in the story.  So what makes him appealing, not irritating?  For me it’s because Child lets us in on Reacher’s craft.  He shows us the thought process by which Reacher, for example, chooses a hideout or spots a bomber.  Once we’re inside it, it becomes part of the pleasure we take in the story.  We do these things along with Reacher; they are not done to us.

This relates to the work that I do on creativity, actually.  We create this immense, impenetrable construct called “creativity” to explain expertise, when we’re outside it.  When an author publishes a book, for example, not only do we we not see the dozens of drafts, but we probably don’t have the expertise to fully understand them, even if we did get our hands on them somehow.  Personally, I think our instinct to create an explanatory construct relates to the simulation heuristic .  If we can imagine ourselves doing something, we’re much more likely to find it plausible.  We don’t need to create an explanatory label (“creative”) or refuse to believe it’s possible (“Gary Stu”).

To me, this explains why Jack Reacher works.  What Child does is make it easy for us to simulate Reacher’s thought process.  Even if we couldn’t apply his thought process in a novel situation, we can follow along with the decisions he makes and how he executes them.  Because we’re inside the invisible wall of expertise along with Reacher, we find what he does plausible enough to mentally simulate.  That, in turn, makes the books satisfying and damn fun.

1 thought on “Reading List 2010 (7/99)”

  1. Interesting you should say that about Reacher, because of the contrast with another character I think could be a massive Gary Stu but isn’t: Francis Crawford of Lymond, in Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. I don’t remember if you’ve read those — if you don’t, you should, holy crap does that woman make me feel inferior as a writer — but her approach is the exact opposite to the one you describe for Reacher. The reader is almost never privy to Lymond’s thought processes; he may be the protagonist, but the entire first book of the series is from other points of view. (In fact, the first time I noticed her using his pov was the end of the fifth book, though it may have started earlier.)

    So why doesn’t he come across as a Gary Stu? Three reasons, I think. The first is that his amazing deeds are presented through the perspective of other characters, so the admiration feels natural rather than self-centered (which might be the case if we were in his pov). Second, his method of being amazing frequently involves being a complete bastard, so even the people who admire him and are on his side periodically want to punch him in the face. And third, for all his amazing capacity, he still sometimes fails: his brilliant improvisation isn’t enough, and people — himself or others — get hurt.

    But the deliberate opacity of his thoughts is part of what makes him compelling, and so now I’m tempted to pick up the Reacher books for a comparative study. I very much enjoy watching skilled characters do their thing, whatever that might be, especially if it gets presented in such a way as to let me vicariously share their competence — and that, I think, can only happen with transparency — so just on a character level, Child’s work sounds interesting.

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