Saturday, July 02, 2005

It was slightly excessive, even for me,

but I've just reread five of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels. (That's novels 4-8 in the series, though they are cunningly constructed so it doesn't really matter what order you read them in. I read #9 on the plane back from England & it made me avid to reread the others--I couldn't get 1-3 from the library, so I made do with the ones I could.) They are really, really great. I reread The Enemy first, it's #8 in sequence but it's a prequel (and my favorite, I think, because it's got the most interesting backstory stuff). Then I read Running Blind (overly gimmicky, as complex serial-killer plots often are, but still highly readable) and Echo Burning (for some reason this one's my least favorite--most of Child's female characters are extremely tough and good at hand-to-hand combat etc., but this book features a damsel in distress who's not at all able to take care of herself, and it somehow makes things less interesting). Striking upturn in quality--though don't get me wrong, they're all extremely good, FAR better than almost anything else out there--with #6, Without Fail. This one feels like Child hit his stride. It's not that it's tongue-in-cheek, that's not the right word, but there are lots of sly allusions and also here you get the full-blown version of Jack Reacher's trademark strategic planning. Very highly recommended. And the next one, Persuader, is even better. It's the darkest and most violent of all the books, and it's amazing. The lure of Reacher is strong. He's a natural fighter, but he never works out; he doesn't know everything, in the way that some action heroes implausibly do (Reacher isn't a big car guy, for instance, though he knows guns backwards and forwards; in fact, he only knows what he learned in the military); he drinks a ton of coffee; he's got a monastic lack of interest in possessions. Very appealing: makes me want to get rid of everything I own and go on the road.

On a more productive note, at exactly midnight last night I e-mailed a big pack of stuff to the editor I am very much hoping to work with on my new academic book: proposal and CV and 2 chapters. The bulk of the work I've done in the past month was simply wrestling this awful first chapter into submission. It's interesting to think about--I was cursing myself every day for not having written it more slowly and thoughtfully the first time, but I know that I will make exactly the same mistake next time I'm working on a new book. I always would rather write a long and sprawling and excessive first draft and then revise it drastically than work more slowly in the first place and end up with something that needs less drastic revisions--you feel calmer once you've got a whole draft down on paper, even if it's a bit of a mess, and it's more fun and altogether less stressful working really fast, even if it's more work in the end. In this case, I was in thrall to an amazing (and huge) body of primary-source material and just couldn't resist putting in things that were interesting but really on the whole unrelated. (Actually as I worked back through it I was occasionally mystified as to what I could have been thinking, everything was so breakneck and mixed-up.) So I ended up with a seriously unmanageable though quite polished "chapter" of over 40,000 words (closer to 50,000 with footnotes, I'm afraid to say, because they were stuffed full of every interesting book I'd read over the months I was writing). I got comments from a few colleagues, I did my own thinking about what needed to be done with it, etc., but every time this year I had a few spare days and thought "I'll finally deal with typing up all the revisions I've marked up on that awful chapter," I'd spend an hour or two getting back into it and then throw up my hands in despair. It was clearly a three-week job, not a three-day job. And that estimate turned out to be about right. It's FAR better now--really surprisingly good, I thought after the last round of revisions suddenly made things click--I cut one massive chunk and a lot of other small things, leaving it at 28,000 words, which is still really too long but what can you do.... Anyway, I'm going to paste in a few of my most irresistible paragraphs of primary-source material. The chapter is called "Resemblance and the Science of Inheritance," and it basically makes an argument about Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale and several mid-eighteenth-century adaptations of that play, using them to tell a story about changes in ideas of breeding, inheritance and identity in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. I will not indulge myself by posting any of my own prose, but these are a few of my very favorite quotations (and don't ask how they're related to The Winter's Tale, as it takes me about a hundred manuscript pages to explain... But basically I draw on a lot of books about gardens and about midwifery to explain and amplify a couple strands of Shakespeare's play, the argument about grafting in Act IV--which has implications for social class and a lot of other things--and also the way the play as a whole treats the relationship between parents and children):

There is no more constant, certain, and pernicious Enemy to the Husbandmans Thrift, than Man himself; Homo homini Dæmon: they rob and steal from, oppress, maligne, injure, persecute, and devour one another, to the decay of Arts and Sciences, and even to the ruine of whole Families of Ingenious and Industrious men; every one striving to build up his house, and raise his Family by the ruines and decay of his Neighbours. But our only Complaint is against the common and ordinary sort of vile persons, that live after a most sordid manner, and seek not Wealth nor Greatness, but only to maintain themselves in a most despicable lazy kinde of life, by filching and stealing from their honest and laborious Neighbours; and against such, that though they steal not, yet oppress, oppugne, and injure those that are more Industrious than themselves.
As suppose the Penalty of all manner of Theft were, to be Transported to the West-Indies, or to be confined to some certain Mines, or suchlike, at the pleasure of the Judge; and to have an apparent Brand or Mark in the Face; and that it should be free and lawful for any man to kill any such person returning or straying from such imployment; and that every one that lost their Goods, and did prosecute the Thief, should have their Damages and Costs restored: I suppose none would make any scruple of Prosecution, nor would any endeavour to preserve these Vipers from so moderate, yet sufficient punishment.

This way, if severely prosecuted, without favour or respect, would in a little time rid the Country of the Old Thieves, and their very Breed also, that there would scarce be any of their Blood remaining: But if any should by chance appear, he would hardly have any time to learn his Trade perfectly.

John Worlidge, Systema Agriculturae, 2nd ed. (1675)

For a Clown, certainly, and a draggle-tail’d Kitchen-Wench, when trick’d up like my Master and Lady, cannot choose but have a mighty Opinion of their own Merit and Improvements. The Cat, when she was dres’d out of the Wardrobe of Venus, sate at Table with the State and Demureness of a Virgin-Bride; but as soon as a Mouse cross’d the Room, Puss forgets her Majesty, and running eagerly upon the Prey, shew’d her self to be a pure ravenous Animal, and fit only to live on Vermine. A paltry Chambermaid, which came but just now all perfum’d from emptying and cleansing the Vessels of the Chamber, shall appear at Table in her Flower’d Manteau, and her tottering Commode, forsooth; but notwithstanding all, upon every trivial Accident and Turn, will not fail to shew her self to be a meer errant Cat, destin’d by Nature to feed on meaner Fare.

Timothy Nourse, Campania Foelix (1700)

[I]n case of the similitude [between parents and children], nothing is more powerful than the imagination of the Mother; for if she conceive in her mind, or do by chance fasten her eyes upon any Object, and imprint it in her Memory, the Child in its outward parts frequently has some representation thereof; so whilst a Man and Woman are in the Act of Copulation, if the Woman earnestly behold his Countenance and fix her mind thereon, without all peradventure, the Child will resemble the Father; nay so powerful is its Operation, that though a Woman be in unlawful Copulation, yet if fear or any thing else causes her to fix her mind upon her husband, the Child will resemble him, tho’ he never got it.

Aristoteles Master-Piece (1684)

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