Sunday 24 April 2016

An American on Paris

I blogged about the world's best-selling author yesterday, and have just read his latest novel Private Paris, co-written with Mark Sullivan and published in the States by Little, Brown and Company.

From the publisher's website:

When Jack Morgan stops by Private's Paris office, he envisions a quick hello during an otherwise relaxing trip filled with fine food and sightseeing. But Jack is quickly pressed into duty after a call from his client Sherman Wilkerson, asking Jack to track down his young granddaughter who is on the run from a brutal drug dealer.

One thing leads to another and the Wilkerson case elides into a sinister plot to destroy French society as we know it (or at least as Patterson knows it). An apparently Islamist group known only by the graffiti tag AB-16 is picking off the nation's 'cultural elite": the director of the Paris Opera is strangled by a stage curtain rope; Rene Picus 'arguably the greatest chef in all of France' is drowned in his own chicken stock; Lourdes Latrelle, 'one of France's foremost intellectuals and best-known writers' is smothered by a pillow in an orgiastic night club; a famous fashion designer stabbed in the heart with a six-inch leather awl. The French culture minister, gets off lightly and is merely shot. Their corpses are left hanging upside-down, an inverted crucifixion. 

This is a terrific idea for a Houellbecquian satire. But Patterson and Sullivan are no Houellbecqs and what we get is what I expect the publishers would call a white knuckle ride. In fact a theme park roller coaster has a lot in common with this kind of novel, and is about as rewarding to criticise. Roller coasters are (theoretically) safe and exciting, and offer customers a controlled, stylised sense of achievement, a quick thrill and an adrenaline rush.  Nothing wrong with that, and if EuroDisney is your idea of France then Private Paris will certainly melt your butter.

Patterson and/or his co-writer Mark Sullivan make it easy for a new reader to join a long-running series that already features more than a dozen novels. The hero, Alex Morgan, ('athletic, blond, hazel-eyed') runs an international security agency called Private - 'the Pinkerton's of the 21st century' - and has a background in the marines, having served in Afghanistan. His marine training kicks in at appropriate moments, and these moments come thick and fast. Confusingly Morgan's ability to speak and understand French  comes and goes as the plot requires, although it hardly matters as there's barely a word in French throughout(and the first is, tellingly, pomme frites). Morgan, who has the cultural gaucheness of Donald Trump turned down to 11, is astonished to meet a bilingual woman ('I shook her hand, wondering bow she could speak both languages with such perfect accents'). She is an art professor and graffiti expert, Michele Herbert - 'beyond-belief good-looking and off-the-charts smart and creative. And yet she didn't seem to take herself too seriously'. She has a chic bob and a tiny mole. Surprisingly they exchange no more than a chaste kiss in the final chapter (admittedly she's coming round from surgery after being shot in the stomach), but if the novel contains one surprise it's the fact that she and Morgan don't become an item. 

At other times he is more self-assured. 'This is the school for artists in France, correct?'. Morgan's brisk interrogation tells us all we need to know - and all we'll get to know - about L'Académie des beaux-arts. I wish I could write this badly so well. 

Although there are seemingly limitless company resources available, Morgan is never happier then when chasing baddies on foot and having moments of supernatural intuition. Alternate chapters cut between his first-person narrative and third person accounts of the bad guys (Major Sauvage and Captain Mfune, two French soldiers who are behind the AB-16 campaign). Morgan doesn't know the names of these two so he calls them respectively 'Whitey' and 'Big Nose'.

We are in a Paris made legible for American readers by a process of rigorous demystification - a city with sidewalks not trottoirs, and a handful of iconic locations. Morgan's surprising familiarity with French-set Broadway musicals (Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera) also gives the reader a prompt, but most of what happens might just as well take place in Manchester, Detroit or Bucharest.  

At moments of exposition Morgan's employee and sidekick Louis Langlois speaks fluent Wikipedian, as when he introduces Morgan to the Institut de France:

'On a practical level, the institute oversees about ten thousand different foundations concerned with everything from French historical sites to museums and castles,' Louis said. 'The five academies within the institute were formed back in the days of Louis XIV, and designed to preserve and celebrate the French culture, language , arts, sciences , and our systems of law and politics, The members represent the best of France, and must be voted in.'

Here's the original Wikipedia entry, by way of comparison:

The Institut de France […] is a French learned society, grouping five académies, the most famous of which is the Académie française. The Institute, located in Paris, manages approximately 1,000 foundations, as well as museums and châteaux open for visit. 

Patterson, or Mason, or perhaps Langlois himself, subtly increases the number of foundations managed by the Institute by a factor of ten - those European republics with their centralised governments and spendthrift socialist economies! 

But enough already. Private Paris cannot be criticised as a novel because it really isn't a novel at all. It's a verbal storyboard for a film - or rather 'a major motion picture'. It's a relentlessly linear, painstakingly chronological narrative, with most chapters given a precise location and time of day (MONTFERMEIL, EASTERN SUBURBS OF PARIS, 10 P.M.). The action consists largely  of breathless chases punctuated by lurid murders, shoot-outs, snatched naps, shaving, showers (lots and lots of showers) and litres of coffee. Between showers the continuity is perfunctory, the twists and turns preposterous. Nothing makes any sense, and nobody involved - including the Parisian police, especially the Parisian police - seems to have the faintest understanding of anything procedural. Langlois (never more than a device) has an unlimited cohort of specialists on tap who (devices all) keep things bowling along. When he injures his knee he admits, almost bashfully: 'I have an old friend, Megam, who specialises in knees'.

I suppose the thinking is that at great speed one doesn't feel the bumps, and to be fair the plotting is so erratic and slapdash that it attains a kind of serene meaninglessness, afloat in a galaxy of random coincidence and happenstance. But when the plot is all bumps then speed isn't really an option, and becomes a dogged if inconsistent disposal of logic, character or plausibility. The chase scenes reminded me of that endless corridor along which the Scooby-doo characters run, passing the same chest of drawers and lampshade every few yards. In fact the whole novel, in its fragmented incoherence, has a cartoon feel.

Patterson adds to this a shrewd top-dressing of current political and social malaise - the Charlie Hebdo murders are referenced, and there's a good deal of anti-Muslim rhetoric voiced by a number of the French characters (though not by Morgan). The tough eastern bandieus where young migrants eke out impoverished and marginalised lives are evoked with a degree of sympathetic understanding that passes in a flash as the real business of running around and letting off firearms takes over.

Is it a page turner? Certainly. The chapters (of which there are 111, spread over 410 pages) rarely exceed four pages in length and it's difficult to resist the temptation to read just one more, then another, and another.  In this respect if no other Private Paris has something in common with Melville's Moby-Dick. 

The prose is brisk and utile with only a few oddities: 'Startle' as an intransitive verb ("I startled awake") occurs three times, at each use of which I startled too. There's the new (to me) adverb 'hostilely'. The dialogue aims at a laconic, world weary tone but is merely weary. Morgan is no Marlowe because Patterson is no Chandler. After staying awake for more than thirty hours Morgan unsurprisingly needs some sleep or, as he puts it, 'some much needed sack time'. This is typical of Patterson's approach, which never really amounts to anything as distinctive as a style: the mundane gets the fancy treatment (cellphones are constantly 'punched' and 'stabbed' and while you or I might simply pull a gun from our pocket, Louis Langlois yanks a Glock), while the dramatic is presented in a downbeat, off-hand manner:

"Merde!" Louis shouted at one point. "Hold on!"
    Cars skidded and honked all around us.
    Cars crashed all around us.

I admired that (and we can leave it to the movie to flesh out the details at great expense).

Would I read another Patterson, or Patterson? Yeah, sure; but when to find the time? Would I re-read Private Paris? Of course not. Would I watch a movie based on the novel? Hell yes. But in a hotel, or on a plane. Not at home and not at the cinema. Ideally with Jack Morgan played by a woman. And the setting changed to Vancouver or Sydney. And the whole thing played for laughs.

As a boy I gobbled up the novels of Alistair Maclean - he of Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles dare, When Eight Bells Toll, The Guns of Navarone and many more. He doesn't have a dedicated website - surely now the only sign of literary afterlife. Is he even in print now? Patterson sees himself, with good reason, as a brand and is happy for books by other writers to appear under his name What will endure of Patterson's huge oeuvre isn't likely to be any individual novel but his ability to oversee, to endorse, a steady supply of the kind of thing that the people who enjoy this kind of thing like. 

Quotations © James Patterson / Mark Sullivan / Little, Brown and Company.

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