The Virtues of Genre Literature

I am an unreconstructed admirer of genre fiction and have read mountains of dreck to find a few worthwhile things (of course I think that about the so-called classics, too).

In any event, the following is from a book called Devils in Exile by a guy named Chuck Hogan. Novel is OK (Hogan wrote Prince of Thieves which the Ben Affleck movie, The Town, is based on); but here is where genre literature occasionally becomes something more intriguing. The character speaking is named Brad Royce and what follows is his philosophy of life as explained to Neal Maven:

“The Tomorrow Man theory. It’s pretty basic. Today, right here, you are who you are. Tomorrow, you will be who you will be. Each and every night, we lie down to die, and each morning we arise, reborn. Now, those who are in good spirits, with strong mental health, they look out for their Tomorrow Man. They eat right today, they drink right today, they go to sleep early today–all so that Tomorrow Man, when he awakes in his bed reborn as Today Man, thanks Yesterday Man. He looks upon him fondly as a child might a good parent. He knows that someone–himself–was looking out for him. He feels cared for, and respected. Loved, in a word. And now he has a legacy to pass on to his subsequent selves…. But those who are in a bad way, with poor mental health, they constantly leave these messes for Tomorrow Man to clean up. They eat whatever the hell they want, drink like the night will never end, and then fall asleep to forget. They don’t respect Tomorrow Man because they don’t think through the fact that Tomorrow Man will be them. So then they wake up, new Today Man, groaning at the disrespect Yesterday Man showed them. Wondering why does that guy–myself–keep punishing me? But they never learn and instead come to settle for that behavior, eventually learning to ask and expect nothing of themselves. They pass along these same bad habits tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow [don’t you love the Shakespearean reference here which Hogan must get even if his character Royce does not!], and it becomes psychologically genetic, like a curse. Looking at you now, Maven, I can see exactly where you fall on this spectrum. You are a man constantly trying to fix today what Yesterday Man did to you. You make up your bed, you clean those dirty dishes from the night before, and pledge not to start drinking until six, thinking that’s the way to keep an even keel. But in reality you’re always playing catch-up. I know this because I’ve been there. The thing is–you can’t fix the mistakes of Yesterday. Yesterday Man is dead, he’s gone forever, and blame and atonement aren’t worth a damn. What you can do is help yourself today. Eat a vegetable. Read a book. Cut that hair of yours. Leave Tomorrow Man something more than a headache and a jam-packed colon. Do for Tomorrow Man what you would have wanted Yesterday Man to do for you.” (pp 36-38)

What an intriguing sense of near existential self-creation–a descendent of Wordsworth’s great line, “the child is father to the man.” I love the phrase “psychologically genetic”–I’m sure I’ll use it at some point. A fascinating rendering of a life philosophy worked out by a limited character. Pretty cool.

The Original Person Theory.

Robert Crais is known for two series–Elvis Cole and Joe Pike (though they appear in each others’ novels) and a few stand-alone novels. The novels are, for the most part, good adventure stories and mysteries. On occasion a character has a moment particularly worth noting. Here is the laconic tough guy Joe Pike’s observation of a sleeping woman he has sworn to protect:

“With her asleep, Pike believed he was seeing her Original Person. Pike believed each person created himself or herself [a sort of existential position–again]; you built yourself from the inside out, with the tensions and will of the inside person holding the outside person together. The outside person was the face you showed the world; it was your mask, your camouflage, your message, and perhaps, your means. It existed only so long as the inside person held it together, and when the inside person could no longer hold the mask together, the outside person dissolved and you would see the original person. Pike had observed that sleep could sometimes loosen the hold. Booze, dope, and extreme emotions could all loosen the hold; the weaker the grasp, the more easily loosened. Then you saw the person within the person. Pike often pondered these things. The trick was to reach a place where the inside person and the outside person were the same. The closer someone got to this place the stronger they would become. Pike believed that [his friend Elvis] Cole was such a person, his inside and outside very close to being one and the same. Pike admired him for it. Pike also pondered whether Cole had accomplished this through design and effort, or was one with himself because oneness was his natural state. Either way, Pike considered this a feat of enormous import….”

Notice how close we are to Jung’s notion of persona (and integration and individuation) or Freud’s of the ego. In Ellison’s Invisible Man, Jack the bear renders a similar idea in the following way “Articles, telegrams and many mailings went out over my signature–some of which I’d written, but most not. I was publicized, identified with the organization by both word and image in the press. On the way to work one late spring morning I counted fifty greetings from people I didn’t know, becoming aware that there were two of me: the old self that slept a few hours a night and dreamed sometimes of my grandfather and Bledsoe and Brockway and Mary, the self that flew without wings and plunged from great heights; and the new public self that spoke for the brotherhood and was becoming so much more important than the other that I seemed to run a foot race against myself.”

In Crais’ novel (“The Watchman”), Pike continues his observation with a meditation on that Original Person and what happens when one’s Original Person is forced to change. Again, pretty cool.

Genre literature can address the great themes that great literature addresses. What I admire about both of these quotations is the plainness of the language appropriate to the mind of the character.

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1 Comment

Filed under books and learning, popular culture, teaching

One response to “The Virtues of Genre Literature

  1. Young Dan

    Can’t wait for some more entries!

    “Don’t go try doing the right thing, boyo. You haven’t had the practice.”
    -Dudley

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