Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s Concussive Collaboration
Collaboration is a murky trade, and it covers quite a range. Whether you’re siding with the enemy in Nazi-occupied France or laying out the lyrics to “Edelweiss” so that Richard Rodgers can devise a tune to match, you’re a collaborator. But no joining of forces is more difficult to fathom than the partnership between two writers. Writing, like dying, is one of those things that should be done alone or not at all. In each case, loved ones may hover around and tender their support, but, in the end, it’s up to you. So, when two writers decide to merge, what do they actually do?
Well, I’ve heard rumors of novelist couples who produce alternate chapters: one for you, one for me. A tidy scheme for twin souls but otherwise, assuredly, a prelude to divorce. Also, how can you guarantee that the cracks won’t show between your styles? John Fletcher, a popular and gifted playwright, once hooked up with some old slacker named Shakespeare to bring us “Henry VIII,” which was first performed in 1613, and linguistic analysis can propose, scene by scene, who delivered which slices of the cake. (Fletcher, who liked to get by with a little help from his friends, later conjured a play with three other writers. I bet that was peaceful.) Even so, nobody is sure about the sequence of events—whether Fletcher rounded off what Shakespeare couldn’t be bothered to complete, or whether the play was genuinely conceived in perfect harmony, with one guy sitting on the other’s lap, their fingers interlaced around the quill.
All of which brings us to another famous William. Bill Clinton, who can write, has hooked up with James Patterson, who can’t, but whose works have sold more than three hundred and seventy-five million copies, most of them to happy and contented customers for whom good writing would only get in the way. This unlikely pact has resulted in “The President Is Missing” (Knopf and Little, Brown), which we must, not without reservations, describe as a thriller. Get a load of this: “The stun grenades detonate, producing a concussive blast of 180 decibels.” A hundred and eighty, mark you, and not a decibel less! If that isn’t thrilling, I can’t imagine what is.
The book itself is a concussive blast of five hundred and thirteen pages. Though not as massive as “My Life” (2004), Clinton’s autobiography, which was twice as long, it’s a welcome return to bulk after his slender offerings of recent years—“Giving: How Each of Us Can Save the World” (2007) and “Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy” (2011). Neither of these volumes, it is fair to say, was a thriller. Both contained plenty of sage advice but were scandalously short of car chases, eruptive fireballs, and missile-bearing helicopters, and that is where the new book has the edge: “The Viper arrives, firing another Hellfire and completely incinerating the attack boat.” The world is saved, not by giving, still less by economic strength, but by the efforts of one man. Guess who.
Jon Duncan is the President of the United States, “fifty years old and rusty.” The events in the novel are designed to put the shine back on. Duncan is, by his own account, “a war hero with rugged good looks and a sharp sense of humor,” not to mention a beguiling modesty. He served in Operation Desert Storm, in Iraq, where he was wounded. He is also a former governor of North Carolina. His wife died not long ago, and now it’s just him and his daughter: the exact situation, as it happens, that confronted Michael Douglas in “The American President,” Rob Reiner’s 1995 movie, a direct precursor of “The West Wing.” The President in that show, played by Martin Sheen, suffered from multiple sclerosis, and Duncan, too, has a medical burden, grave yet controllable, to bear: immune thrombocytopenia, which means that his blood won’t clot as it should, and which leaves him with bruising on the legs. His physician warns that he could have a stroke at any moment, especially if he is under stress.
Cue the stress. Duncan is facing possible impeachment, partly because his opponents are careerist weasels but mainly because, according to leaked reports, he held a telephone conversation with “the most dangerous and prolific cyberterrorist in the world,” Suliman Cindoruk, who leads an organization known as Sons of Jihad. (“He’s Turkish-born, but he’s not Muslim,” Duncan says. That faint sound you can hear is our two authors treading very, very carefully.) Now, if the opening chapter is to be trusted, Duncan is to answer for this bizarre and perhaps treasonable lapse in front of a House Select Committee, many of whose members pine for his fall from grace. “They can impeach me for anything they want,” Duncan remarks. “It doesn’t have to be a crime.” A nice line, which, depending on your point of view, either glances back at President Clinton’s own tribulations, in his second term, or peers ahead to the putative deposing of Donald Trump.
Another problem: a female assassin is in the offing. We are as yet unaware of her targets, but she’s no ordinary killer, for every aspect of her craft is tinged with Johann Sebastian Bach, including her weapon of choice: “Anna Magdalena is a thing of beauty, a matte-black semiautomatic rifle.” Let us hope that her passions last for two and a half hours, preferably in the company of a hunk named Mr. Goldberg. But she’s not the only incoming threat. There are also a couple of computer wonks, motives unclear: the first, “a cross between a Calvin Klein model and a Eurotrash punk rocker,” if you can picture such a creature; the second, a frightened fellow who arranges a covert meeting with the President at Nationals Park. Nail-gnawing stuff. No wonder Duncan dreams of sitting there in the stadium, crisis-free, with a hot dog and a beer. And he knows which beer, too: “At a ball game, there is no finer beverage than an ice-cold Bud,” he says to himself. Not since Daniel Craig practically ruined “Casino Royale” by pimping his watch to Eva Green (“Rolex?” “Omega.” “Beautiful”) has a product been placed with such unblushing zeal.
The reason Duncan can attend the game, alone, is that he’s wearing a Nationals cap, plus thickened eyebrows and spectacles. Aided by this impenetrable disguise, he slips out of the White House and, bereft of a security detail, goes on the lam. Hence the title of this book. The notion that the Commander-in-Chief could be elusive, camouflaged, or absent without leave is a promising one—“Dave” (1993), starring Kevin Kline, mined it for comic value—and it’s odd to see how little attention Patterson and Clinton (who may sometimes have prayed that he could go missing) pay to their main conceit. You’d think that such a vanishing act would raise an unrelenting hue and cry, but the media aspect is scarcely touched upon, and the entire novel has an air of narrative lockdown, with Duncan seldom interacting with anyone beyond his immediate circle or his international peers, even after he has flown the official coop. His pronouncements, on the page, evince an ardent faith in government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but you badly want him to hang out with the people. Maybe all Presidents feel that way, and I believed in Duncan’s admission, at once touching and exasperated, on page 99: “I haven’t opened my own car door for a decade.” The fingerprints of Clinton are all over that line. So where else can we find him in this book?
Not in the sex, that’s for sure, because there ain’t any. I’ve looked. It will be the first thing, let’s face it, for which hostile readers will hunt, but the forty-second President of the United States is smart enough to give any hint of carnality the widest of berths. There are teasers, naturally, but they lead nowhere. “I uncurl the gooseneck stem of the microphone so that it is taut, fully extended,” Duncan says, as early as the fourth page, yet the goosing goes no further. Yes, the Bach-flavored assassin had a lover, but “she slept with him no more than three times a week to maximize his potency,” a regime that statisticians alone are likely to find arousing. Coders, similarly, are given something to moon over: “There is nothing so sexy as a good, destructive overwrite.” Only once, in the entire novel, do two regular people come close to tossing aside all inhibitions and getting it on:
“Noya.” I give her a long hug, enjoying the comfort of her warm embrace.
“I could stay, Jonny,” she whispers in my ear.
Hot stuff, except that the huggee in question is the Prime Minister of Israel, with her “delicate, wrinkled hands,” who’s about to board a Marine helicopter with the German Chancellor. She could indeed stay, though not in Duncan’s lonely bed. Not tonight.
In 2003, in downtown Little Rock, there was an exhibition devoted to Bill Clinton’s favorite books. It was solid fare, and doughtily unmodish. T. S. Eliot, Yeats, Orwell, Sophocles, and Marcus Aurelius were present, and also Reinhold Niebuhr (of whom Barack Obama, likewise, is a devotee). There was a face-off between biographies of Lincoln and Leopold II of Belgium. There was even something entitled “Living History,” by Hillary Rodham Clinton. How on earth did that make the cut? Then, last year, on Facebook, the former President issued a fresh roster of recommendations, this time with extra quirks: Oliver Sacks and Carly Simon, a book about the making of “High Noon,” and “House of Spies,” by the indefatigable Daniel Silva, whose recurrent leading man, over seventeen books, displays a knack for espionage, judicious homicide, and art restoration.
The literary diet that emerges from these lists, mixing disposable genre fiction with unrepentant classics and, for the most part, skipping the indigestibly middlebrow, is one that I happen to share. And, if you’d told me, in strictest confidence, that Clinton was now planning a novel, I would have wagered that mysteries and thrills, with a topdressing of moral rumination, would be on the menu. And so it proves.
Yet the puzzle remains: why James Patterson? Why not Daniel Silva? It’s understandable that Clinton, with limited time on his hands, might well scout for a partner; you really need a Sundance Kid, if you want to be a Butch. Clinton could have taken his pick from the ranks of American novelists, though whether Don DeLillo would have leaped at the chance is open to debate. Personally, I’d have plumped for Martin Cruz Smith, who has demonstrated, since the first two sentences of “Gorky Park” (1981), that the English language lies at his command, whereas Patterson is helplessly at its mercy, as even the briefest browse of his corpus will confirm. Still, what a corpus: almost two hundred books to date, of which sixty-six have headed the Times best-seller list. In 2016, Forbes estimated his net worth at around seven hundred million dollars, a sum that would have made even Marcus Aurelius ditch the Stoicism and buy a yacht. If Clinton, like all aspiring novelists, yearned for his book to sell, he chose the right wingman. It could be called “The President Is Cashing In.”
But the gods are just, and although they denied the gift of literary grace to Patterson, they bestowed on him an even rarer skill. As a collaborator, he’s the top. Barely can he sketch an outline without reaching for a sidekick. So numerous are his assistants that one has to ask, less in snotty disapproval than in ontological awe, how many of Patterson’s books are actually “his,” and to what extent he is a writer at all, as opposed to a trademark or a brand. Were he to unearth a distant ancestor, in cinquecento Florence, whose output is mostly attributed to “the workshop of Giacomo Paterfilio,” no one would be surprised.
Last year, in a splendid article in Digital Humanities Quarterly, Simon Fuller and James O’Sullivan applied stylometric analysis to a variety of Patterson’s texts—much as earlier scholars attempted to sift the Fletcher from the Shakespeare in “Henry VIII”—and reported that “Patterson’s collaborators perform the vast majority of the actual writing.” The article, far from deriding his approach, connects it to older habits of cultural production, recalling the auspicious stamp of authority in the phrase “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and noting that Alexandre Dumas, in the mid-nineteenth century, ran what was basically an assembly line, staffed by lowly sub-scribes. Fuller and O’Sullivan conclude that Patterson’s œuvre is “exemplary of the experience of leisure-time in late capitalism.” Just what I was thinking.
We are left, therefore, with a copy of “The President Is Missing” and a consuming question: who ghosted whom? Did Patterson supply the bones of the story, as is his wont, and Clinton tack on the flesh? Or did Patterson reverse his usual process, merely tinkering and smoothing after Clinton, musing on his years in office, had brought forth a plot—in essence, his reverie of responsible power?
Whatever the ratio of their labors, one thing is certain: everything you expect from Patterson is here, unadulterated, right down to the ritual mixing of the metaphors—“She had to bite her tongue and accept her place as second fiddle,” say, or “the sorrowful, deer-in-the-headlights look is long gone. The gloves have come off.” Fauna, for some reason, bring out the very best in the makers of this book. The stealthy assassin, seeking a forest perch from which to shoot, has a Bambi moment: “Along the way, little animals bounce out of her path.” On a more rueful note, “Augie looks at me like a lost puppy, in a foreign place with no partner anymore, nothing to call his own except his smartphone.” So true, and so very sad. It’s not enough to give a dog a phone.
In short, not even an ex-President, for all his heft and influence, can mar the charms of so transcendent a technique, or curb its ability to suck us in. When Duncan tells us, “Adrenaline crashes through my body,” we are meant to get caught in the crash. It goes without saying that “The President Is Missing” is written in the present tense, or, to be accurate, in a specialist subset of that tense. Think of it as the hysteric present. “I grab my phone and dial my go-to guy.” “I hit the bottom of the stairs.” “I punch out the phone call and flip on the overhead light.” Who would not follow such a man, and heed his call? Make no mistake, though. If he needs to play dirty, he will: “I terminate the connection and walk out of the room.” You want dirtier? Duncan can do that, too: “I can get pretty creative with my cussing.” No shit.
What fascinates me, above all, are the people of Pattersonia, that fabled land where sentences go to die. Its inhabitants carry and express themselves like eager extraterrestrials who have completed all but one module of their human-conversion course: “Volkov’s eyebrows flare a bit.” Or “Augie lets out a noise that sounds like laughter.” But isn’t. And what can you do with a line like “her face once again becomes a poker-face wall,” except revel in its delicious tautology? Time and again, the folks in this very peculiar novel indulge in gestures that would be difficult—and physically unwise—to emulate, even in the safety of your own home. “Carolyn tucks in her lips.” “Casey falls to a crouch, gripping her hair.” One character has “eyes in a focused squint,” a second performs “a sweeping nod,” while a third “shakes his head, hiccups a bitter chuckle.” As opposed to chuckling a bitter hiccup. That would be absurd.
Not that Duncan is immune, with his weirdly alien moves: “My head on a swivel, I focus on Devin.” Fie, his very locomotion is a riddle: “I break into a jog, something close to a full sprint.” Well, which is it, a sprint or a jog? A jig, maybe? Or a sprog? Whatever the case, it’s patently arduous, because, three pages later, the poor guy can’t stop puffing. “I blow out air, my nerves still jangled,” he says, temporarily transformed into a porpoise. And again, “My pulse banging, I take a breath.” The whole question of air, in fact, seems vital to both Patterson and Clinton, forever ruffling the pages of their busy book. If you can read a sentence like “The wind off the river lifts his hair,” for instance, without thinking of the current American President, you’re doing better than me. Duncan takes “one of the deepest breaths I’ve ever taken, sweet, delicious oxygen,” which is a relief to anybody who feared that he was giggling through this major emergency on helium. Most stirring of all is the emotional flatulence that blares out when the pressure is on: “A collective exhalation of air escapes from the room as the world’s foremost cyberops experts gasp in wonder at the empty screen.”
You can’t blame them for gasping, though, since the core of the book’s plot is technological, and the primary tool of aggression is not a warhead but a virus—not any old bug, mind you, but “a devastating stealth wiper virus,” initiated by a villain who wishes to “reboot the world.” This master plan may be timely and plausible, but I’m not altogether convinced that either Patterson or Clinton is, as yet, a master of the vocabulary that this strand of the story demands. At one point, we are met by monkey emojis instead of prose, and at another by “a bunch of scrambled jumble,” a phrase that would not disgrace the poetry of Edward Lear. A computer, we learn, “changes from a black screen to fuzz, then a somewhat clear screen split in two.” Loveliest of all, and a reminder that both authors are revered senior citizens, is their desire to help those who are less digitally dexterous than themselves: “That word is trending, as they say on the Internet right now.”
Let’s be fair, though. Somehow, “The President Is Missing” rises above its blithely forgivable faults. It’s a go-to read. It maximizes its potency and fulfills its mission. There’s a twist or two of which Frederick Forsyth might be proud. So, if you want to make the most of your late-capitalist leisure-time, hit the couch, crack a Bud, punch the book open, focus your squint, and enjoy. Moreover, in two important respects, this novel is a dead ringer for “War and Peace.” First, there’s the cunning brevity of the chapters—a hundred and twenty-nine of them—that makes a long story zip by. And, second, there’s the chutzpah with which Clinton (Patterson, I would suggest, may have stepped aside at this stage) waits until the twilight of the novel and then, like Tolstoy, squares his shoulders and expounds, in fiction-free form, his politico-historical thoughts. The gloves come off the deer. It’s notionally Duncan who is speaking, addressing Congress, but we know whose noble words he is declaiming. “Today it’s ‘us versus them’ in America. Politics is little more than blood sport,” he warns. Yet the man does not despair. Things could improve. He still sees the city upon the hill. “I want the United States to be free and prosperous, peaceful and secure, and constantly improving for all generations to come.” Amen. ♦
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June 5, 2018 at 10:19AM