“All art is propaganda.”—George Orwell
Growing up, I had a lot of awkward literary prejudices. Instead of actually reading books, I often judged them on their reputations. I wanted to be serious, so I tended to focus on “serious” literature, despite having aesthetically omnivorous tendencies in general. This was a stupid, ugly way to sort through art, and it meant I missed out on an awful lot of popular fiction from the 80s and 90s.
Oddly enough, a lot of these writers have penetrated pop culture to such a degree that—for a little while, anyway, while they’re still contemporary—you don’t need to actually read their work in order to get an idea of what they’re on about. Whether it’s film adaptations percolating through the culturesphere, listening to your friends’ criticisms, or just basic meme osmosis, you can acquire a rough outline and even a general sense of their spirit without actually interacting with any books. For example, Stephen King rocks the horror, Jackie Collins pens scandals, Tom Clancy gets hard for the military, Danielle Steel raps about crumbling relationships, and John Grisham does lawyers, right? He’s the law-guy. They all seem one-dimensional, tilling the same soil season after season. But you should never judge a book by its cover, and reputation is a mercurial sheath at the best of times. As soon as you delve a little deeper, surprising turnabouts abound.
One day, cooped up in a cottage last December, I took a copy of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker off the shelf and got sucked into a wacky combination of pseudo-populism, institutional critique, and moral imperatives that my naïve brain is still recovering from.
The Rainmaker. Memphis, 1992. A hot, humid summer. A season of intrigue and corporate fraud, where up-and-coming legal eagle Rudy Baylor dukes it out with a medical insurance company over a bad faith claim that took the life of his client’s son. Rudy’s out of his league. A fresh graduate from law school, he accidentally stumbles across this case while looking for a way to pay off his ever-encroaching student debts. Unlike your stereotypical law student, Rudy comes from low circumstances.
Grisham uses class to evoke sympathy for the protagonist throughout his struggles against creditors, shady employers, and the basic sewer of the legal system. But the device also allows Rudy to act as a lens through which Grisham sketches out a remarkably detailed picture of financial realities experienced by regular folks in Memphis at the time. I’m talking dollar amounts that provide a concrete spectrum for the cost of living:
- One six-pack of cheap lite beer—$3.00
- A pitcher of watery beer at a campus bar during Monday Night Football—$1.00
- Working as a bartender at said campus bar—$5.00/hour
- One used Toyota hatchback—$500.00
- A nice, two-bedroom apartment—$700.00/month
- Renting a decent office in a sketchy part of town—$500.00/month
- Round-trip coach airfare from Memphis to Cleveland—$700.00
- Round-trip Greyhound ticket from Memphis to Cleveland—$139.00
- Room in an inexpensive yet safe motel—$40.00/night
- A decent starting salary—$25,000/year
- A great starting salary—$50,000/year
- Bone marrow transplant—$150,000
I find it fascinating that Grisham went out of his way to pepper the novel with these tethers to reality, often with an emphasis on how wildly distorted the scale of wealth is between individuals in different economic tiers of North American society. Rudy is a great fulcrum for this class-based investigation, since he is poor enough to sympathize with his impoverished clients (who earn $746.00 per month from a veteran’s pension), yet aspirational enough to invest in his own future and begin to claw his way towards middle-class economic stability.
What’s more, the largesse of the evil insurance company is exposed every step of the way: they hire five lawyers from the most expensive law firm in town to duke it out with poor Rudy, they rig their business model on the presumption that if they bog people down with paperwork, they won’t have to pay claims, they try to buy off a sexually abused employee, and they even figure out a way to dodge a multi-million dollar fine for punitive damages by siphoning their funds elsewhere and claiming bankruptcy.
Again and again, Grisham paints a grim picture for the underclass. They’re constantly pushed around a painful network of systems they don’t understand, exploited by those who do, and ultimately skeptical and fearful of engaging in society at all. Even Rudy, after winning a landmark case, retreats from the law to become a high school teacher because the legal world just isn’t worth it—he leaves it to the parasites. All in all, The Rainmaker poses a criticism that is surprisingly socialist for a bestselling author whose primary setting is the southern United States.
And The Rainmaker isn’t an isolated case. In his legal thrillers, Grisham consistently plugs into underclass sentiments, provides greater exposure for racial inequality, and gives example after example of fictional upper-class overlords exploiting everyone else and getting away with it, based on relatively accurate real-life systems. It is social anthropology with a biting moral edge.
When John Grisham first appeared, critics employed the term “Dickensian” as shorthand to describe his work. The comparison makes sense: both Grisham and Charles Dickens evoke populist concerns, are enormous bestsellers, write long books with labyrinthine plots, and use social commentary to highlight the insecurity and travails of an impoverished underclass ground under the heel of institutional exploitation. But critics’ use of the term was also kind of a diss, because shallow similarities to Dickens’s work can seem like a grab for populist readers via hyperbolic sentiment.
Despite having little in common stylistically, Grisham and Dickens mine a very similar vein of institutional critique. That they both seem shallow at first glance is one of their greatest strengths as authors—they can hack society to pieces, but do so without aggravating anyone. Some people are bothered by the way that Grisham goes about telling a story, but those folks are bitten by an aesthetic bug. Nobody’s firebombed Grisham for the anti-corporate views that run implicit throughout his books, and Dickens is a bedrock of English literature. Yet they’re both radicals. One might even call them revolutionaries.
Typically, the revolutionary seeks unorthodox but direct means to altering the infrastructure of their society. By rejecting the existing political process of representation, the alienated revolutionary turns to tearing down the walls of the institution and recalibrating the machinery of power. Quite often, because power is tasty, this leads to conflict between the old guard and the new. Yet both Dickens and Grisham reject this framework of change.
Dickens abhors violence. His characters never throw punches to solve problems, and two of the rare instances of violence in his books—the Reign of Terror in A Tale of Two Cities and the Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge—are nightmares of epic proportion. Far from a desirable means for social progress, Dickens portrays riots and mobs as a bestial transmogrification of citizens into maniacs. Where the streets run red with waves of blood and horrors that blot out the sun. Where new oppressors merely replace the old.
Grisham, on the other hand, tosses liberal heaps of violence into his stories as only an American can. But acts of violence never result in meaningful societal change. In A Time To Kill, the NAACP and the KKK struggle bitterly against one another in the streets of Clanton only to reach an ideological stalemate. The trial ends, the story ends, but we get no sense of systemic change. Racism isn’t going away. That isn’t even an option.
What about a milder approach to change, like grassroots organization or getting behind a politician you believe in? Don’t be such a patsy. Both Grisham and Dickens portray a society where changing a few laws, winning a groundbreaking court case, or establishing unions doesn’t stop oppression or exploitation. Those interested in maintaining or developing a power base will simply shift the goal posts and assert themselves in a new plane of society.
This corresponds to a critical position Grisham and Dickens share in relation to the law. Both worked in the legal profession—Grisham as a lawyer and Dickens as a clerk—and both present the law as a sort of boogeyman for the regular citizen. Part of their charm is that they unearth and dissect this boogeyman for our reading pleasure, but they never do so in a way that reduces the ambient chthonic terror that the justice system evokes. Even after five hundred pages of legal wrangling, “the law”—in a grand, system-wide sense—is a monster. It’s too big and complicated for any constructive criticism to reform. Not to mention entrenched in the vested interests of the elites, whose ranks happen to include the very people who understand, interpret, judge, and create laws. It all smells a bit like a shell game.
If politicians are corrupt, if the means to elect them is unrepresentative, if the system of law is a facade, if those who uphold it are either constrained by the institution or milking it, and if violence isn’t an option, then where can meaningful change manifest? How can it establish something new that is not entrenched in the mire of existing opinion and methodology?
Maybe it can’t. This is the bleak but fascinating existential quandary at the heart of Dickens and Grisham’s political perspective. And, oddly enough, it mirrors a position Foucault championed in a debate on Dutch television where he duelled with Noam Chomsky over the existence of human nature 1:
“It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticize and attack them in such a manner that political violence [which] has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked so that one may fight them.”
This isn’t exactly a new perspective. It’s something that Sartre and Heidegger argued in their own ways: you need to perform an adequate analysis of the machinations of power, common sense, weltanschauung, or morality before you can be confident in proposing a new scheme. Otherwise, you may inadvertently replicate the means of exploitation that you are trying to root out in the first place.
Here is where Grisham and Dickens simultaneously converge and splinter. Both cover a wide array of abuses of power in an attempt to establish a meaningful and engaging diagnosis of exploitation at the individual level. Whether it is health insurance companies screwing clients, oil tycoons raping the environment, schools that feed neither the mind nor the soul, philanthropists who let their children starve, organized crime doing its thing, slimy lawyers, crooked landlords, shoddy orphanages, debtors’ prison, or asshole racists, Dickens and Grisham unleash poetry on any injustice they witness.
But neither presents a meaningful prescription for reform. They deviate from Foucault in the sense that they are content to rest in this tone of criticism without any move forward. In a way, this makes for static characters and static worlds where growth and development beyond the cosmetic are impossible. Yet at the same time, this also implies that perhaps the desire to establish something new is a bit cockeyed. What I mean is that there will never be anything truly new. All societies are built from the foundation of that which came before. There are no amnesiac systems. Even when revolution does occur, there is continuity, because people carry the seeds of what came before.
In a sense, it is more responsible to advocate for a personal, moral change. If we continue to live in a world where greed and exploitation are avenues to prosperity and power, then no matter the alterations to “the rules,” we will never see a change in spirit. People will find new ways to cheat, and they will do so faster than we can responsibly rewrite the rules of society. But if you succeed in unlocking people’s sympathy and empathy, if you succeed in helping them discover their sensitivity to other human beings in distress, if you help them see the world from inside someone else’s skin, then perhaps the world can be a more decent place.
Unfortunately, this moral education is not—and cannot be—clearly articulated. Dickens is a prime example of this. When he compares Mr. Creakle’s terrible school in David Copperfield to the wonderful sanctuary of Doctor Strong’s, he states that they are as different “as good is from evil.” Yet when we look at their curriculum or structure, they might as well be identical. The only difference rests in their spirit. One feels fine, the other wretched. Good and evil are two sides of the same coin, and what separates them is supposedly intuitive.
If Dickens tried to outline a specific moral program instead of a vague one, not only would it alienate a host of readers, but it would also prove unsatisfactory. Because any explicit rule can be used for evil in the right context. Any rule can bind just as much as it can liberate. Instead, Dickens appeals to the morality of the reader, who gets to feel viscerally how much it sucks to have your rights violated. Or how crappy it is to be poor.
All Grisham had to do was update this model to the political realities of late twentieth century United States, featuring a bifurcated populace with a steadily dwindling standard of living. He evokes how horrible it is to be oppressed through the lens of a sensitive character wedged in between the underclass and the oppressors.
In A Time to Kill, the court case to exonerate Carl Lee for murdering his daughter’s rapists takes a back seat to the relationship between him and his lawyer, Jake Brigance. “Two great men,” the book calls them, shaking hands at a party at the end of the novel. Yet the KKK still runs rampant, as do the racist officials who manipulated the case. I’m not saying that these deep structural issues need to be resolved, but they are portrayed as unsolvable, and the only possible victory is the individual one.
The film adaptation beats this horse even more soundly. Halfway through the film, Carl Lee accuses Jake of not being his “real friend,” as evinced by the fact that their children have never played together, nor have they ever shared a barbecue meal. The final scene in the film shows Jake bringing his wife and daughter to a cookout at Carl Lee’s. That’s the real change here: a personal one. Society may be damned, but if these “two great men” can find understanding, then maybe there’s hope for people.
The characters that they employ to articulate this hope clarify the internal conflict Dickens and Grisham suffer at the hands of their diagnosis of society.
One of Dickens’s most steadfast character models was the good rich man. A deus ex machina, the good rich man shows up near the end of a novel, trotting about London, throwing money at everyone’s problems. A Christmas Carol is the tale of Scrooge becoming one of these guys, but more often they just show up, a beneficent, jolly chap utterly at odds with the status quo. Pickwick, the Cheerybles, Boffin, and Old Chuzzlewit all fit the same mold. But they are fantasy, like a fairy godmother.
The recipients of this beneficence, Dickens’s protagonists, are equally alike: middle class folks who have seen some hard times. They are not poor, but are threatened by poverty and surrounded by those who have no good rich man looking out for them. This provides Dickens with the opportunity to sketch many fascinating caricatures of poverty without ever bothering to get under its skin. Instead, he focuses on the kinds of people who make up the majority of his readership, the urban petty bourgeois. Not agricultural workers, not child slaves, and not factory workers. Not the people actually suffering from Victorian iniquity, but those who bear witness to it.
Grisham falls prey to the same temptation, exclusively using poor characters to evoke pity or comic relief. They are not protagonists; those are deftly positioned in the aspirational class, and often have enough sympathy that they fight for the truly downtrodden without really belonging to their numbers. Of course this implies a problematic ontological distinction between classes, because Grisham—and Dickens—portray the underclass as stuck, static, and forsaken.
Both authors arrive at the same basic conclusion: that you can only bet on certain individuals, albeit for totally different reasons. Dickens wants to foment a moral revolution, and sees the middle class as the best soil. Grisham is a structural pessimist, but he’s canny enough to recognize that you need some hope to keep a story going. Otherwise, all you have is despair, and that doesn’t put meat in the seats. Neither author can imagine a realistic solution, yet neither is willing to pen outright tragedy. In their books, this dissonance comes to a head in terms of how they end their stories.
Dickens and Grisham’s conclusions are a window into the despair both novelists seek to avoid. In Dickens’s eyes, the ostensible point of existence is to acquire some money and do nothing for the rest of your life. This either comes about through the machinations of the good rich man or the mysteries of inheritance. Once that’s all sewn up, there is no reason to worry about anything ever again. Only a few of his novels eschew the fairy tale ending. That’s when the darkness creeps in. Take A Tale of Two Cities. There is literally no hope for Sydney Carton as he marches off to the guillotine, except for a vague moral prophecy. Or Great Expectations: everybody except for the protagonist ends up miserable, dead, or gutted of ambition. And even though Pip hooks up with Estella, it isn’t exactly a happy ending—she was just abused for a decade by her late husband—merely one bereft of further torment.
Grisham is wise enough to know that we would not stomach a good rich benefactor. Our times are too cynical. Yet we are still easily bamboozled by the notion that, even though the system is corrupt, a protagonist with enough ingenuity and pluck can steal several million dollars and flee to the Caribbean or Italy. He has literally seven books that end on the premise of flight. In one of his most devastating endings, The Rainmaker, the entire plot is jettisoned out the window. Along the way, it seems like the story is about a bad faith case setting the precedence necessary to reprimand bogus health insurance companies. The case is won, but just like in Dickens, it is merely a moral victory. The company files for bankruptcy, its CEO grabs the money and runs, and the umbrella corporation washes its hands of the whole thing. No punitive costs, no money for the family of the deceased, and no change to the system because the elites are too damned agile.
In The Rainmaker, everything goes to shit. Rudy wins the case but fails as a character. He is dispossessed of the will to fight that made him sympathetic in the first place. Instead of using this case as a springboard for a protracted battle against the insurance industry, he packs his bags, abandons the law, and moves out west to become a high school teacher. In the end, Rudy is diminished. He is less than when we met him. No longer a quixotic hero, Rudy transforms into a symbol of inevitable defeat when one challenges the status quo. His fatalism is presented as acquired wisdom. Furthermore, it is a personal change, and the only kind that Grisham allows, since he sure as hell isn’t portraying institutional reform.
What’s kind of nuts about Grisham’s stories is that in the end, the hero and the villain do pretty much the same thing: they take off. Because there is no hope for a better world. There are no changes that can be made to establish collective opportunity and benefit. That shit just doesn’t fly in Grisham’s America.
What we’re really being offered here is a picture of human nature. Both authors see the realities of society as too harsh to contend with. It’s a bit like Thomas Hobbes’s philosophy. Since collective action is impossible in a world where we’re all competing with one another for scanty resources and security, the only option is flight. Either we flee into unrealistic lottery fantasy with Dickens, or we become a smaller version of evil, steal some money, and flee to a place “other” than the America we know.
Both are surprisingly adolescent. And yet, if you accept their premises, then they are perfectly natural conclusions. Given the popularity of these writers, one can assume readers don’t immediately reject this orientation as poppycock. But the premises are bunk. They’re a nihilistic pardon for inaction which fobs off political engagement by blaming systemic alienation instead of doing the heavy lifting required to provide constructive criticism.
Dickens’s moral injunction is basically, “Don’t be a dick.” It sounds shallow, and it’s based on little more than a superficial reading of humanity and society, but when you think it through to the end there is a great deal of wisdom in the sentiment. No system, however well designed, can stop tyranny and oppression unless the will to liberty is present in those who live it. But Dickens stops there. He has no further constructive criticism, because he believes that any system will work as long as folks are decent. All Dickens offers is hope, but maybe that’s better than nothing.
Grisham’s prime directive is pretty much, “Take the money and run,” or, barring that, “Run.” While individual victories are possible, they do not add up to large-scale societal change, and they’re usually pyrrhic. Despite this ontological pessimism, his protagonists still tend to do the “good” thing, right up until they bolt in the night. Either they stand up for the little guy and piss off someone in power, or they stumble into shady dealings and wind up angering dangerous criminals. In fact, there’s little difference between the mafia and health insurance companies in Grisham’s books. They’re both out to screw people over by any means possible, as long as they can get away with it. They just have different skill sets. In a social arena such as this, organized engagement is not an option. The only people who bother are patsies and crooks.
This brand of pessimism depends upon the static rendering of the world that both novelists impose. Dickens’s characters do not consider social upheaval. They’re politically stuck, like insects in amber. By the same token, Grisham’s world-weary nihilism implies that no meaningful societal change can occur, because all people in power are corrupt. But if we examine his stories, this is not the case. There are judges and officials trying to do the right thing; they’re just limited by “the system.” The thing is, any system is made up of individuals and their decisions. What that means is that as long as there are a few decent people, then there is hope. Hope that the conditions which spawn iniquity aren’t ubiquitous. Hope that the moral values which contribute to a just society aren’t extinct. And hope that organization can enact change as long as it partakes in a spirit of decency.
In essence, Grisham’s hope is Dickens’s but in our time, tempered by pessimism, unconscious but not quite dead yet. Hope without fantasy. It doesn’t stand out in the books, but it isn’t stamped out, either. Hidden beneath a skein of sangfroid nihilism, goodness radiates from every decision the embittered protagonists make. In the end they may have no other option than flight from this world, which speaks to Grisham’s Christian bias, but along the way the itemized trials and tribulations they undertake describe an orientation that is actually pretty damn decent. Grisham’s protagonists are good people. They help strangers, they are honest, they don’t cheat, and even though they resort to violence more often than they should, they never set out to cause harm.
These traits garner sympathy, but also paint a moral picture of a decent person. The kind that ought to be extinct in a world as harsh and unforgiving as Grisham portrays. Yet this glimmer of goodness remains, nestled alongside hope, in a way that’s almost Dickensian.
But there’s no deus ex machina in Grisham’s fiction, no good rich man, and no magic solution to society’s ills. It’s a grim portrait of an infrastructurally bankrupt society built on a rotting moral foundation. If anything is going to change for the better, then individuals are going to have to step up to the plate and carry that burden despite a lack of external validation or systemic resonance. Doing the right thing nets no tangible rewards in the superstructure of a society predicated on avarice. The justification for moral behaviour must arise from something other than communal reinforcement. Instead, it emerges in individuals who dare to exercise their freedom in an ethical fashion. In other words, Grisham’s diagnosis is existential, which is a far cry from your basic page-churning legal thriller. There’s an implicit philosophy here, one that is relevant to millions of readers because it speaks to the harsh realities of the world without wallowing in them. No matter the circumstances, there’s always the choice to be nice, to attempt Dickens’s edict and face the darkness of our times without despair.
- And was (allegedly) paid in hash. ↩