The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


Related links

Borges reviews

Make Me by Lee Child (2015)

We can’t fight thirty people. To which Reacher’s natural response was: Why the hell not? It was in his DNA. Like breathing. He was an instinctive brawler. His greatest strength, and his greatest weakness. (p.136)

Make Me is the 20th novel in the series featuring tough ex-U.S. Army Military Policeman-turned-investigator, Jack Reacher.

The series is immensely popular, with every one of the novels having been optioned for movies, and two – One Shot and Never Go Back – made into ‘major motion pictures’ starring Tom Cruise. Which is odd since Cruise is famously on the short side (5 feet 6 inches) whereas the whole point of Jack Reacher is that he is a hulking bear of a man (six foot five).

Lee Child

The single most interesting thing about the Jack Reacher novels and their star, the tall, street wise, intelligent and bullet-proof American tough guy, is that their author is English.

Lee Child was born in Coventry and grew up in Birmingham. You can hardly get less glamorous and more provincially English than that. What turned him into an international publishing phenomenon? Eighteen years working with Granada TV, writing trailers, introductions, commercials and news stories. This honed his skills for getting to the point. (In fact Lee Child is a nom de plume: his real names is James Grant.)

Praise

The cover of the book is festooned with praise from his peers in the thriller-writing business, such luminaries as James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Ken Follett, Stephen King and Frederick Forsyth. It is noticeable that all the women writers describe Reacher in terms of physique and sexual attractiveness.

Patricia Cornwell says she picks up Reacher ‘when I’m in the mood for someone big to solve my problems.’

Karin Slaughter says Reacher is ‘one of the sexiest characters in fiction.’

Joanne Harris says reading Reacher is ‘one of my essential guilty pleasures.’

The most revealing comment is from British journalist Lucy Mangan:

I am very much in love with Jack Reacher – as a man and a role model. If I can’t shag him, then I want to be him.

(The bold is in the originals.) Reacher is tall, blonde and handsome, He is strong and silent. He protects women and the vulnerable. He doesn’t start trouble but if there is trouble he can more than handle himself in a fight. ‘What do women want?’ Freud is said to have asked. Jack Reacher, apparently.

Slow buildup

I was surprised and then amazed at how slow-moving this novel is, very slow, very slow-moving indeed. It has 492 pages divided into fifty-nine short punchy chapters (8.3 pages per chapter, though each one manages to feel much briefer because of the snappy writing).

By half way through, the following has happened: Reacher has stepped off a train at a remote and minuscule settlement in the American mid-West, intrigued by its incongruous name, Mother’s Rest. A woman steps out of the shadows as he strolls towards the central strip of town, clearly expecting him to be somebody she knows, then realises he isn’t.

They get chatting and it emerges that she is Michelle Chang (a name as tokenistically ethnic, but really as bland and commonplace as his own). Chang is ex-FBI, now a freelance investigator, having set up a detective agency with a few other investigators in the same situation. One of them was named Keever. He called in to tell the others that he was investigating something here in Mother’s Rest, then disappeared. She’s come to find out why.

We, the readers, know why – because Child opened a novel with a description of ‘them’ – an unnamed group of men – burying Keever. He’s dead. They killed him. This much we know. But why?

Very slowly Reacher gets drawn into Chang’s problem, not least because he is irked by the unfriendliness of the guys in town. (All men are referred to as ‘guys’ throughout.) The one-eyed owner of the only motel in town is twitchy and nervous, refuses to answer questions about Keever, keeps an obvious eye on Reacher and Chang.

As Reacher moseys round the small town he realises he is being followed by a kid and that various store owners lift the phone as he walks by – phoning in his progress to a central figure, who goes unnamed – we only know that he wears pressed jeans and has blow-dried hair. Ooh. Creepy! They are all nervous about the way Reacher is snooping around. They all talk about ‘us’, and how ‘we’ will have to take some action…

Reacher and Chang decide to drive to Keever’s apartment in Oklahoma City to find out more. Some guys from Mother’s Rest follow them as they drive. Reacher stops the car, gets out, confronts them and, as they go for their guns, kicks one in the nuts and smashes the other’s cheekbone with his elbow. He’s so tough. He’s so strong. Men want to be him. Women want to shag him. The appeal really does seem to be as primitive as that.

Reacher’s ‘technique’ is thoroughness

Sherlock Holmes’s deductions are clever and unexpected. Reacher’s feel far more obvious. He and Chang find a scrunched-up note in Keever’s room with a phone number and a name on it. They ring the number. It’s a science journalist in LA named Westwood. He agrees to meet them. They fly to LA. The science journalist explains that he gets calls from cranks all the time. Reacher guesses that whoever had hired Keever might be one of these cranks. They check Westwood’s database of calls. They systematically ring them all and eliminate all the obvious fruitcakes or unanswered calls. This narrows it down. One particular caller made lots of calls from Chicago, from a number they identify as the public library. They fly to Chicago. They take a taxi to a hotel. They check in.

By this stage Reacher and Chang have got beyond edgy camaraderie, progressed to sharing theories and hunches, and have had dinner together. He is tall, blonde and handsome with eyes of Arctic blue. She is lean and fit with curves in all the right places. Go on. Guess what happens.

Yep. They go to bed. What do women want? To be wined and dined, to be respected and courted. And then to be shagged senseless by a tall, super-capable man. Repeatedly. In hotel rooms across America.

They visit the public library in Chicago where the calls came from. They interview the librarian who knew the old, sad man who they now think was the caller, Keever’s client, the instigator of Keever’s investigation, name of McCann.

As I mentioned, Sherlock Holmes’s deductions are deliberately made outlandish and improbable. By contrast, at every step of the way Reacher is shown working through the possibly scenarios with very clear logic and application. If Reacher has a method, it is extreme thoroughness. At every stage, almost on every page, there are options and alternatives. He considers them rationally and logically. He works through them. He chooses the best one. It generally proves to be correct.

There is more than a touch of Mr Spock about Reacher.

Lucky man

But one of the things that makes this an example of genre fiction is the easiness, the fluency and the luck. Reacher is lucky, continually lucky.

He speculates that it was Keever’s client who called the LA journalist – and is proved right.

He speculates that the caller will have called in a specific time window 3 to 4 months earlier – and is proved right.

He guesses that the caller, having been blocked by the journalist as a nuisance, will change his name and continue calling, but call from the same number or area code. He does, and that’s what helps them recognise the fake name he uses second time round, which in turn leads them to his real name – McCann.

(It helps that Chang has a contact in the US telephone system who does her favours and helps them identify the various numbers.)

All this evidence narrows the search down to Chicago so they fly there, check into a hotel, have sex, then visit the library. All of which proves to be the correct deduction.

Similarly, the polite lady librarian at the Chicago public library won’t give them the address of the man they have now identified as McCann, out of a sense of confidentiality – but Reacher asks a series of tangenital questions about whether he drove or took public transport to work (walked) and his health (poor) from which they deduce that McCann’s home must be among the surrounding three blocks. Which is correct.

A block away from the library is a dusty old pharmacy which sells the kind of temporary cell phones (known as ‘burners’) which they speculate that McCann used. So Reacher guesses that the old boy walked past it on his walk to the library – so his house must be in that general direction. Which turns out to be correct.

The librarian had said that McCann gave the impression that he was ashamed of where he lived. So Reacher guesses it’s not a nice house but an apartment, probably in a rundown block. And so it is that after half an hour of working along the street, looking at nameplates to every flat on every apartment block, Michelle finds one with ‘Peter McCann’ on it.

They pretend to be making a delivery in order to get buzzed into the block, walk up to the apartment in question, to find the door is open.

And so on.

At every juncture Reacher makes reasonable enough guesses based on the odds, working things through steadily and methodically. But he is always lucky. The cards always fall his way. The time period of calls to the journalist turns out to be dead right. Chicago turns out to be the right hunch as location for the mysterious client. Guessing the pharmacy is the one where McCann bought his disposable phones turns out to be right. His apartment has a nice legible name label (unlike most I’ve ever visited) – and it gives McCann’s real name. The door to the apartment is unlocked.

Same with women. Reacher’s guesstimates about how to pace things in his relationship with Chang turn out to be picture perfect – when to hold off, when to be polite and professional, when to be slightly more personal, when to take her to dinner, when to wait for her signal, when to make a first move (a kiss) and when to take her to bed – all turn out to be right. He is right all the time. About everything.

Tall, tough and handsome, and always right.

Fighting

This supernatural skillfulness comes into its own in the many scenes of violence, fighting and shooting.

When he gets out of the car he and Chang are driving to Oklahoma City to confront the two toughs who have been tailing them – the reader partakes in his expert assessment of the situation, his estimate of where best to stand in order to a) kick one in the nuts and still have time to b) smash the other in the face.

When an assassin confronts them outside Keever’s apartment, we once again share Reacher’s immensely detailed calculation of the best way to handle the situation, and a literal blow-by-blow account of the fight.

Later in the book, Reacher and Chang go to visit McCann’s sister to find out more about his motives for hiring Keever. She’s married to a rich doctor and they’re supervising wedding celebrations for their grown-up daughter when three assassins hired by the Mother’s Rest people burst in. Three assassins with guns. Once again Child gives us an extremely detailed account of how Reacher thinks through the problem, works the angles, creates a diversion, and ends up killing all three and saving himself, Chang and McCann’s sister’s family unscathed.

We see his careful planning and calculations, so it’s not dumb luck. He thinks the problem through, calculates the angles, waits for the right moment, and so on.

Still pretty lucky, though.

When they figure out that the assassins were sent by ‘the fat man’, who is the head of the organisation of hitmen and which has been sub-contracted by the Mother’s Rest mob to rub them out – Chang and Reacher:

a) easily identify the nightclub which is a front for the gang
b) find the gate to the fenced compound around the club conveniently open
c) find the fat man sitting inside the compound, so that
d) Reacher can walk up to him, shoot him in the head, turn and walk away.

No bodyguards protecting him, no-one comes bursting out of the club firing at him. Lucky, huh?

Reacher is always right, about everything.

No wonder men want to be him. No wonder women want to shag him.

Characteristics of a Jack Reacher novel

Simple Child’s prose style is pared right back in the standard thriller style.

1. Partly because all modern American prose is pared back – generations of American creative writing teachers have told all their students to go over and over their manuscripts to remove unnecessary adjectives or adverbs, to keep it simple. So now American prose is simple. Doesn’t mean it can’t be thoughtful, though. Imaginative. Evocative.

Three Rugers [a type of gun], three guys. Black clothes, scalped hair, pale skin. Big enough and heavy enough, but also somehow bony. Tight cheekbones. Hard times in their DNA, from not too long ago. From Europe, maybe. Far in the marshy east. Every man against his neighbour, for the last thousand years. (p.330)

2. Partly because over the past hundred years the masculine world of crime fiction with its strong silent types has been associated with tough, no-nonsense prose for tough, no-nonsense guys. Hard boiled. Nothing soft or wishy-washy. True since the 1920s at least. Dashiell Hammett. Keep it simple.

Simple sentences. Short sentences. Sometimes three words. Or two. One. Limited vocabulary. Repetition.

Reacher listened hard, and heard nothing.
He stepped around the desk to the private side.
He glanced at the ledgers. And the files. And the notebooks. Routine motel stuff. Accounts, orders, to-do lists, percentages.
He listened again. Heard nothing.
He opened a drawer. Where the guy kept the room keys. He put 113 in, and took 215 out.
He closed the drawer.
He stepped back to the public side.
He breathed out. (p.73)

It gives a bleached-out, empty effect. Obviously designed to be tense and taut. Minimum perceptions. Human as robot, as terminator, stripped of all uncertainty and hesitation. Human as pure knowing, calculating machine.

A gated community. Rich people. Taxpayers. Political donors. The Maricopa County sheriffs on speed dial.
They waited at the kerb, a hundred yards short.
It was three in the afternoon. Five, in Chicago.
There was one guard behind the glass.
Reacher said, ‘We should have figured.’
Chang said, ‘If she’s heard about her brother, we’ll never get in.’ (p.291)

Said When characters talk they never question, answer, reply, respond, smirk. They never do anything with any colour or inflection. They just ‘say’. She said. He said. The guy said. They said.

Chang said, ‘He could be a brother or a cousin…’
‘He looks like the boss,’ Reacher said…
Chang said, ‘We have to be certain…’
Reacher said, ‘Did your contact mention family members?’..
Chang said, ‘We don’t know of any family members.’
‘He looks like the boss,’ Reacher said… (p.352)

The deliberate reduction of the complex and multi-faceted human activity of speaking, questioning, answering, discussing and joking down to one monotonously reiterated word – ‘said’-  typifies the general strategy of simplification.

All men are ‘guys’. All roads are blacktop. Taxis are taxis. They took a taxi to the hotel. It was part of a chain. The Mothers Rest hard goods store is like hundreds of others. The pharmacy in Chicago is the type you see everywhere.

Hardly anything is really described, certainly not given any detailed vibe or atmosphere. That would require invoking an element of subjectivity on the part of the narrator, that would involve soft, wishy-washy feelings and perceptions and these – in this genre – are banned.

Instead, atmosphere is almost entirely implied by Reacher’s reactions to a situation, sizing up the guy, weighing the odds, calculating the angles.

Paused a beat Hence another characteristic: characters often pause in speaking — pause a beat or, in another common phrase, pause until the silence becomes uncomfortable.

He paused a beat… She was quiet for a long moment, five or six seconds, right to the edge of discomfort. (p.492)

During these pauses the characters – mostly Reacher – are calculating the odds, thinking the problem through.

Which Another mannerism is, after anyone has made a decision or acted a certain way, to have a short sentence starting with ‘which’ and approving it.

Which made sense. (p.349)

Which was a good question. (p.468)

Which was good. (p.457)

If you say it out loud, in a slow tough guy drawl, you can see how it conveys laconic, wise approval. One pro nodding approval of another pro. Good choice. Wise move.

The bloody climax

In the end, you won’t be surprised to learn that the sleepy little ville of Mother’s Rest does indeed contain a gruesome and disgusting secret, a secret so sordid and violent that the townspeople are all jumpy whenever a stranger arrives, and have outsourced ‘protection’ to a Ukrainian mobster, Merchenko, and his hitmen.

(These are the hitmen Reacher deals with in the scene where they invade McCann’s sister’s house in Phoenix – referred to above – which prompts him to track down and coolly execute Merchenko.)

In fact, there turn out to be two secrets, a secret within a secret, which is very effective, in narrative and thriller terms.

As the plot moves along, Westwood introduces Chang and Reacher to a geek who can access the so-called Dark Web, the vast cyberspace with hidden websites and transactions, mainly used for pornography and crime. He is referred to simply as ‘the guy from Palo Alto’ (p.378).

This guy uses the evidence our team have assembled to tell the following story – a middle-aged man named Peter McCann had a 30-year-old son, Michael, with mental health issues who he was concerned about and who had gone missing on a bus journey through Mother’s Rest. McCann made repeat calls to Westwood asking for his help tracking his son down. Why? Because McCann had written an article way back, one he’d more or less forgotten about, on the subject of the Dark Web, and McCann wanted Westwood’s help in delving into it to find out what happened to his son. McCann had discovered that his son was a frequent visitor to dark websites concerned with suicide.

The guy from Palo Alto confirms all this and goes on to discover that it looks like Michael made a pact with someone he met on the Dark Web to go to Mother’s Rest and be euthanised.

In other words, the dark secret behind the sleepy little town, is that a dozen or so of its inhabitants have set up a euthanasia centre on a remote farm a dozen miles outside of town. Here customers can commit suicide in a number of ways. The guy from Palo Alto tracks down a hidden brochure which lists the methods: injection of poison, carbon monoxide piped into a peaceful room to nice music etc.

Having discovered all this Reacher and Chang return to Mother’s Rest along with Westwood, pretty sure there will be a welcoming committee and there is. The ten or so men in the euthanasia syndicate have posted lookouts around the town and are waiting with guns.

There is a very bloody shootout. Reacher and Chang lure out of the stronghold, cosh and tie up five of the baddies, before the situation degenerates into a prolonged shoutout with the other five.

Despite being trapped in a large shed-like building with the baddies firing rifle bullets through the thin walls, our heroes survive unscathed, while despatching all five of the armed baddies. Lucky, eh?

It is only during the shootout that they discover there is an even darker side, to the euthanasia setup than they had originally thought. I won’t give it away, partly because it’s so disgusting, partly because… you should read it yourself!

Reacher is a calculating machine

By page 492 – in among the violence, the pared-back prose style, the inevitable championship sex between Chang and Reacher and the incredible fluency and mobility of American life (on one level the book is a blizzard of planes and trains and coaches and taxis and hotels and gold cards) –  I kept being struck by the surprisingly Darwinian nature of its worldview.

The longer it goes on the more you realise that Reacher is a calculating machine – not doing sums, but calculating the odds of everything. What is really going on in Mother’s Rest, why does a shopkeeper glimpsed through a window move his arm (phoning someone?), what are his chances with Chang, how will the assassin in the doorway move next, how accurate will the shooters with their M16 rifles be – and so on. He never stops. He is permanently calculating the odds and possibilities of everything.

Some of this is unconscious. On a number of occasions Child tells us that Reacher is calculating something with the frontal, conscious part of his mind – but meanwhile, the unconscious back part is making its own split-second decisions – what he refers to several times as ‘the lizard brain’.

A forty per cent chance, the back of Reacher’s brain told him, immediately and automatically… (p.332)

Then the guy in the yard opened the slider and stepped inside, and the back of Reacher’s brain showed him the whole chess game right there, laid out, obvious, in flashing neon arrows, in immense and grotesque detail… (p.327)

Meanwhile the guy [Reacher has just shot] was going down vertically, as if he had stepped into an elevator shaft, and Reacher was turning fractionally left, from the waist, shoulders braced, looking for the third-base guy, the furthest away, because some back-of-the-brain calculation was telling him the guy had a better line of fire… (p.337)

It’s like being inside the brain of a cheetah or a leopard, stalking its prey on the savannah, permanently calculating, continually alert to its next move.

At one point Reacher is described as a predator poised above the waterhole. This is exactly what he feels like all the way through. When not being pressed he is gentlemanly and courteous, to old ladies or women like Chang. But when at all pressed, he turns into super-predator, an unrivalled calculator of the odds for fighting and surviving and beating all the opposition in sight.

He’s not just tall and strong and trained to kill in twenty ways. He is a super-predator, a quintessence of the hunter-killer instinct which the biologists tell us is inside all of us.

Which, according to the blurbs, men want to be, and women want to shag – in order to have babies by him, in order to be protected by him.

The heartlessness of American life

Where does Reacher get his money from? There seems to be no end to the train tickets, hire cars, airplane flights, hotel rooms and taxis, taxis everywhere. Credit cards, cell phones, the internet, shiny hire cars, the rich doctor in his gated community, the party by the pool, power breakfasts, brunch in diners, dinners in restaurants – to me there is a sickening surfeit of wealth.

In their films and fictions, Americans seem to take it for granted that they can go anywhere, do anything, eat anything, shoot anyone. By and large Americans don’t realise how rich and privileged they are.

Which makes the contrast with the sickening sadism, violence and general heartlessness of almost the characters so upsetting and disturbing. The novel opens with a murder, there’s a lull while Chang and Reacher slowly uncover the powder trail leading to the gruesome truth – and then a steady increase in tempo of the opponents Reacher has to blow apart, behead, execute and generally eviscerate.

For me there’s an umbilical connection between the two: The casual way they accept the train tickets, plane flights, hire cars, identikit hotel rooms, everything is described in solely functional terms, as expressions of wish and desire. I wanna go there. I’ll getta plane. I’ll hire a car. I’ll getta taxi. I want, I get.

The characters apply the same instrumental mindset to each other. You’re in my way. I gotta kill you. Sorry it ain’t personal, it’s business. I’m being paid to execute you, sorry but a job’s a job.

In the scene where the assassins burst in on Chang and Reacher talking to McCann’s sister and her family, the assassins – once they’ve lined the good guys all up on the sofa – proceed to share the fact that they’re upset: they were paid to kill three people (Chang, Reacher and McCann’s sister) and now they’re confronted with five people. Well, that’s just not fair, is it? If they gotta kill five they want more money. I mean you would too, right? Am I right?

Presumably this scene is meant to be funny. In fact it’s the delay while the assassins try to figure out which of the five people in front of them are the three they’ve been sent to assassinate – Chang, Reacher and McCann’s sister (well, Chang being Chinese is easy enough, but they’re uncertain about the other two) that allows Reacher, with his lizard brain, to contrive a strategy which evens up the odds enough for him to tackle all three assassins and – lucky as usual – to go from sitting on a sofa completely unarmed, to getting the better of three armed assassins. What a guy.

It’s possible to enjoy books like this for the thrill of the narrative, for its tongue-in-cheek hard man prose, for its ridiculous love scenes – but still be appalled by the insight they give into a society which has been hollowed out and lost all its humanity.

Every possible facility of advanced twenty-first century life is laid on for these Americans. And yet, with a kind of tragic inevitability, books like this show how having everything has somehow withered Americans’ humanity and turned them into killing machines. Not every American is a soulless killer, obviously. But our time does seem to be witnessing a plague of mass shootings by Americans with plenty of guns and no soul whatsoever.


Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

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