Ever since I started reading adventure novels again, I’ve been thinking about what makes for a good action hero. I think it’s fashionable to pretend that adventure novels contain the same interpersonal complexities and ambiguities as less plot-oriented novels, but that has not been true to my reading experience. Something happens to a book’s characters when they exist within a book in which all of the forefront action is about solving some particular problem. There’s less room for reflection and less room for wavering, and much of the page-count is taken over by interactions between protagonist and antagonist–interactions that often tend to be somewhat simple.
I just finished reading Around The World In 80 Days, which is an extremely simple novel. Phileas Fogg is sitting in his club (in the 1870s). Some nearby people are discussing an item in the newspaper that suggested it was possible to go around the world in 80 days, using some particular route. One of them says, oh of course it’s theoretically possible, but in practice it can’t be done. Phileas Fogg, overhearing, is like, yeah dude, it can totally be done. And then they make a bet, and he gets up, goes home, packs a valise, and heads out that very night.
For me, the most interesting part of the book was Fogg himself. The book revolves around his inscrutability. The first two chapters are about his utmost orderliness. He has no friends or relations. He owns no books. He does the same things at the same time every day. And he only belongs to this one club, and his only hobby is playing whist. He’s done some traveling in the past, but the book never says where he went or what he did.
Why does he drop everything in order to pursue this bet? What drives him? It’s certainly not a desire to travel and see new places, since he never leaves his cabin or his stateroom, and he makes no effort to see any sights or speak with new people. And if it’s a desire for adventure, then why has he led such a retired life up to now?
The character is inscrutable to the last. Even when he is sitting in prison and contemplating the failure of all his designs and the loss of his entire fortune, you’re left wondering: Does he regret what he’s done? Has he found any peace of mind? Did any of this make any impression upon him at all?
You could not read a novel about Phileas Fogg’s day to day life. Or, rather, if one was to write a novel about his day-to-day life then one would need to begin explicating him. You’d need to show what he thinks about when he is alone. You’d need to examine his relations with other people. And to reveal those things would be to destroy his essential Phileas Fogginess.
Less plot-oriented novels are all about interiors. And interiors are great. They’re interesting. But you know what else is awesome? Images.
And, to a certain extent, revealing an interior will destroy an image. You can either have the powerful, inscrutable image of Phileas Fogg recording the current time on his watch and announcing that he’ll be back in this room at exactly 8:45 on December whatever-it-was, or you can go inside him and show the thing that drove him to that action. But I think it’s very difficult to do both. Because when you experience Fogg-as-an-image, you’re experiencing something that is other. He is a hero. Someone who is sure of himself and in tune with his own power in a way that you or I never will be. Whereas Fogg-as-a-man could never be heroic in quite that fashion.