John Grisham's Charming Novel About Nothing

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Kyle McAvoy is a brutally overworked first-year associate at the high-flying, albeit fictional, Manhattan law firm Scully & Pershing. Fresh out of Yale Law — he edited the law review there — Kyle works up to 100 hours a week. He keeps a sleeping bag under his desk. He makes $200,000 a year, but he barely has time to spend any of it.

It's funny what an appetite we have for this kind of hardcore law-porn. Sure, Michael Clayton did it better, but you still get a buzz off of John Grisham's new book The Associate. The late hours, the fluorescent lights, the vicious competition, the fancy perks, the brilliant minds drowning in gallons of coffee and endless reams of paper. God knows they're not having much fun. But we are. It's a Tom-and-Huck scenario: they paint the fence, while we watch and pretend to get tired. Grisham doesn't try to glamorize it — in fact he works very hard to de-glamorize the way corporate litigation is practiced at high-dollar New York firms — but somehow it has the opposite effect. You're peering into a secret world of power and money. What more could you or any red-blooded American ask for? (Read TIME's 10 Questions for John Grisham)

By the way, Kyle McAvoy isn't any ordinary first-year associate. He has an ugly secret in his past: when he was in college at Duquesne, he and three other fraternity brothers were involved in an incident with a girl who may or may not have been passed out drunk while two of the frat boys had sex with her. Kyle has an ugly secret in his present, too: he may or may not have been there during, and hence implicated in, this possible-rape, but either way there's a video of the whole scene, and a mysterious organization is using it to blackmail Kyle into stealing the secrets of the corporations he is supposedly defending. The setup is not worlds away from The Firm, except this time it's the associate himself who's mixed up with the baddies. The firm is just along for the ride.

The Associate is a tricky balancing act for Grisham, in that there's nobody particularly likable in the mix here. The legal eagles of Scully & Pershing are cynical and joyless. The members of the mysterious organization are villainous to the point of cliché. (They have hairy hands and thin lips and slight accents — those bastards!) Even the possible-rape victim is shrill and self-serving and, well, cynical and joyless. As a result the book hangs on Kyle, and Kyle remains something of a cipher. He's got a kindly divorced father who lives in a small town in Pennsylvania and hunts deer, so we know we're supposed to like him. But mostly he just flip-flops between being angry and being very, very tired. (See the 100 best novels of all time.)

None of this is to say that The Associate is a bad book. God knows it's not hard to read — with the exception of a miscalculated subplot about one of the frat brothers going to AA, it ticks along lightly and pleasantly — it's crafted and paced with the same signature glossy perfection that makes Grisham, book for book, probably the best-selling novelist in the world. It's just that it's not about anything. In fact it's amazing that anybody could put together a book that is this compulsively readable while at the same time being almost entirely devoid of substance of any kind. When you read Michael Crichton or Scott Turow, their books wrestle with actual issues — the dangers of technology, the agonizing ambiguities of legal decision-making, what to do with underwater alien spheres, etc. The Associate is as close to being about nothing as a book can be — it's a masterpiece of almost ghostly narrative minimalism, a book of names without characters, a book with plot points but no plot.

There's something comforting about the meaningless hindbrain tension that The Associate generates in the reader — empty tension, the kind where there's nothing genuine at stake. Comforting too is the cozy quaintness of Grisham's little world. It's supposed to be a scary place, in theory, full of brooding criminals and impossible choices, but it's really a relic of the American past, one as sentimental and archaic as a Norman Rockwell painting. In a passage that appears, oddly, twice, as dialogue in two different characters' mouths, Grisham attempts to awe us with the high-level security surrounding Scully & Pershing's ultra-secret document room: "Pass codes change every week. Passwords every day, sometimes twice a day." I work for a magazine, and my e-mail password changes every 30 seconds. Where are the biometrics? Likewise Grisham thinks we need to be told that cubicles are nicknamed "cubes," and requests our amazement at the fact that the copiers in the law firm are "state-of-the-art color and capable of instant scanning, collating, even stapling." Copiers that staple! What a time to be alive.

The world of The Associate is subtly distinct from our own reality. Take a look at a thriller like Daemon, by Daniel Suarez, a software consultant who actually understands how cutting-edge networks work. This is a book that's got the shock of the new, that's so fresh and well-informed that it's still covered in metal shavings and PVC dust. Reality is everywhere in Daemon, and it's exciting and scary. But who wants to be excited and scared all the time? The Associate is high-calorie comfort food, a thriller that doesn't actually thrill. (See the top 10 fiction books of 2008.)

Then again, contemporary reality does have some useful innovations. Like an enlightened approach to sexual violence, for example. Here's Kyle's frat brother Joey, a putative good guy and our second male lead, thinking back on his memories of that night with his frat brothers: "If a girl consents to sex," he wonders, "can she change her mind once things are underway? Or if she consents to sex, then blacks out halfway through the act, how can she later claim she'd changed her mind? Difficult questions, and Joey wrestled with them as he drove."

Wrestle, Joey, wrestle. You'll get there one of these days.

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