Saturday, September 26, 2009

Wish fulfillment

In preparation for a review I'll be writing for the Second Pass, I'm currently re-reading Hilary Mantel's brilliant new novel, Wolf Hall, and it's reminded me of an e-mail exchange I had recently with Jenny Davidson of Light Reading about Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--and why I seem to be the only crime novel fan (and maybe the only person, period) who actively dislikes it.*

Jenny nailed it, explaining that I didn't like Larsson's book largely because I'm not into wish-fulfillment novels--and that's what the novel's two leads represent. Mikael and Salander are smarter, more talented, more dramatic, better looking, and sexier versions of ourselves, engaged in more exciting and dramatic adventures than we ever encounter. Jenny's right: it just doesn't appeal to me. I don't buy it, and, more, I don't really even want it: life is fine without approaching perfection, and as someone with generally low ambitions, the few dreams I have are too reasonable to require authorial intervention.

What re-reading Wolf Hall has reminded me is that there is one particular kind of wish-fulfillment to which I am susceptible: that of simple, understated functional hyper-competence. I've written before, in joking fashion, about Mantel's portrayal of Thomas Cromwell's wide range of abilities, and how those help create an aura of fear, even awe, that is a great help in his multifarious activities on behalf of Henry VIII. Without ever bragging, or seeming to place too much importance on the fact, Cromwell demonstrates again and again that in almost any field he knows what he's doing. And even though I know that what I'm reading is fiction--however much the historical Cromwell may underlie Mantel's portrait--I find myself thrilling to that competence every time.

A similar feeling draws me to Richard Stark's Parker. Though he is clearly not a character Stark wants us to emulate, or even like, at the same time his relentless drive for perfection is hard not to admire. He is the best at what he does, and while he doesn't make me want to rob banks, he does make me want to be that capable.

Of course, to remain convincing such functional competence has to stay just this side of perfection. Parker does make mistakes, and even Cromwell can't retain the king's favor forever. On the other hand--to take an example that's been in the news lately, Robert Langdon, hero of Dan Brown's novels, is so endlessly, flawlessly skilled that his perfection quickly becomes risible, smacking far more of cack-handed authorial grant than of a lifetime of dedication.

But in the hands of a skilled author--like when Mantel shows us Thomas Cromwell casually calculating the value of Thomas More's carpet, then filing the answer away to use later against his rival--such demonstrated skill calls up some long-dormant childhood definition of masculinity, a belief that a real man is one who can do things. I know better, know the many ways in which such a definition is limited, complicated, even ridiculous . . . but reading about Cromwell I suddenly find myself wondering again about the skills I don't have, thinking maybe I should take boxing lessons, or brush up my Spanish, or improve my dismal swimming skills.

Nah. More likely I'll just continue with my autumn project of trying to re-learn how to play the piano. Surely a man who can make a strong martini and play "One for My Baby" can count on folks cutting him some slack in other areas, right? {Of course, first I have to manage the much simpler "Swanee River." Baby steps, baby steps.}


  1. I'm reminded of what I call the Wolverine Corollary: it's possible for anyone to be the best there is at what they do, provided "what they do" is a sufficiently specific set of things.

  2. That's a great term, Ted, and remarkably functional. I'll definitely be adopting it.

  3. There is a gordian knot of influence and anxiety concerning Dragon Tattoos pertaining to myself and my best friend Joel who viewed (the cinematic treatment) such this summer after his wedding in Greece (Lena's Swedish BTW).

    The gist remains that I have been drawn to Hilary Mantel for a time and remain intrigued by her historical approaches to both the French Revolution and that particular timely melange of Henry V, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell.

    All the best.

  4. Anonymous6:54 PM

    Stumbled across your blog today. :)

    'Hyper-competence' is exactly right; Cromwell seems to possess a precisely furnished mind, almost geometrically correct. I was very interested in Mantel's referencing of the 'art of memory' - an architecture of the mind - which seems to me to entirely fit Cromwell's character.

    Thanks for the review. I've made my own at my blog if you've time to read it.