Sunday, June 7, 2015
Photo: from the book's Goodreads page. (Yes, I review there as well. Feel free them up.)
After finishing this book, which was essentially a good book and an okay way to pass the reading time of three days (in my case, anyway), I am nonetheless compelled to write the following:
Things That Have Annoyed Me in Stephen King's Latest Novels:
--His tendency to focus almost exclusively, at least for the first half, on the character normally considered to be the antagonist. In this case, Morris Bellamy, who kills John Rothstein (a thinly-disguised combination of J.D. Salinger and John Updike) and steals his money and notebooks. This is not ruining anything, by the way, because the inside flap tells you this faster than I just did.
Anyway, there are problems with doing this. As I've mentioned in other recent reviews of King's work, the tendency to do this insinuates to the reader (again, at least this one) that King finds his antagonists more interesting than his protagonists. (Or, at least, that he feels his readers will.) This reminds me of actors who say they prefer playing the bad guy because he's usually more interesting than the bland good guy. If this is the case, the answer here is to simply make the protagonist more convincing, or less bland, or whatever. Often, an interesting protagonist will come to mirror the antagonist, thereby creating some depth. (Hopefully this is what happens in my with-beta-readers-WIP). King has done this focus-on-the-character-who's-normally-the-antagonist thing so frequently lately that it has to be by design.
The other problem with this is that it creates a cartoonish novel. This novel will be compulsively-readable--which this one certainly is, as I finished it in a few days--but that doesn't mean it's satisfying. I mentioned in a recent King review that his books have satisfied me less and less even though I'm reading them as quickly--if not more quickly--than ever. I don't mean this as a snotty criticism, but I do mean it with seriousness. By starting off with the antagonist, and by staying with him for so long, it creates the mirage (or, not, if you're strict about this sort of semantic thing) that the antagonist is actually the protagonist, and the protagonist, who's out to stop the bad-guy protagonist from doing bad things, is actually the antagonist, by definition. This is how the old Tom & Jerry cartoons worked.
And it sucks, because it feels fake. Because, really, it's backstory made into story, and you compulsively read it because it's there and that's all there is, but...it's not satisfying. There's something wrong. I'm not critical because it's not literature (somebody hit me upside the head if I ever get that snotty); I'm critical because it's not story. Though story is what happens, and maybe why it happens, there's something more that story's supposed to be. Something more real. More weighty, perhaps, but that's entering Elitist Land, maybe. But really it's just like watching a Tom & Jerry cartoon, which I tired of in my teens. And I've tired of it here.
I'm sure King has done this purposely lately because it also falsely creates momentary cliffhangers at the end of every section. And that's not done with realness, either. It works like this: Protagonist, who's doing bad things that you want to read because we all want to see the dead body under the sheet at the car accident (King's frequently-used comparison, not mine), does bad things but comes upon some roadblock that stops him and allows the writer to introduce the protagonist--who's actually the antagonist here, by definition, because he's trying to stop the main character. (Morris Bellamy, book advertising aside, is the main character here. The cop from Mr. Mercedes, who's advertised as the main character and the star of this trilogy, does not appear in this one until literally half-way through. And he's got remarkably little to do. He really could be any retired cop from anywhere, from any novel from any writer.) In this case, that roadblock is jail time. Bellamy gets out and the game's afoot. He does something. Bill Hodges, the retired cop, does something, and catches up a little with the program. In the meantime, other characters become more important and do more important things than Hodges does, and do so right until the end. In this case, Pete Saubers is the other main character here. Hodges is maybe third or fourth in line. Anyway, the sections get shorter (yet another fake way to create tension: James Patterson-like short chapters or sections--and lots of them) and the back-and-forth gets more frequent and creates tension even when the story itself doesn't.
Fakery, I tell you.
If you've read King's books before, especially the recent ones, there's never any doubt about what's going to happen. If you've read Misery, there's never any doubt about how it's going to happen. And the little ironic twist in the last 5% of the book, that part about where the notebooks were after all--well, it made me roll my eyes. Let me know if it did the same for you.
Bleh. Compulsively readable bleh, but bleh nonetheless.
You expect something more. And maybe that's part of the problem. Maybe we shouldn't be expecting more from him anymore. Can I say that out loud?
The other thing that needs to be said out loud: His stuff isn't scary anymore. It's not even chilly. (The ending of Revival is a blessed exception here.) The only part of the novel that does that is the very, very end--an ending with a character that was in this book for .01% of it--and never in a relevant to this story kind of way. That part--smack!--is the only even closely resembling creepy part of this whole thing.
That's what we want from King, right? If I'm not going to get the real-life creeps and genius of "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," "The Body" or even Misery, than I want the creepiness of The Shining and IT. The stuff he's giving us lately is nothing more than bad Dean Koontz. This was especially true of Mr. Sleep, which was so bad I literally got angry. (And was reminded of Dorothy Parker's quip, about another bad book, that it wasn't something to be put aside--but should instead be thrown with great force.) But I don't want the back-and-forth of guns and robbers and that stuff. I want little boys crawling underneath the snow, being chased by an unseen something that sticks its hand out of the snow, very suddenly. I want he thrusts his fists against the posts and still insists he sees the ghosts. This is TV show crap we're getting now, since Under the Dome did so well (in the ratings, during the summer, anyway), and I don't want it. (Under the Dome is a classic example of King focusing almost-exclusively on the character who normally would be the antagonist, but isn't because of King's POV focus on him. And the "protagonist" of Under the Dome was surely a bore--Steven Seagall in Under Seige. A special-op hiding out, in retirement or not, as a cook.)
Anyway, this wasn't scary. It wasn't intense. It wasn't creepy. It wasn't memorable. It was compulsively readable--but I could say the same about my journal entries and even my shopping list.
And I'm still optimistic enough to want more out of Stephen King than this. But maybe I shouldn't be.