Of all literary genres, biography is the one most bound by convention and least guilty about being conventional. W H Auden was forever dipping in to Saintsbury’s History of English Prosody to snuffle for technical challenges, and claimed to have written a poem in every known metre, but none of his half-dozen biographers has abandoned the well-worn route parodied in his sonnet “Who’s Who” (“A shilling life will give you all the facts”). In 1934, the year that Auden wrote that poem, there was genuine hope of a revolution in writing as A J A Symons, who believed that the “biographer of the future” could undo the “failure” of biography, published his findings about the elusive late-Victorian writer Frederick Rolfe under the title The Quest for Corvo.
But the hope proved short-lived. Although Symons has never lacked admirers – Auden was among them – The Quest for Corvo remains one of those books that, as Symons said of Rolfe’s Hadrian the Seventh (1904), miss their just reward of influence. The biographer of the future never materialised. Failure triumphed. In recent years, only a handful of English books could lay claim to Symons’s subtitle, An Experiment in Biography, among them Ann Wroe’s Being Shelley, John Schad’s Someone Called Derrida, Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life, and now Andy Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of “Make Me”.
A long-time fan of the Jack Reacher books, which follow a former military cop almost never out of trouble, Martin had reviewed a few instalments and interviewed Child a couple of times. Then last summer he decided to take things one step – or several dozen steps – further. Martin emailed Reacher’s creator, Lee Child, who was born in Coventry and now lives mostly in New York, and suggested that he follow the day-by-day composition of the latest Reacher book, number 20. Child said: “I’m totally up for this.” The resulting “meta-book” is an orgy of postmodern excess, irony, relativism, revisionism, etc, being a fanatical and fetishistic account of its subject’s smallest habits and an attempt to portray the bestselling, globe-trotting, sequel-churning Child as a latter-day Camus, Meursault replaced by Reacher, Gauloises by Camels, trench coat by battered leather jacket.
There can be no doubting Martin’s success at the first task. Saul Bellow, during a visit from the Paris Review, said he had no wish to discuss “whether he used a pen or typewriter, how hard he pressed on the page”. In Reacher Said Nothing, we discover Child’s preferred software (Word), font (Arial), font size (10 point), spacing (single), image size (“I crank it up to 150 per cent to save my eyes”), where he positions the window (“the middle of the screen”), what is on the desktop (“a blue background, plain, no images”), how he types (index fingers), what he types on (“That desk: sheet metal riveted together, made back in England . . . Silver. Huge. Solid”), how many drafts he types (just the one), how he nonetheless attains some distance (reading through “with different font and spacing”), and the name he gives the document: Reacher 20. “I’m working up to Make Me,” he says. “Not quite there.” We also learn his favoured stimulants (coffee, cigarettes, the occasional zoot), his (related) New Year resolution (“Keep on smoking”), why he writes (to earn the love denied by his mother) and why he writes the kind of story he writes (vicarious revenge).
Martin gives us a breakdown of 26 March 2015, during which Child drank 19 cups of coffee, smoked 26 Camel cigarettes, spent 55 minutes reading the New Yorker, received and made zero texts or phone calls (surely the crucial detail) and wrote 2,173 words. There’s an element of the how-to guide about Reacher Said Nothing, although Martin isn’t offering refunds for readers who follow the instructions and still fail to sell 70 million books.
With his bad-boy habits and blasé one-liners – “It’s good to have the literary guys around” – Child amply fulfils the role of hero, but his chronicler gets caught between tones. For the most part, Martin, a lecturer in the French department at Cambridge, emerges as a dazzled onlooker, as if his own half-dozen previous books have given him no insight into how one might get written. It’s fine that he doesn’t want to make grand claims for himself (“my academic credentials, such as they were”), but his tendency to present his project as small-minded and trainspotting, more reflective of his own dilettantism than Lee Child’s greatness, undermines his claims to critical authority. Without a solid, straight-faced Martin in control, the book risks being seen as little more than an extremely elaborate joke.
Yet even when Martin lays aside his persona his arguments don’t quite land. The criticism that the Reacher books lack emotion is answered with the claim, based on up-close observation, that “it was all feeling, all the way through, every last word. And it had to feel right.” Elsewhere, Martin writes, “All Lee Child prose aspires to onomatopoeia. It strives to make the meaning audible. To synchronise sound and sense.”
The problem is one of execution, not conception. There’s a highfalutin case to be made for Child’s writing. It just isn’t the one that Martin makes. Child doesn’t write with care simply because he wants his prose to feel and sound right, but because his books turn on nuance.
Although it is true that Reacher is a thinker, and that his most important muscle is his brain, Martin is blinded by his own emphases: the tradition he comes from is not French existentialism but English empiricism, stretched a little to include Darwin and early Wittgenstein. Reacher may subscribe to the existentialist lifestyle (no wife, no mortgage) and mindset (take each moment as it comes) but his daily occupation is the exercise of rational thought. Asked in Make Me what it means to consider something “scientifically”, he says: “Statistically, maybe. And linguistically. With a little sociology thrown in. Plus a deep and innate understanding of human nature.”
The Reacher novels are detective stories in which an alpha-male variant on the scientific method is employed to distinguish appearance from the truth. At one point when he is out looking for a witness, the slow-coach front part of Reacher’s brain tries to arrange the image of a man he comes upon “into a plausible version of a theoretical McCann”, before the image resolves into “not a potential McCann at all, not even remotely a contender”. In order to tell when something is amiss, Reacher relies on a developed sense of how things ought to be. In the words of one head-spinning sentence: “He looked nothing like Reacher expected, but the reality fit the bill just as well as the preconceptions had.”
Martin overlooks this part of the novels’ make-up. His title derives from a sentence, “almost a catchphrase”, that appears repeatedly across the series, and which he views as part of a network of negative imagery, but he says nothing about less romantic yet more frequent descriptions, such as “Reacher figured” or “Reacher supposed” or “Reacher judged”. He misses an ideal opportunity to grill Child about ratiocination in mid-period Reacher during an exchange about sentences beginning “Which”. Child calls the word “accelerative”. In accepting this definition, Martin shows too much respect for the cliché of the Reacher books as brawny, kick-ass. His parody image of Child the philosopher-poet, the one he struggles to project without winking, is more frequently borne out by the words on the page. In Make Me, the “Which” sentence is intuitive and connective, rather than accelerative – “Which” is often followed by “meant”. It shows the movement of a mind, not a plot.
At its best, however, Make Me draws on the relationship between the two. In an especially memorable scene, a minor criminal caught staring at Reacher a little too long explains that he recognises him as a one-time Penn State football star. Reacher admires the man’s ingenuity and calls it a “superb act”, but snags on one detail. “. . . I’m sure he’s practised, and rehearsed, and critiqued himself . . .” he says, “and therefore I’m equally sure it’s completely inconceivable he doesn’t know there has to be a handshake in there.” To the suggestion that the missing handshake might have been an oversight, he replies, “No, he couldn’t force himself to do it . . . Even to the point of compromising his art.” The man must feel that Reacher, the potential author of his downfall, is “literally too loathsome to touch”. Instead of covering himself, he leaves Reacher wondering “what kind of a thing could make a person feel that way”. Intuition turns to intrigue; the connective becomes accelerative.
The fly-on-the-wall/parrot-on-shoulder method pursued in Reacher Said Nothing is a pleasurable alternative to conventional biography, but it proves no kind of substitute for criticism. Martin learned plenty about the material conditions of Lee Child’s writing, and how he spends his downtime, but nothing that could enrich a reading of his book. After all, literature is the art form with the least outwardly revealing mode of composition. Perhaps that is the reason why the making-of-a-book book is not an established genre like the making-of-a-film film (Godard’s Le mépris, Truffaut’s La nuit américaine/Day for Night) and even less common than the making-of-a-painting film (Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, Rohmer’s Mother and Child 1907, from Les rendez-vous de Paris). As Child advises a fan, with Reacher-like directness: “You just sit there every day and write.”
Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer
Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of “Make Me” by Andy Martin is out now from Bantam Press (320pp, £18.99)
This article appears in the 25 Nov 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State