Monday, March 12, 2012

Book Notes — The Deeply Flawed Protagonist In The Deeply Flawed World

An author/blogger, awhile back, wondered why so many book bloggers and reviewers talked so much about dead authors and popular authors when there were many fine, very-much alive current writers who could use a little attention. Being at least an alive current writer I second that emotion and have tried on this blog’s Book Notes and Old Gold to provide a little balance in that regard. However, this post will violate that spirit. I’ll be referring to such literary ghosts as the long-dead Sophocles — hard to get deader and more famous than that — the not-so-long dead Jean Anouilh and the also very much alive, but incredibly best-selling Michael Connelly. How’s that for name-dropping?
In 1943, Jean Anouilh’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone was performed in Nazi-occupied France. For those who might have forgotten, Antigone is the story of King Creon’s attempt to celebrate the life of one of Antigone’s dead brothers and bring shame on the other by creating a politically helpful fiction about their deaths. One arbitrarily chosen brother was to be made a hero and the other a villain. Theoretically, Creon’s motive was to prevent a brutal civil war — and protect himself. His argument was that he would create this myth for the “greater good.”
Antigone would have none of it, favoring a full vetting of the truth no matter where it led. The Nazis were sensitive to propaganda, but apparently not as quick to pick up nuance. The German censors were fine with the production because they believed the story favored support for authority. The French, however, saw it differently, interpreting it as a play honoring the pursuit of the truth, justice and the French way, at any cost.
How does Michael Connelly figure into all of this? We’re coming to it. Let me throw another Greek into the mix first. The dialectical method is attributed to Socrates and involves argument as a means to get to the truth. At best, and honestly pursued, the Socratic method seems to be an effective (and potentially entertaining) way to arrive at the truth or as close to it as we can get. Not only is our justice system based on this principle, but it also appears to be the means, conceptually at least, by which we elect our government. The idea of having a public debate in the race is to have the views of the candidates’ proposed policies compete in the public marketplace for support.
The domination of this form of decision-making has evolved, through the inclusion and continued expansion of the media (the chorus) in America’s 21st Century. As the methods of communication have evolved to the point of absurdity through the unchecked use of contributions and the unlimited reach of technology, the end state of the art appears to have dissipated into not a clash of best ideas, but a clash of the best dodgers and persuaders. Reporting of the clash does not help us parse the logic, but focuses on the headlines rather than the story. It has nothing to do with honor and truth. The focus is on whoever is wielding the power most effectively. And in the modern age, whether one is an attorney attempting to win a case or a candidate trying to win an election, money is a greater factor than ever before. Talented attorneys and their staffs are for those who can afford them. In court, experts on contentious issues are bought and sold in a kind of auction for the truth. You bought this expert. Opposing council bought another. The same happens on the campaign trail when the surge of an emerging candidate can be stopped with a blitz of negative advertising.
With the U.S. Supreme Court having provided personhood to corporations and equating money with freedom of speech, proponents of one side or the other have the means to overwhelm the opposition with not just facts, but partial truths, innuendos and often outright lies — whatever they can get by with. Given the lack of regulation and oversight, a condition ballyhooed by some, business may now do that with their customers. Financial institutions, after they’ve purchased all the available legislators and when forced to be “transparent,” can do so, for example, by publishing hundreds of pages of small print to discourage anyone from reading it. Lawyers have been using this technique against the opposition for years. You want disclosure, by God I’ll give you disclosure. In fact, banking as a political force, has shown that it largely beyond the reach of the law. Government bailouts were not used to save banks, it seems, as much as it was to enrich the perpetrators of the fraud, for example. And you see these are the folks who finance the campaigns of those who create and enforce the laws.

And (Whew! Finally) it is in this American world that Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer series operates. Clever Machiavellian approaches to government and business may be as old as, well, Machiavelli. But now such amoral cleverness is not really exceptional. It is the everyday way we pass laws and sell widgets. And Connelly’s lawyer is the modern semi-hero, after all. Mickey Haller, the ethically challenged protagonist of Connelly’s lawyer series is not Harry (Hieronymus) Bosch, Connelly’s fame-establishing central character. Though the half-brothers’ voices are similar, their actions are not. The brooding Bosch is uncompromising. The pragmatic Haller understands the twists and turns he must make to succeed. Bosch is so upright he is almost prudish. And Haller is so sly he’s almost sleazy. Though I am a fan of both, for me Haller is more complex and more interesting character. Bosch is the 20th Century hero. Haller is the 21st Century American protagonist. As crime stories go, Haller is neither the lone cowboy whose honor may not be bought. He is also not the noir central figure who pays dearly when the drama ends for his past bad acts. He is engaging in the prevailing greed-polluted dialectic we call “business” and “governance” and surviving. America is more Creon’s domain than Antigone’s. We may not want to believe that. We may want to believe that good will conquer evil if only we were pure enough. Mickey Haller takes the world as it is not as we want it to be.
In The Fifth Witness Connelly turns his keen reporting skills and his experience with the court system and police departments into a something “ripped from the headlines,” but it is in some ways less than that. How compelling can foreclosures be? I wondered about that when the subject of the book was first mentioned. The truth is we don’t exactly get an expose of the thrilling world of accounting tricks. How much of that kind of detail could we stand? In fact, we don’t get an indictment or expose of the world’s finance industry and the compromised morality in which businesses and its leaders operate, which is what I expected. But I had no right to that expectation. It is a murder story.
Connelly, on the other hand has created something important, I think. While I may have looked for THE book of its times — say the early 2010’s version of Bonfire of the Vanities — he has created a thoroughly fascinating and relevant protagonist, a tightrope artist, a survivor in morally ambiguous times, one that is definitely of his times.

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