John Grisham the Sociologist

EDITORIAL, 11 Jan 2010

#96 | Johan Galtung

In front of me are about half of Grisham’s 22 books, each about 450 pp, brick sized bestsellers, fed to passengers boarding airports all over the world.  Thus, exiting from Delhi recently no book by or about Gandhi was in sight (business manuals, yes), but Grisham.  So I am negative, maybe envious (oh yes, some?).

Not at all.  I am a fan.  That he is a superb storyteller of books in command of the reader–meals, sleep, anything–is part of the deal if you submit to one.  Submit, and enjoy.

But there is more to it.  As they used to say about a Norwegian-American, Torstein Veblen: if he did not write so well and was so entertaining, he would have come through as a major economist.  But his style was not tight-lipped and constipated.  Nor indeed was-is Gore Vidal of whom they say that if he did not–and so on–he would have been recognized as one of the best historians of those more or less United States; not of, but in America.  So I add for Grisham that if he did not–and so on–he would be recognized as a leading sociologist of those same USA.

Thanks God, inshallah, ojala: they all wrote and write the way they did.  Grisham presents sociology in a liquid form that flows more easily than the less digestable professional stuff.

To justify this some content of some books must be shared, but before that some reflections on the subject matter, lo social, the “social thing” to paraphrase Durkheim into recent American.   The subject matter is not individuals, that is for psychology.  Nor is it how individuals relate, that is for social psychology.  Nor is it just the actor, the role, the social mask of the individual, like a judge, a senator.  But that comes close.  The subject matter is actors interacting. It is relational, structural.  Nets, not knots (Panikkar).

That takes care of an objection to Grisham: he never digs deeply into the personality of his numerous dramatis personae.  He is not a Philip Roth, his compatriot, who does exactly that, wonderfully, and probably will earn a Nobel Prize in literature. Like the peace prize also very Western.  The West is about the rise and depth and fall of the individual, the prize is for deep psychology.  Maybe a reason why Ibsen did not get one, maybe he revealed more about the logic of the interplay in bourgeois society than about the depth of his many personalities?

Grisham presents us with social types and their interplay, and, deliberate or not, that is where his genius is located.  They come alive as persons, but the X-ray photo is not of any one of them but of their interplay, in conflict and cooperation.

Grisham is a lawyer by training, and Law, or the lack thereof rather, is the axis around which the books revolve.  A well chosen theme to make US society with its heavy overload of lawyers, including in Congress, more transparent.  And they play their games with the whole USA as a pawn, so his books bring in the total system with an astounding amount of detail giving a rich context to anyone, an FBI agent, CIA director, business tycoon, pilot, taxi driver, farmer, housewife, waitress, anyone. No nook or corner of that vast structure escapes Grisham’s pen.

The basic theme is the use of the system for personal gain, be that money, power, sex, in any combination. Including operating an ingenious scheme from the inside of a prison (The Brethren), writing fake propositions to gays in search of some love in order to extort money to keep silent when they take the bait.  Only possible when a cooperating lawyer on the outside has visiting rights to the delinquent judges doing time on the inside.  Unlikely?  Fiction, well written, nothing more?

Well, read his one non-fiction book of justice gone very wrong, about “murder and injustice in a small town”, The Innocent Man, and ask yourself, how does this true story differ from the others?  And that is exactly why Grisham’s writings come through to the reader; it just as well could have been true.  His fiction today could become non-fiction tomorrow.

As many point out, Grisham sets the stage for a struggle between Good and Evil.  Evil squeezes or breaks through some holes in the system, or cracks them open; Good protects, heals and plugs the holes.  There is the theme of the One against the Many.  But then isn’t this also a part of the American Tragedy?  The whistleblower?  The Dogooder?  No reason why Grisham should not use his skills to include these roles in the repertory of a deeply dualist society, so manichean in identifying Good and Evil that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy with many ways of enacting Armageddon, The Final Battle, The Final Court Case?

However, as the deftly crafted books roll off his assembly line I feel a certain pessimism creeping into his authorship.   Good tended to overcome Evil in the earlier books.  The system showed its self-healing capacity.  More recently, however, Evil, the crooks, tend to get off the hook with impunity.  The inside brethren enjoy the fruits of extortion upon release, sacrificing the helpful lawyer on the outside.  The Associate in the book of that title–blackmailed by the FBI to do an inside spy job for them in the world’s biggest law firm (a terrible work place) about two competing arms manufacturers–gets off unscathed.  But so does the FBI, leaving no trail behind.

There will be more books.  A fan’s wish: take your scanning device to the USA outside the USA, John, to Afghanistan, Iraq. To the lawyers, there and in DC.  Few can do a better job.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Jan 2010.

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