Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fine Legal Satire

The Associate, by John Grisham, 2009

Say you want to write a satirical novel about the world of giant, high-powered international law firms, where mind-boggling amounts of money are billed every day, corruption and workaholism rule, and Sloth is the only one of the seven deadly sins that is not rampant.

Your problem: how do you find a likeable protagonist? Most people who work in such firms do so voluntarily. They fully subscribe to the philosophy that includes padding their hours, billing expensive lunches to clients, maintaining an insane, sleepless schedule, and scorning everyone who does not do the same. These people will be hard to identify with, at least for the rest of us who actually have time to read novels. So, where do you get a protagonist who works in such a firm, but who will also be a plausible good guy, one you and your readers can root for?

John Grisham solved this problem by making his protagonist an idealistic young law student who wants to use his degree to make the world a better place, but who is blackmailed into applying to a high-powered law firm so that he can steal its secrets for the blackmailer.

Yes, this book has some elements of a “thriller,” but arguably the richer part of it is the satire. Although not really a humor book, the satire sometimes gets funny. For example:

The sound of important papers being extracted crackled from the backseat, and Kyle knew something was being reviewed … After ten minutes of [driving in] in downtown traffic, Kyle was wet under the collar and breathing heavily … He found the lot but it was full, and this caused all manner of cursing in the rear seat. … Doug was stuffing papers back into his briefcase. Bard suddenly had business on the phone. “I don’t care. Any street. And if you can’t find a spot, then just keep making the block. Let us out here.” Kyle cut to the curb, and a horn erupted somewhere behind them. Both lawyers scrambled out of the rear seat. Peckham’s final words were, “Just keep moving, okay. You’ll find something.” Bard managed to tear himself away from his phone conversation long enough to say, “And be careful. It’s my wife’s.” Alone, Kyle eased away and tried to relax. … Every inch of available space was packed with vehicles and motorbikes. An amazing abundance of signs warned against parking near any potential space. Kyle had never noticed so many threatening signs. … At 11:00 a.m., Kyle congratulated himself because he could now bill the client $800 for driving in circles.


  1. Good review. I think I probably read a John Grisham novel many years ago when I was in uni. I used to be into Scott Turow, too, then.

    Jen, this is part of what you wrote on my blog earlier: 'Horror is an acquired taste. And once you acquire it, it acquires you. It changes your brain, kills the normal emotional responses. You become dead in the sense that you cannot perceieve or feel as a living person can. Worse and worse horror is needed to produce the same “thrill.'

    I could very easily point out that if you substitute the word 'horror' for 'religion', 'socialism', or 'nazism' you could have a similar situation. This is the first time that I come across an openly religious message on my blog and although at first it threw me off balance, I understood after that if you open a space for everyone to comment, you have no right to clamp down on their beliefs, religious or otherwise (unless they are offensive, which your message wasn't). That's why I left it on. As an atheist who reads the Bible every now and then (yes, not all of us are Richard Dawkins :-D!) I think that culturally speaking we can learn a lot from other religions. But as someone who has also witnessed first-hand the destruction of human beings by zealous priests, I would definitely advise caution when discussing God, or Jesus, or the Prophet.

    This comment is by no way a telling-off. You're more than welcome to pop by my space any time you like. I just wanted to make my feelings clear.

    Thanks a lot for this review and keep up the good work.

    Greetings from London.

  2. Cuban … thanks for explaining your position, and for having the humility and courage to listen. It was your humane, respectful tone in your comments to Willow that first made me want to go check out your own blog.

    Obviously these issues are too involved to do more than scratch the surface of them in a blog comment. However, I do want to respond a little to what you’ve said.

    My short answer is that religion is not the same thing as knowing God through Christ.

    I say this cautiously, since I realize that saying it can be a cop-out.

    There was a time when I would have responded somewhat flippantly to your concerns by responding, “Whoever the priests were that you saw, they obviously weren’t ‘real’ Christians.” Now, some years later, I realize that kind of response is presumptuous. I can’t see into their hearts, neither is it up to me to arbitrate who is and who is not in the universal church. If anyone calls themselves a Christian, they are one in some sense (though not necessarily regenerate), and if they behave badly, this poses a real philosophical problem that must be dealt with by anyone who claims that Christ is the answer. (Having said that, according to the Bible the most distinctive mark of those who have Christ dwelling within them, is love. So if someone’s life is completely without love, it is not a stretch to conclude that they do not belong to Christ. See the book of I John.)

    Neither am I going to claim that it’s possible to relate directly to God without any kind of structure, doctrine, tradition or authority. These are not the central thing, but they cannot be avoided either. If you want to chase a sea monster, you’ll have to spend an awful lot of time in a ship; no getting around it. The fact remains that spending time in the ship is not your main goal. But I think perhaps you, Cuban, have encountered a lot of people sitting in ships that are in dry dock, talking about the ocean and about sea monsters.

    But having said all that, the fact remains that my comment on your blog was not really meant to be about religion, but about Christ, a real person with the power of God who “gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” Knowing Him really is not the same thing as doing religion. It really is something different, more, and better. Mere religion, with all its hypocrisy and abuses, was around in Christ’s time, and as you know, He was not any gentler on it than you would be.

    I realize, however, that talking about Christ might be just as offensive to you as talking about religion, or perhaps more so. His name has always stirred up strong reactions in people.

    Thanks again for your unflagging courtesy.