Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why now?


The zipless fuck

Gary Gilmore

Hannibal Lecter

Jurassic Park

Keyser Soze

Jason Bourne

The Da Vinci Code

Sooki Stackhouse

The Martian

Everyone of these names evokes an image of a book that suddenly, inexplicably took off and sold millions of copies, stunning the book world, both publishers  and readers. The last entry, The Martian, is what spurred this post. It’s the newest phenomenon, a book that had plodded along for a while entertaining its readers—and suddenly exploded in sales. Its writer, Andy Weir, slogged along in obscurity for a time, and is now looking at book and movie contracts. And I, for one, couldn’t be more delighted.

In an interview I read Mr. Weir suggested that the success of the book was due to its man against nature theme. He said everyone roots for the man, and no one roots for nature. But I have another idea. I think the popularity of the book stems from a combination of the main character’s irrepressibly cheerful nature while he battles seemingly insurmountable odds, and the loyalty of the people involved in a dangerous project.

What does readers’ affection for Whatley, the main character of The Martian have to do with the other names on the list I wrote above? Some of them are despicable characters who invoke fear and hatred. No one is rooting for Hannibal Lecter to succeed. Gary Gilmore was a blatant killer, so no love lost there. Some of the books I’ve mentioned are badly written or formulaic. So why when they were introduced did people snap them up?

I took a course that talked about the “high concept” novel. This is a novel that for whatever reason, when people hear about it, they feel as if they were just waiting for it to come along. A movie version of this was Star Wars. There had been numerous sci-fi films that did modestly well at the box office, so what was it about Star Wars that the first time I (and many others) saw an ad for it my heart leaped and I said aloud to whomever I was with, “I have to see this movie.” And see it I did, right away, standing in line for hours along with everyone else. We did it because it was an idea whose time was “now.”

Why would anyone care that it was “time” for Hannibal Lecter to come along? Did he appeal to some dark side in the American psyche that needed expression? It’s pretty apparent that Erica Jong’s novel in which she put words to the “zipless fuck” was an idea whose time had come. Women were ready to read about a heroine who wasn’t’ afraid of her sexuality. Jason Bourne exemplified people’s suspicion about the dark side of our country’s security forces. The book Norman Mailer about Gary Gilmore spoke to questions about the nature of killers, and the death penalty. The Da Vinci Code addressed questions of murky religious fanaticism.

And The Martian? Why now? The space program is moribund, the public’s appetite for wildly expensive pie-in-the-sky government projects pretty much dead. Or is it? We’ve fought what seems like endless wars in the Middle East, we’re horrified and fascinated with extreme religious fanaticism, both Christian and Muslim. We’re weary of the constant drumbeat of vicious propaganda on polar ends of the political spectrum….is it any wonder that the story of a man in an elemental struggle for survival that requires his wits is so appealing? When everyday we hear vitriol from any number of angry politicians and their fanatic followers, is it any wonder that we find relief in a character who is irrepressibly cheerful—whose superiors have noted that he always seems to be optimistic?

I didn’t intend for this to be a long-winded examination of the phenomenon of the high concept novel—that would take way too much space. I wanted to suggest that when people crave something hat puts a voice to a strong feeling, if they find it in a book, they’ll latch onto it.

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