Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Pelican -- Briefer please

This week, John Grisham has  not one  but two novels  on the NYTimes bestseller list.  And the whole back page of this week’s New Yorker is taken up with an ad for these:  suggesting that an audience of (relatively discriminating) New Yorker calibre  might be interested.  What is the attraction?

And so, despite a recent bad experience with another Grisham potboiler (panned here), like Charlie Brown having just one more whack at the football held by (reliably) unreliable Lucy,  I reached down a well-known title from my wife’s discard shelf:  The Pelican Brief (1992).

It’s kind of a catchy title;  further, the basic premise of the thriller -- the murder of multiple Supreme-Court justices -- has a compelling logic to it:  such an Eingreifen into the politico-legal landscape would indeed have much more far-reaching and long-lasting consequences than most assassinations.   And at the hands of a former lawyer (like Grisham) an engrossing glimpse into the ins and outs of Constitutional theory and practice  should be central to the plot, and quite instructive.  
And what a movie it might have made!   Had I the good fortune to have directed it, a good third of the screentime would have been devoted to courtroom drama:  but this time, not to the sordid details of some random murder case (as in most such dramas) but to matters of weight to the Republic; to the (generally high-level, non-grandstanding) pleadings before the Supreme Court; and to serious discussions of all sides of the issues  in chambers, among Justices and clerks:  fine legal minds  grappling with crucial conundrums.  Only once the reader had been drawn in to caring about the issues at hand, and familiarized with the stances (well-founded or otherwise)  of each of the Justices, would one, and later another, be bumped off.   It is the basic principle of the classic dinner-party murder:   The reader has to be skillfully introduced to each of the potential victims (and suspects!), so that he cares about them or at least can recognize them, before the foul deed is done.   Otherwise we’re simply down amid the muck of the police-blotter.

Not only does he do absolutely nothing of that, but, amazingly for a reputed professional, Grisham makes what should count as an authorial Rookie Error:   First comes the slaying of a character we don’t know from Adam (one of the Justices, barely sketched-in);  then, before the blood is dry, and before reader has had time to assimilate that atrocity (one cannot call it tragedy, in Aristotle’s sense;  genuine tragedy has to be built-up-to) and attempt to care about it, another Justice is slain (in grotesquely pornographic circumstances  that itself is an authorial offence against the dignity of the Court), thus “stepping on” the original effect.  So that it feels more like a fairgrounds cockshy  than like anything which might have interested Sophocles.

(For a while it seems as though, despite having skimped on the victims, Grisham intends to make good via due diligence on the suspects:  there are extended Oval Office scenes, featuring a phony unprincipled President, a scheming power-hungry Chief of Staff, plus the heads of FBI and CIA, who, to any properly-brought-up progressive, are villains ex officio.  But nothing ever comes of it.)
The central character is a law-student who gets interested in the case.   In accord with the socio-literary pieties of our times, it is a she, and quickly introduced as a gorgeous athletic brilliant self-possessed do-it-all feminist heroine (“cheerleader … graduated magna cum laude with a degree in biology … planned to graduate magna cum laude with a degree in law, and then make a nice living suing chemical companies for trashing the environment”), and is given a scene in which (though arriving late to class) she effortlessly shows up all the boys  who have been clownishly  ducking and dodging, unable to answer the lecturer’s trenchant questions.   Well, fine (sigh);  and useful for the movies.   Dramatically, the choice of such an outsider to get drawn in to lethal and unsuspected depths, is an excellent old chestnut of the Man Who Knew Too Much school  (cinematically brilliantly depicted in, for example, “Six Days of the Condor”).   Why such a person, with no especial connections, working alone, and stranded out in Louisiana or somewhere, is able almost instantly to penetrate to the solution to the case (and this, without leaving the library), where the police, the White House, the FBI, the CIA, and a special spontaneous Let’s-Put-On-a-Play scratch-team of Supreme Court employees who throw themselves as amateurs  into their own investigation (in another kind of movie, of the Bad News Bears motif, these junior sherlocks would have been the ones to crack the case, though here this wrinkle is immediately forgotten) all mill around  spinning their wheels and getting nowhere,  is left unexplained (and puts the plot down into the adolescent-wet-dream subbasement of Superhero fantasies, quite foreign to the taste of Eustace Tilly’s cognoscenti).

As a side-thread, she is having an affair with her ConLaw professor (author checks off that box;  naturally the silver screen will require a bit of that sort of thing).  But sociopolitically (in the current climate), the matter is dicey.   The reader is supposed to sympathize with everything that WonderDamsel does, including her choices for her love-life.  But the professor is male, and superordinate in the power-structure, and several years her elder, and therefore (as dictated by the pieties, vid. sup.)  scum.  What to do?   Well, the author makes him a grotesque drunkard, so that we can all righteously sneer down at him (and, interrestingly, though at a semi-conscious subtext level, suggestive of impotence, hence he is merely a toy  and never an actual sexual threat  -- the figure of the Castrated Rapist, as it were),  and then -- startlingly early from a narrative standpoint, given the man’s prominence in the early sections (thus, a structural defect) -- summarily yanked from the stage, as though by the proverbial shepherd’s-crook of the cartoons:  somebody smashes his lecherous head like a watermelon, or whatever.    Cross out politically-incorrect love-interest;  call Casting for a socially acceptable replacement.
This arrives in the form of a crusading Bob Woodward-style newsman (he even works for WaPo),  who, despite his journalistic eminence, takes orders from her meekly, like a little boy  (for she had suddenly, after a few days on the run, become an expert in clandestine tradecraft).  And though he is of course attracted to her (like the entire world, Princess), and though he is repeatedly (at her invitation -- she calls all the shots) drawn into potentially libidinous situations, he ever and again simply sleeps on the couch, dutifully neutered  in line with the requirements of present dogma (at which later ages will gape).


The featured blurb, from the NYTimes Book Review, atop the cover of the paperback edition my wife initially fished out from some remainder-bin (“Half off all titles”), stated:   

“A genuine page-turner.”

And here I must concur, in both a good sense  and a bad.

It is the sort of book which is best consumed in circumstances where you do not invest overmuch attention or insight:  either amid the hectic distractions of air-travel, or, on the contrary, late on a tired Friday, before bedtime, the brandy-glass sampled, then emptied, then re-filled, mind wandering off the page and lazily back to it, the depictions of campus affairs evoking fond (or frightful) memories of one’s own, the chase-scenes allowing you to lie back and close your eyes, imagining how your favorite director might stage them -- nothing much riding on all this  one way or the other.   Amid the general background murmur of workmanlike prose, there is the occasional phrase (“They power-schmoozed with senators”) felicitous by the relaxed standards of the post-prandial, pre-somnial bedside reading-lamp, or cinematic imagery (“She draped her legs across his lap” -- the later screenwriter will bite his lip, wondering whether to swipe the trope, or to can it and come up with his own take), so that  for the first hundred pages or so  the pages really did turn effortlessly, as by themselves, requiring no more digital exertion than the text did mental. 

But in time, it dawns on the reader  that the mainspring of the killings really is that blasted pelican -- endangered down in the bayou, thus foiling the envirocidal plottings of an oilman (boo!) whom we eventually meet as a cartoonish melding of Mr Kurtz and late-life Howard Hughes, who is somehow able to recruit a host of killers including a Carlos-the-Jackal lookalike -- ah but the plot is too stupid to summarize.  By then we are no longer turning the pages, but flipping them, faster and faster, like those day-calendar sheets blowing rapidly off in a cinematic wind to symbolize the passing of time.   The thing drags, and bogs down…  It is as though Grisham had received a contract for a 400-pp. novel, but had misread it as “300”, and only after he had expended his last twist and least idea, did his agent inform him that, per contract, a further hundred pages were required, so that Grisham had to grind grind grind, or perhaps hand the task off to some uncredited amanuensis, like the apprentices who finished-in the details after Michaelangelo had drawn the main scheme and toddled off to the winehouse.


Ah well, the man continues to get away with it, and to bank the results, as ever new generations of unilluminati are born-yesterday.   No doubt his latest efforts will make it to the screen as well -- or, in accord with continuing developments, perhaps becomes comic-books or video-games.

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