Why is Reacher so popular? After all, the man is a human wrecking ball. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in the New Yorker in 2015, Reacher has killed over two hundred people since making his first appearance in Killing Floor. His readers don’t seem to mind the death toll he leaves in his wake. Reacher would say the victims deserved it. He certainly doesn’t agonize about it, a strategy he suggests to whoever happens to be around and might be squeamish.
Ever since first discovering Reacher six years ago, I’ve wondered about my own fascination with him. Like most humans, I carry an idea of myself. I think I know who I am. And that idea is entirely different from Reacher. Sure, I’m a bit of a loner, but that’s where any similarity stops.
Reacher is a hyper-individual, totally unencumbered by any relationships. His family is dead. The brother is murdered in Killing Floor and his mother died before the series even started, a story recounted in The Enemy, one of the prequel novels. He has no friends, except for the special investigators, a group of military cops he commanded before being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army—the characters are introduced in Bad Luck and Trouble. Of the investigators, only Frances Neagley, appears in three novels and is “as close to a friend” as Reacher has.
He had only one real relationship. That was with Jodie Garber Jacob, daughter of his late commander General Garber, whom he meets in Tripwire, the third novel, where they fall for each other head over heals. He moves in with her. But the relationship ends in Running Blind, the next novel. That means for the sixteen novels since then, Reacher has had great sex—which only gets better as each novel unfolds—without any commitment. Basically a series of one-novel-stands.
My first attempt to understand Reacher’s appeal relied on Henri Lefebvre’s concept of everyday life. Take the banal and routine things we all do every day and you know what he means. Lefebvre tells us that this is the part of our lives that’s programmed, controlled, what he calls the “bureaucratic society of controlled consumption” (Lefebvre 1971: 60). Only through a critique of everyday life will we be able to truly live as human beings.
Is reading Reacher a critique of everyday life? For anyone stuck in a dissatisfying job, with a mortgage weighing them down, ready to chuck it all for one adventure but too meek to take the risk, Reacher would be the ultimate fantasy. But then I thought, “Wait, I’m not that guy.” Having been an academic and now a novelist, I’ve had a rather privileged life. Hell, I got paid to read and write. Besides, isn’t this more an escape than a critique? Nobody’s going to read Reacher, then quit their job and become a situationist.
So where does Reacher’s appeal lie? I disagree with Gladwell’s characterization of Reacher novels as Westerns. That format is too constrained, the setting often hobbling the plot. Besides, Reacher isn’t chivalrous. That would imply that Reacher subscribes to a particular set of social mores. And that’s just not Reacher. Reacher exists outside society. He isn’t part of any recognizable societal structure with the sole exception of his ATM card and his passport, two concessions necessitated by the strictures of the post 9/11 world. Reacher follows his own rules and these rules are definitely pre-modern.
Which brings me to another French philosopher. In the opening pages of Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes the gruesome efforts to kill Robert-François Damiens for his attempt to assassinate Louis XV. The crime was regicide and the punishment torture and quartering, to be meted out publicly, a display of “the vengeance of the sovereign” (Foucault 1991: 90).
Reacher still follows this legal/juridical approach. He is the sovereign of his own domain. And transgressions against him warrant immediate punishment. “Get your retaliation in first.” Never mind that his domain is exceedingly small. What matters is that it exists apart from the state, society and the other apparatuses we put up with in our daily lives.
The world, of course, has moved on. Only a hundred years after the scene described by Foucault took place, the prison had replaced all other forms of punishment. Society moved from the legal/juridical approach to the disciplinary approach. The primary concern was no longer revenge of the sovereign, but the defense of society. Punishment now was calculated “in terms not of the crime, but of its possible repetition” (Ibid., 93). Hence the focus on correction, rather than revenge.
The product of the disciplinary system is delinquency, a particular shaping of illegalities that prevents certain illegal acts from ever rising to the level of systemic threat—say an uprising, an overthrow of the existing order—while also masking other illegalities, often committed by those in power. Reacher hasn’t quite adapted to this change. He’s not concerned with rehabilitating bad guys, “restoring to the state the subject it had lost” (Ibid., 123). He’s concerned with punishing those who act against him and whoever’s cause he’s taken up. However, he does have a keen understanding that illegality is a malleable concept.
In the era of full blown globalization, even the disciplinary system of the prison isn’t sufficient to deal with all societal challenges to the state. Free circulation of money, goods, and, sometimes, people is the utmost objective. In such a system, the individual no longer matters, it’s the population, and governing populations is all about managing risk. In concrete terms that means a certain degree of lawlessness is permitted as long as it doesn’t interfere with the optimal functioning of society based on circulation (Foucault 2007: 35-47).
The modern state has taken upon itself the power to punish the criminal. It does so using the risk management tools already mentioned. Gone are the days of “an eye for an eye.” But risk management means that some people will get hurt. Those victim is either ignored or trotted out to get maximum sentences. The ensuing incarceration doesn’t mean much to the victims.
Reacher intervenes at this juncture. His primary targets aren’t small time crooks like drug dealers whom he merely treats as cash machines and weapons suppliers. Reacher targets bigger fish, the kind of people who operate well past the level of delinquency the state aims to regulate—crooked defense contractors, loan sharks, or marketers of snuff videos on the dark net. He puts his big hands on the scale to even them for those who’ve been hurt by those larger forces.
No wonder there are casualties when a guy who believes in punishment drifts through a society that’s all about risk management. Because in Reacher’s world, that’s unacceptable. At least when the victims are the one’s he’d gotten entangled with.
We may cringe at the violence, I certainly do. Even more so, because I know that revenge doesn’t bring “closure.” But Reacher taps into this pre-modern sense of justice as revenge, the melodramatic wish for good to triumph over evil. Somehow it helps us navigate the far more complex waters of crime and punishment in the real world. Getting that satisfaction through fiction helps get it out of our system. Although the current political climate makes me wonder if life is about to imitate fiction.
- Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
- Foucault, Michel. Security, Territory, Population. New York: Palgrave, 2007.
- Lefebvre, Henri. Everyday Life in the Modern World. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.
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