I think that Tom Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October might be the most uncool English-language novel
In my post on Carl Wilson’s attempt to understand Celine Dion, I posited that Tom Clancy fills the same social space as Celine Dion–mass market art targeted towards older middle-class people–and, thus, has the same sort of inherent uncoolness. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Tom Clancy is one of the most uncool* writers that I know of. He’s not a guilty pleasure, like Twilight or The Hunger Games. No one attempts to rehabilitate him, as people have been doing with Stephen King for ages. No, he just sort of sits there. Plop. His books appear and disappear without making any kind of societal impact.
The more I thought about Clancy, the more interested I became. I decided that I was going to read one, utterly, representative Tom Clancy novel. Through assiduous Googling, I discovered that the general opinion is that his first novel, The Hunt For Red October, is his best (it’s also, thankfully, his shortest–although it’s still hellaciously long).
And then I read it.
I can’t say that I enjoyed it very much, but it was also not a painful task. The plot kept moving along and my eyes moved with it. But I was never “caught up” in the novel. If I hadn’t been reading it for sociological reasons, I definitely would’ve stopped reading it at half a hundred points.
It’s very easy to criticize this book, and I feel bad about doing it, because I’m not someone who reads books solely in order to tear them to shreds. But the flaws of the book are so interesting. It has exactly the flaws that you wouldn’t expect a mass market thriller to have.
For instance, when popular books are badly written, I expect them to be badly written in the same way as Twilight, in which the writing is sparse and unimaginative. I expect the book to be missing the details that would give it life. And I expect that the words that are there will be cliche, using stock descriptions and phrasings. But I don’t expect a book to be actively bad at the bare mechanics of story-telling: the part where it lets us know what is actually happening.
At times, The Hunt For Red October is so confusing, on a sentence by sentence level, that it’s simply unbelievable. Dialogue is written in such a way that it’s difficult to tell who is speaking. And in the ‘action’ scenes, it’s difficult to tell who is where and what is happening.
The other strange flaw is how boring the novel is. Normally, I would expect a thriller to have some kind of thrilling going on. You know…like…a set of progressively more tense situations? That, to me, seems like the bare minimum requirement for a thriller.
But apparently I was wrong. It’s just a series of meetings interspersed by the movement of people. Yep. People just get together, talk about some development, and make a decision; then we see someone on a plane going somewhere else, followed by another meeting, where they react to whatever people did in the previous meeting, and then make a decision that will provide the fodder for the next meeting. At no point do we get any sense that there’s anything at stake here, other than maybe a little embarassment for the Soviet Union. I guess it’s theoretically possible that the Soviets could sink The Red October, but since we never see anything actually happen, it’s hard to get any sense of tension.
In the class I took last summer, Nick Mamatas said that the secret to commercial success was to write a “boring thriller”. I found it hard to believe that a book that was actively boring could succeed. But I was definitely wrong.
The other flaws in the book are stuff that I was expecting. The characters are all laughably perfect (the hero, Jack Ryan, is a former marine lieutenant with graduate degrees in history and economics who, in addition to being a CIA analyst, also made an independent fortune as a day-trader). And the politics are so right-wing and jingoistic that it’s not even upsetting (the story heavily implies that the reason Soviet captain Marko Ramius was able to retain his sense of integrity, even in the Soviet system, is that his grandmother used to tell him bedtime stories that were taken from the Bible).
Okay, that was the bad stuff. Now, you might be wondering, was there any good stuff? Anything at all?
And I will say…yes.
The way that the submariners in the book interact with technology is kind of interesting. The whole thing is played off as something of a quasi-mystical art. The book constantly relies on moments of genius intuition. Of course the men in the story are highly educated, but they’re also shown as being, in some way, attuned to their machinery. In a world in which (it seemed), technology was obsolescing the old ways of fighting wars, perhaps this approach was a way to restore a cowboy swagger to a job that is, essentially, about sitting in a room and pushing buttons.
And while I was bored with it, I was also intrigued by Tom Clancy’s vision of war. It felt very realistic, as if he was peeling away some of the silliness that had accreted around warfare. In his vision, 1980s warfare is essentially about maneuver. It’s about sitting up on top of a bridge and then using that heights to spit on the Soviets passing underneath. The point is to count coup on the enemy and show him that, if you wanted to, then you could kill him. But in this world, the greatest heroes are the ones who refuse to fire, even when they want to (even, in some cases, when they themselves are being shot at). The reason that so much of the book takes place around conference tables is because, in Tom Clancy’s view, that’s what war amounts to, these days. There’s not much place for swagger and glory in his portrayal of warfare. Rather, it’s a very cold thing, that’s played for stakes that are, at the same time, unfathomably huge and laughably minor.
In someone else’s hands, I could imagine that this kind of boardroom warfare might be very interesting.
Anyway, I am not unhappy that I gave Tom Clancy a chance, but I don’t think I am ever again going to let him rent out my eyeballs.
*Although, I will say that “cool” matters rather less in literature than it does in other art forms. I mean, is any novel really cool? Actually, even “cool” is becoming less and less important to me. Nowadays, it’s rare that a person can impress me by liking something “cool”. It seems like cool is a status game for people without access to other forms of status (like money or jobs). Now that I and my peers do have access to those forms of status, it seems a little beside the point to still be trafficking in status symbols like books and movies and clothing. Thus, I feel a little bad to have called Tom Clancy’s book “uncool”. It feels like I’m propping up a value system that I no longer believe in. However, I searched and searched for another word, and I just couldn’t find one. In this instance, “uncool” is exactly the right word.