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Book Review: The Third Man Factor

Published: The Scotsman (Critique) 13 June 2009

Book review: The Third Man Factor, by John Geiger
Canongate, 290pp, £12.99

THIS BOOK BY AMERICAN AUTHOR John Geiger represents a truly incredible literary achievement. Somehow, against all the odds, he has managed to take several dozen of the most dramatic tales of human survival ever recorded – stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things while stranded on deadly mountainsides or cast adrift on the world’s great oceans – and then, by condensing them into easily digestible gobbets and recounting them in a monotonous back-to-back format, rendered them all spirit-crushingly dull.

Geiger’s purpose in doing this is to explore the phenomenon he dubs the Third Man Factor, the strange feeling of being aided by a benevolent presence frequently experienced by explorers and military men who have reached the ends of their physical and mental tethers. You can’t help wondering, though, whether he couldn’t have covered the same ground using only a tenth of the examples.

During the final stage of their miraculous escape from Elephant Island in 1916, a long and hazardous march over the mountains of South Georgia, Sir Ernest Shackleton and the two men with him, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, all independently experienced the presence of a morale-boosting fourth being.

During the British retreat at the Battle of Mons two years earlier, several Tommies took heart when they thought they saw the French cavalry riding to their aid, only to realise they were staring at clumps of trees.

While completing his historic non-stop solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927, the aviator Charles Lindbergh felt the presence of a group of “friendly phantoms” who, he claimed, gave him a few handy navigational pointers.

In 1953, two deserters from the French Foreign Legion jumped ship on the way to fight the Communist Vietminh in Saigon and drifted around the Indian Ocean for weeks on a flimsy life raft. One was eaten by sharks, and in his darkest moments the survivor “had the strange feeling that someone else was with me, watching over me”.

Bored? That’ll be because you’ve just been reading the same story over and over again. Sure, the names and details have been changed each time, but the basic plot remains identical: protagonist endures some form of hardship; protagonist experiences benign presence which offers either comfort or assistance or both; protagonist then either kicks the bucket or doesn’t; The End. Imagine reading countless stories with that same basic structure for, ooh, say about 250 pages, and you’ll have some idea of the eye-watering level of tedium induced by this book.

Geiger isn’t a bad writer by any means – he’s won awards, in fact, and has been publicly bigged up by none other than William S Burroughs – but sadly the structure he’s chosen for this book means he’s constantly fighting a losing battle. After all, even Burroughs himself would struggle to tell the same story a hundred times over and keep it sounding fresh.

Things do get interesting – really interesting, in fact – when Geiger gets around to talking about some of the possible explanations for the Third Man. At the start of each chapter, he’ll propose a new theory and kick it around for a few engaging paragraphs before burying it under another avalanche of examples.

Two of the more interesting theories he outlines are “The Pathology of Boredom” and “The Widow Effect”. The former, dreamed up by the psychologist Woodburn Heron, proposes that the human brain is accustomed to a “normal” range of stimulus input and variety. Put somebody in a situation where they are deprived of stimulation – an enforced march across a featureless landscape, say – and their brain may generate stimuli of its own as a sort of coping device.

Meanwhile, the Widow Effect theory, based on the work of neurologist Macdonald Critchley, suggests that the experiences of the Third Man might be triggered by the loss of a companion. So just as some people who have lost a husband or wife report feeling their presence in the house after they are gone, so a soldier or mountaineer who has just lost a comrade or climbing partner might compensate by imagining another person by their side.

Geiger concludes with the arresting thought that, as a species, we may somehow have evolved with the capacity to create a companion for ourselves when we need one the most, and he follows this up with an even more arresting question: “Can the Third Man … be summoned up to help people facing crises of a more mundane nature?”

It’s actually a question he has already answered. Earlier in the book, Geiger refers to experiments by a group of scientists led by Olaf Blanke, working at the École Fédérale de Lausanne, in which they were able to make subjects experience a “presence” by passing electrical currents through a bit of the brain known as the left temporo-parietal junction. So, in theory, the Swiss could soon be manufacturing “Angel Switches” and selling them to lonely people all over the world.

All fascinating stuff – if only Geiger had resisted the temptation to recount every decent “Third Man” survival yarn he’d ever heard and focused a bit more on the science, this book could have been twice as good and half as long.

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