Michael Crichton — Congo, Sphere, and Eaters of the Dead

Curiosity and recommendations inspired me to read Michael Crichton, if one can really call that activity reading, because he isn’t a very good author; as far as I can tell, his one claim to literary style or merit is Eaters of the Dead, a decent novel with a structure that compensates for Crichton’s weaknesses.

Reading Crichton came in part for reasons mentioned in “On books, taste, and distaste,” where Jason Fisher asked:

Do you do any reading purely for non-intellectual pleasure, I wonder? I, for instance, read Palahniuk novels, Crichton novels too, and pulpy fantasy and science fiction, and so on. I know this isn’t great literature, but because I know that, and don’t expect it to be, I can enjoy it for what it is.

I answered, “probably,” but noted that a book needs to reach some baseline level of linguistic and literary skill before I could enjoy it. But most of Crichton’s work doesn’t get there, and I agree with Martin Amis’ comment:

That Michael Crichton gets on any lists is a bad sign: the best review I’ve seen of his wildly popular and equally wildly uneven, and usually bad, work is in Martin Amis’ The War Against Cliché, when he praises Crichton at his best as “a blend of Stephen Jay Gould and Agatha Christie” and then discusses what’s wrong in the context of The Lost World, but it could be transposed to most of his Crichton’s novels:

The job of characterization has been delegated to two or three thrashed and downtrodden adverbs. ‘Dodgson shook his head irritably’; ‘ “Handle what?” Dodgson said irritably.’ So Dodgson is irritable. But ‘ “I tell you it’s fine,” Levine said irritably.’ ‘Levine got up irritably.’ So Levine is irritable too. ‘Malcolm stared forward gloomily.’ ‘ “We shouldn’t have the kids here,” said Malcolm gloomily.’ Malcolm seems to own ‘gloomily’; but then you irritably notice that Rossiter is behaving ‘gloomily’ too, and gloomily discover that Malcolm is behaving ‘irritably.’ Forget about ‘tensely’ and ‘grimly’ for now. And don’t get me started on ‘thoughtfully.’

I wish this criticism from Amis weren’t representative weren’t representative. In Sphere, for example, take this passage of 429 of my edition: “Norman felt dull and slow.” “Norman mumbled something, and he vaguely felt Beth grab him strongly by the arm…” “He felt numb and stupid.” “They were under the airlock, and he began to feel surging currents of water. There was something very big out there.” “… Fletcher gripped him with strong arms…”

Apparently Norman feels everything but emotion or any larger sense of himself. If this is supposed to show him being numb, it fails, because there’s insufficient variation in register throughout the novel to even notice the change. Later, this fine sentence intrudes: “There was something very big out there.” Really? Is that the best you can do? What makes it big? What does the horror of sensing that thing outside feel like? Actually, don’t tell us what it feels like if you’re going to tell us in the same way as the passage quoted above. Crichton never moves beyond this. His plots move, yes, but it takes more than plot alone to keep me interested. I’m not in the same category as James Wood, who says in How Fiction Works that “[…] the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot,” which I think utterly wrong and will no doubt write about in greater detail elsewhere. Still, a novel needs more than plot to live sufficiently to move me; it needs… everything in an alchemical mix without a perfect recipe.

Crichton isn’t a very good writer under most circumstances. There are writers with strong senses of plot, motion, and characterization who are very good, the most obvious example being Elmore Leonard. Carl Hiaasen’s better books fall into that category too. They’re both pop writers, but they’re good; they don’t redundantly use the same words over and over again, and they’re subtle in ways Crichton almost never is. Leonard would never write a passage as bad as the one quoted above. Ian McEwan’s novels are tightly plotted, as are many of Graham Greene’s and Philip Pullman’s. The difference between Crichton and those other authors is that they go far beyond plot. Paragraphs like this, from Congo, are just unacceptable and too common:

The large male moved menacingly toward Peter, but he never took his eyes off Amy. Amy watched him without response. It was a clear test of dominance. The male moved closer and closer, without hesitation (219).

A more skilled writer would have made us know “menacingly,” without the adverb, avoided the “Amy. Amy” repetition, and not told us about the test but let us discover the test. And if the male is moving closer and closer, implying stops or at least motion, then it seems unlikely that he’d move without hesitation. I feel like I’m repeating myself because I am; it could be argued that I’ve taken examples out of context and treated them unfairly, or that the narrator’s voice is repetitive and unimaginative because he’s being attacked by apes, or a giant squid and in cold water, or whatever other attacking monsters inhabit Crichton’s novels. I don’t think it really matters. For a novel to be merely entertaining, as opposed to something else, it must at least not be actively bad, even if its prose doesn’t remind one of T.C. Boyle or Saul Bellow or Robertson Davies.

Still, in at least one circumstance Crichton makes us forgive him. Eaters of the Dead is told from the perspective of a medieval wayfarer from 921. He’s in a foreign country and obviously wouldn’t have the highly developed style one expects of contemporary novelists, and the documentary apparatus / frame story surrounding the book, complete with scholarly detritus and explanation, helps to excuse the intentional archaisms. On the journey, we learn:

The ship was fitted with benches for oars, but never were the oars employed; rather we progressed by sailing alone. At the head of the ship was the wooden carving of a fierce sea monster, such as appears on some Northman vessels; also there was a tail at the stern. In water this ship was stable and quite pleasant for traveling, and the confidence of the warriors elevated my spirits.

Like the other two novels in the edition I have, Eaters of the Dead is flat, without any interior light, and characters lack inner being, like a cyborg version of a person. Crichton barely uses metaphor, as if comparing something to another not entirely like it might be too complex. In Eaters of the Dead, this makes sense: the Ibn Fadlan writes long before many of these stylistic conventions re-developed in the West, and he’s probably not the world’s most introspective chap anyway, given that his occupation is killing and pillaging (and probably raping on the side, but we don’t hear about that). At times this kind of writing is fun, like a sugar high, but it’s not genuinely addictive and leaves one feeling empty at the end of its consumption. And it’s not The Name of the Rose, which paradoxically combines modern writing with that of the fourteenth century, giving us a dazzling portrait of both universes at once, like a Photoshop filter turned to 50% opacity.

The final section in my edition of Eaters of the Dead contains a soul-crushing essay on whether the events described would have been historically possible. Once couldn’t imagine such a thing accompanying The Name of the Rose. My question about Crichton’s essay: who cares? It’s a novel. The better question ought to be, “is this novel any good? Why or why not?” But Crichton’s work doesn’t endeavor to undertake that more demanding task, and I suspect that I know history’s answer.

2 responses

  1. I think you might be judging Michael Crichton a bit harshly. I agree that he’s not a particularly skillful writer, at least judging by modern literary standards (underdeveloped characters with overdeveloped adverbs, for sure). But I’ve always found him to be a pretty gifted storyteller. Two of the novels you talk about, Sphere and Congo, are hardly among his best. You might want to try The Terminal Man or Jurassic Park — though not The Lost World, which was a big disappointment — for a fairer assessment. And how about his nonfiction? Give the memoir, Travels, a look.

    And the literati, for the record, are capable of grossly overdoing it. One example, chosen more or less at random — can you guess the author/novel? “Denise watched the sky stick forks of lightning into the salad of trees on the Illinois horizon.” That really strains the credibility of metaphor, don’t you think?

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  2. Eaters of the Dead is an odd book for Crichton, because the opening chunk of the book is a paraphrase of an actual chronicle by the real Ibn Fadlan, who described his encounters with the Rus Vikings en route to Bulgaria. His descriptions of some of their habits, including their funeral customs, shed a little light on Beowulf, but it’s never been clear to me why Crichton chose to conflate Ibn Fadlan’s journey and the Beowulf story, because his heart never quite seems to be in it. It’s a strange little book.

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