• U.S.

Pop Fiction’s Prime Provocateur

10 minute read
Gregory Jaynes

In a blue-gray bungalow on a lamppost-lined street in an unremarkable American neighborhood, squirms a man of sudden celebrity, Michael Crichton. The year just done was “pretty amazing,” he says. The reason is that one book of his, Jurassic Park, became the biggest hit in movie history, and another, Rising Sun, was no slouch, and together they vaulted old writings even he had dismissed back onto bookshop shelves, where they became the stuff of authors’ dreams: they were bought, not remaindered. There are 100 million copies of Crichton’s books now in print.

“I’m still not accustomed to being recognized the way I am,” he says. “It’s nice, but I’m accustomed to not being noticed — except by people who notice that I’m tall.” Indeed, he has to duck to get under his own door. He is 6 ft. 9 in. You fear that if he fell down he would be out of town.

This week Crichton, 51, is publishing his 24th book, Disclosure (Knopf; $24; first printing: 750,000 copies). It is about sexual harassment; a female executive virtually manhandles a subordinate. The woman, scorned, ignores the facts and charges the man with stepping over the line. He fights back. Crichton says he got the idea from a friend, presumably male, who told him about an incident in the workplace. That was the seed, and then Crichton cogitated, watered it as you would a Ficus, which seems to be his method. The result is provocative, which seems to be his pattern. To read it in this charged climate makes a man want to holler, “Slap leather, boys, and head for that line of trees!” Acknowledges Crichton: “It has been suggested that now is the time for that long-postponed trip to the Australian outback.” Instead he is bracing for the criticism that trails his books like gulls after a trawler.

The new novel was written in the tidy bungalow in Santa Monica, California. Crichton uses the place as an office; his home, his wife (the fourth) and his child (the first) are a mile and a half away. In his office sits the author, a student, a thinker, possessed of restless intelligence. He is the only person this person has ever interviewed whose answer to a question was “I don’t know.” That’s inspired.

To catch a sense of Crichton, one must summon other failed physicians who ^ turned to fiction, though failed, perhaps, is the wrong word. Conan Doyle. More recently, Walker Percy. In The Moviegoer, Percy wrote of “the search.” What’s the search? Well, you poke about the neighborhood and don’t miss a trick. Somehow, it all has to do with novelists trained in the field of science, men like Crichton who found science too unimaginative.

In the ’60s he went to Harvard Medical School and swiftly became disillusioned. “I hated it, he says. “I’d go to the shrink, and he’d tell me that everybody hated it. Why? Well, you went through it to get your license. There was nothing to discuss. You went through the hazing to join the fraternity — it was male-dominated in those days.”


“No regrets. Early on, it gave me something to write about, an area of expertise that I could draw upon, a fund of experience and a sense of pace. Things happen fast. I still think it’s true that any sense of narrative pacing on my part comes out of the emergency room. We don’t get to know anybody well, and it’s time to move on.” He laughs at himself; he has been criticized for characters who have the depth of dust-bowl topsoil. The discipline of medicine fit his perception of himself, but the politics — a collegial judgment call by his superiors for what he felt was a needless series of operations, say, or, in those days, the rigid abortion restrictions — drew him up cold. He had a tetchy stomach that gave him the tendency to faint.

So he concluded, Physician, wheel thyself. And drove away from such a future, in 1970. “To quit medicine to become a writer struck most people like quitting the Supreme Court to become a bail bondsman,” he wrote. But this was disingenuous. He had already published 10 thrillers. By the time The Andromeda Strain reached the screen in 1972, he was writing screenplays and other novels, and about to start a career as a film director (Coma, The Great Train Robbery, Runaway). It was natural for him, Crichton says. He knew the works of Hitchcock before he knew the works of Dickens.

John Michael Crichton grew up in a suburb of New York City, on Long Island, one of four children of an advertising-magazine executive and a homemaker. The parents encouraged the children to find nothing intellectually daunting. The theater, movies and museums were a large part of their lives. Crichton sold his first story, a travel piece, to the New York Times when he was 14. He entered Harvard as an English major, intending to become a writer, but after , his compositions were adjudged underwhelming, he switched to anthropology. “The English department was not the place for an aspiring writer,” he says. “It was the place for an aspiring English professor.”

After graduating with honors in 1964, ever precocious, he lectured on anthropology for a year at Cambridge University in England. Then came medical school and the incredible events that followed. In the past 18 months, in just the U.S., Crichton has sold 30 million books. His popularity seems to spring from his ability to marry his vast appetite for science and its frontiers to humans caught in perilous situations — all told in a driving narrative that fairly whispers, “. . . and then . . . and then . . .” Jurassic Park, for one, has sold 9 million copies.

Yet, as seems to be the way of it with many people of protean interests (his passions range from computers, about which he wrote a book, to Jasper Johns, about whom he wrote a book) and prodigious success, personal happiness does not always attend. There was a period, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Crichton was blocked. “Writing was very difficult for me.” He leans toward his interlocutor conspiratorially. “You know, Olivier got stage fright when he was 65. It lasted about five years and then vanished. I did everything I could think of to do. Nothing seemed to much matter.”

For years Crichton responded by traveling like a tramp, the anthropologist in him exploring exotic cultures hard to reach. From Malaysia to Pakistan to an ascent of Kilimanjaro to a descent with South Pacific sharks, literally, he roamed. Along the way he was a spiritual pilgrim as well, exploring psychic phenomena the scientist within him assessed carefully but many times failed to discredit. He says he bent spoons, visited a past gladiatorial life in Rome, had his aura fluffed as you would a poodle. Once, he found himself in the desert conversing with a cactus, which he insulted, only to feel contrite.

“Will you forgive me?” Crichton asked the cactus. “No answer. Hardball from the cactus.”

Skeptical? So was Crichton. “Sometimes I thought, ‘You’ve been in California too long, and you’ve gone from a perfectly O.K. doctor to a guy who lies on a couch while somebody puts crystals on him and you actually think it means something, but it’s nothing but a lot of hippie-dippy-airy-fairy baloney. New Age Garbage, Aquarian Abracadabra, Karmic Crap. Get out now, Michael, before you start to believe this stuff.’ But the thing is, I was having a really interesting time.”

He explored the landscape of the mind, or consciousness, as he explored the physical landscape of the planet. And then . . . for whatever reason, by 1985 Crichton was back working; by 1987 he was into his most solidly satisfying marriage (to Anne-Marie Martin); by 1988 he was a deliriously happy father (her name is Taylor); and by 1993 the money he was earning by his wits rolled up in 18-wheelers (the film rights to Disclosure went for $3.5 million).

The new book may turn out to be his most provocative yet. Asked if provocation is his intent, he laughs. “I don’t really enjoy it. I feel I am caught up in something, and I am made to do it.” He knows he will be attacked and will find it extremely unpleasant, as he did with Rising Sun, and he will come away feeling that an honest attempt to educate and entertain on a complicated topic has been given a simplistic reading. He still picks at the abrasions from the Japan-bashing charges Rising Sun raised.

“I’m a clean look in any given area, and I’m a single look,” he says. “I won’t be making the issue my life’s work. I’m not going to be making future sources of funding angry. I can walk in the door and say what I see in the room and walk out. That’s what I do. I tell the truth. I believe very strongly in equality for women, and there’s only one way to get it. Egalitarian feminism is the only way. That’s the story. Egalitarian feminism says equality of opportunity and pay, period. That’s it. People say women have special problems. Well, men have special problems. I’m very tall. That’s a special problem.” Here Crichton is arguing, as his book does, against any “special protection” for women. “Equality is clear. No favoritism is clear. If you say, ‘No favoritism except here,’ then it’s not clear. I think everybody understands equal. It’s relatively easy to measure, as in exactly how far we’ve gotten and exactly how far we have to go. Protectionism is not clear. It’s possible to imagine there’s something even anti-American in it. Limiting free speech . . .” Crichton drops it for a moment with some sort of back-of- the-throat sound of exasperation.

He’s not talking about physical invasion. He’s talking about, one gathers from his book and his discourse, the folly of trying to redesign gender relations in the workplace by defining harassment, in the subtle, gray areas, so specifically that litigation or incarceration will eventually do away with every offense, make the office a perfect world. This may be the anthropologist at work (or a too casual interpretation). Beyond that, if a certain perfume or cologne is intoxicating, everyone should know by now to remain silent or, in close quarters, stop breathing. Crichton’s book examines, at a sensationalistic but not implausible level, just what a powerful weapon a claim, or even the threat of a claim, of sexual harassment is today.

Having written it, Crichton is out of that metaphorical room he has spoken of. He won’t be making a life’s work of this issue, as he says. But he won’t have heard the last of it either. However, he will be onto something else by the time the criticism comes battering at the gate. He’ll be rolling toward another minefield that has snagged his curiosity. For the moment, though, he is on a plane — not to the Australian outback, but at least as far as Hawaii.

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