Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
2009.05.24 : Book Clubbing
Nobody Move! – Johnson Does Pulp Fiction
And the Literary Offenses of Brad Thor
"Five thousand novels are published every year in England and 4990 of them are tripe."
- George Orwell

You have to say it in just the right growly Chicago gangster voice, to achieve the full fun.

"Nobody move!"

So I just read the new Denis Johnson – Nobody Move – which follows up his National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke.

I'm sure a lot of people will remember me going on about Johnson – his novel Already Dead, A California Gothic has long been my second favourite novel of all time. I often describe Johnson as the best American writer nobody has ever heard of. (Much less true, no doubt, after the National Book Award.) And, since Dave Wallace erased his own cartography last year, I suppose that leaves Johnson as my favourite living writer.

Nobody Move, which was originally serialized in Playboy, is more than worth buying, incidentally, if only (but of course not only) for the stunning book design. You'll keep flipping back to the full-colour newsprint illustrations of its zoot-suit-clad anti-hero and curvy, underwear-wearing femme fatale (both toting revolvers, naturally). Moreover, it's a hoot to listen to this literary chronicler of haunted, modern, addiction-addled, dystopian, hidden America bashing out hardboiled dialogue and pistol-play in the style of Chandler and Hammett. It's a minor work, but a greater minor work, I think. Really good fun and you could pick a worse introduction to Denis Johnson. (*) (And you really should be introduced to Denis Johnson.)




As it happens, I found myself reading Brad Thor's ultra-mega-bestselling The Last Patriot immediately afterward, as a matter of research. ("Jingoistic counter-terrorism action thrillers" seeming to be the area I'm working in lately.) There are any number of comments I might make about this other "novel", many of them to do with middle-school reading levels and cliche-count per paragraph. A few examples will suffice:

Elbows are continually "driven into solar plexuses"; crowds "run screaming in all directions"; gunmen appear "out of nowhere"; junkies' arms are "reedlike." Weapons are invariably flashed; minds race for solutions; assailants' breath can practically be felt against the backs of necks; miracles are hoped for; and packets of money are always opened discreetly. (These are all taken from the dozen or so pages around page 160, which is about as far as I could make it through.)

All the characters speak in exactly the same voice – though their cliches are appropriate to their roles. Villains say,"One false move and I will kill you both before the police even realize what is happening." CIA agents editorialize that, "Our country is at war and our job is to prevent the enemy from winning. And before you give me a speech about upholding the Constitution…" Someone who has someone else tied up declares, "We'll dispense with the chitchat, Monsieur Bertrand. You have I something want." Indeed.

In the spirit of Mark Twain on The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper, I'll examine just a paragraph here (taken more or less at random, also from around page 160). Click the inline bollocks for my annotation and analysis.

"The flamboyant dandy in a white three-piece silksuit stood about five-foot-seven. The only thing thinner than his emaciated frame was the pencil-thin mustache that hovered above his almost non-existent upper lip. His hair was parted on the left and slicked back with some sort of pomade while a pair of gray eyes darted nervously back and forth beneath two overly manicured eyebrows. A pocket watch on a gold chain sat nestled inside his vest pocket. On his feet , the rare-book dealer wore a pair of highly polished black and white spectators while a brightly colored handkerchief billowed from his breast pocket. "




To circle back to where I started, the comparison of the Thor "book" with the Johnson is fascinating.

Both use a lot of genre "conventions" – which is what "cliches" are called when they are intentional. But, of course, Johnson knows he is doing this, and is having fun with it, and composing wild new melodies in an established musical style . . . whereas Thor is merely using the laziest, most back-of-the-cereal-box language conceivable – yet clearly believes he is doing serious (and original!) writing. He's like this aggressive drunk lurching around the bar, claiming he used to be in Special Forces and threatening to snap everyone's neck – but who in actuality can barely stand, and doesn't realise people are just shaking their heads and laughing at him. Meanwhile, Johnson has already slipped out back and killed six people without anyone even realising he was gone.

Both books are very spare. I think, in fact, the average number of syllables per word, and the average sentence-length, are very nearly the same in both books. But where the Johnson is pared down so that every syllable is going to work, on the job, precisely fit for purpose, resonating outward in a dozen directions . . . the Thor is nothing padded out to be even less, void piled upon more void, until it's worth even less than the sum of its parts, which is already enormously negative. Where Johnson is a nuclear-powered super-carrier tuned down to the butteriest idle, cruising along without a ripple, but whose hundreds of megawatts of radioactive power still tremble perceptibly beneath your feet . . . Thor is a half-horsepower weedwhacker revved up to an attrocious whine, recklessly brandished in all directions, the whole thing threatening to fly apart at any second, splattering mulch and dog-shit across your garden.

But I suppose it's reassuring that readers at a fourth-grade level will always have a counter-terrorism thriller to read; and that writers at the eighth-grade level will always be around to write them – and to get to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list in doing so. As Orwell would no doubt have it – in saecula saeculorum.


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about
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

You can reach him on .

THE MANUSCRIPT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
PANDORA'S SISTERS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
DON'T SHOOT ME IN THE ASS, AND OTHER STORIES by Michael Stephen Fuchs
D-BOYS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
COUNTER-ASSAULT by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book One - Fortress Britain, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Two - Mogadishu of the Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Genesis, by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Three - Three Parts Dead, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Four - Maximum Violence, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Five - EXODUS, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN Book Six - The Horizon, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs

ARISEN, Book Seven - Death of Empires, by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eight - Empire of the Dead by Glynn James & Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : NEMESIS by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Nine - Cataclysm by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Ten - The Flood by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Eleven - Deathmatch by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Twelve - Carnage by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Thirteen - The Siege by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN, Book Fourteen - Endgame by Michael Stephen Fuchs
ARISEN : Fickisms
ARISEN : Odyssey
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