Sunday, June 10, 2012

An Ode to Robert Harris
8 works of fiction, 5 works of non-fiction

You won't find Robert Harris sitting in that deadly of all sections known as Literary Fiction, at least not in America. If his books show up anywhere, it's either in the category of General Fiction or that risky sub-genre known as "Thriller". You can find him in the airports and pharmacies if not proudly displayed on the bestseller's table at your local book emporium. For this reason, highbrow literary know-it-alls generally refer to him as their guilty pleasure - you won't find The Fear Index at your local book club, where everyone is going gaga over the sequel to Wolf Hall. And you probably won't find some English grad student doing a thesis about the function of metaphor in FatherlandBut this is one highbrow literary know-it-all who's stepping out of the closet. I'm making this plea to book clubs and grad students everywhere: Robert Harris is a pleasure and there's no need to feel any guilt.

I was struck by this on a recent trip during which Harris' The Ghost (2007) was my only companion. I began reading on my ride to the airport; by the time I reached my destination, I was halfway through. I had barely noticed the passage of time, which is just one of the features of a great book. Too often, books feel laborious, especially when I know I'm supposed to be keeping an eye out for metaphor, analogy and social comment. But The Ghost - concerning a cynical ghostwriter aiding a Tony Blair-like politician with his memoirs - had an effortless narrative that easily made Harris' own politics an inherent part of the story. As important as the social commentary was, it was always secondary to the character and narrative thrust.

This characteristic element is repeated time and again in Harris' work, most recently in The Fear Index, another book which carried me through a long ride on a plane. Here, Harris' topic is our tenuous financial systems and the potential consequences of letting computers make all our decisions. It's his most Crichton-esque novel - it has the compressed timeline of The Andromeda Strain and the scientific prophecy of Prey or Next - and once again he uses both politics and heady techno-speak to propel his characters forward. His novels never feel like they were born to serve a particular issue: his central figures, whether a cynical ghostwriter or a genius mathematician, are intriguing enough that one feels they could sustain interest even if their modern crises were removed.

This ability to carve compelling characters has served Harris well in his historical fiction - Fatherland, Enigma and his various novels set in ancient Rome. The perpetual challenge of historical fiction is to make the novel engaging to readers who have no interest in the era in which the novel is set. Harris' solution is always to centre his narratives around a character whose personal life is all too familiar: whether set in WWII England or ancient Pompeii, his characters are always full of both lust and misery. The historical backdrop is just that: the set in which his actors trod upon.

Harris' writing is always simple and terse: he seems to know his limits when it comes to prose. Which is something of a relief given the number of writers who try to dazzle you with their poetic license. In all cases, his novels simply say what they need to say in order to tell the story; Harris is confidant that his stories themselves will take you along, rather then relying on the way they're being told. Many writers have this conviction but it's not always deserved: when dull writing marries a dull plot, it produces a book that collects dust on the shelf. But Harris is a gifted craftsman when it comes to structure: reading one of his books is the equivalent of wandering through a finely made house.

Many of his books have been turned into films, but don't take the lazy route and watch the movies on Netflix. Like most film treatments, they're different animals: as films, they each have their own strengths (and weaknesses), but as cinematic versions of books, they leave something to be desired. No, Robert Harris probably won't ever win a Booker Prize, but don't hold that against him. And if you are a grad student in search of a thesis, might I suggest comparing The Fear Index to Frankenstein?

Fiction by Robert Harris


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