Making a record: The power of a time line

Time will discover everything to posterity; it is a babbler, and speaks even when no question is put. – Euripedes

In March 2010 I spent a week organizing my documents, making up the binders and filling in the log. By the end of the week, I was craving a grand fictional escape from my paper-clogged real life adventure, so I trotted over to Partners & Crime, my local mystery bookstore and bought Gone Tomorrow, Lee Child’s then-latest thriller. That night, I sank into the story.

On page one, Reacher–Child’s star character, a sexy nomadic paladin–tells us that it’s 2 a.m. and he’s on a NYC subway train, heading uptown. There are a few other people in his car. He describes each one in crisp detail. Reacher has pin-prick clarity: his observations are lasered onto the page.

If you’ve never read a Reacher, you’d be tempted to skim over the subway riders he’s telling you about and land on the lap of the woman rider who has grabbed his full attention. Because, as he looks at her, Reacher is mentally running through an observational check list he picked up from Israelis during one of his dramatic career moments.

The check list is telling Reacher that this woman is a suicide bomber.

I’ll leave you there, except to say that only toward the end of the book did I realize, as I always do with Lee Child, that there’s not one economical sentence in a Reacher adventure that doesn’t have consequence. Everything, everyone, every moment and object is delineated, and will eventually reveal its full purpose.

It’s so clean. Lee Child’s Reacher is totally satisfying.

I found myself contemplating the deep, usually unexamined, pleasure I get out of Lee Child. The plot grabs you from page one. There are plenty of startling sideways moves and weird sadists and semi-bad guys who crisscross the plot like unpaved country roads drawing you off the interstate. Plenty of “Whaa?!” moments.

But no matter how far off the central plot Reacher travels, his terrific brain and justifiably applied violence wrap everything up tightly by the end of the story.

Reacher stories are models of taut, perfect time lines.

Jammed up with peripheries and layers, real life doesn’t compose itself into a Lee Child narrative, with an attractive, consistent hero and reliably repellent villains. One person’s real life–my life, say–is a tangled mess of story lines, morally ambivalent subplots and red herrings that wander off, never to return and explain themselves.

But there is one aspect of life in which I can compile a story that tells the absolute truth, that doesn’t wander off the path or exaggerate or diminish my accomplishments. In this one aspect of life, every dangling incident becomes relevant and is knitted tautly together at the end, like a Reacher story. In this one aspect of life I get to be an indubitable super-hero, going up against genuine bad guys.

It’s when, as a plaintiff in a righteous lawsuit, I make my own time line.

Whenever I work on and add to (and, yes, write too much of) my time line, I’m startled to read and relive the events of this lawsuit. I made some mistakes, sure, but did some remarkably gutsy things, too.

Like Reacher, I kick ass.


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