Christine, by Stephen King

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There is a reason that reviews tend to be negative when it comes to Christine – it’s not that it’s a terrible book, it’s that there is just too much of everything in it. It takes too long to move the car from one place to another, never mind the narrative, and where the rare moments of incisive teenage mental angst come, they arrive in the minds of under-nourished characters. However, for all the negatives, it is hard to outright demonise this giant volume, the product of a shit ton of coke and booze in the body of a bestselling novelist, because it still delivers the sort of tricks that only King seems to manage. For one thing, he made the junky, forgettable concept of a demonic car sort of, well, memorable. As King himself said in a 1984 interview,

An audience can relate to a certain degree to something like a haunted house, The Amityville Horror, traditional horrors like ghosts, vampires and things like that. You give them a car, or any inanimate object, and you’re suggesting something that is either along the pulpy lines of the E.C. comics, or else obviously symbolic. […] When you do that, you’re really starting to take a risk. But, that’s also where the excitement is. If you can make somebody go along with that concept, that’s really wonderful.

Christine is the name of a ruined old Plymouth Fury that ensnares a young, acne-ridden teen, Arnie, to open his wallet and then later his soul. Dennis, his only friend, is forced to watch from a distance (literally; he’s in hospital for half of the novel, taking a break from narrating things) as his nerdy little friend becomes the world’s most unlikeable dick. Will Dennis get his friend back from the borders of Crazy Town, or will the old car steal poor Arnold Cunningham away forever?

I took a break from Christine about halfway through to read a couple of other books. When your book is over 700 pages long, it’s easy to stray into the warm embrace of a 300 or 400 paged other lover. But, as it turned out, it was good to come back to it after that break. As James Smythe notes in his Guardian blog, there is a formula oft quoted to the ridicule of a King story: “x (where x = any seemingly innocuous thing: dog, hotel, clown etc), + y (where y = possession, demons, the undead) = novel.” He acknowledges that this only applies to those commercial favourites, of course, whilst thankfully the real gems tend to avoid such easy accusations. But what can be a criticism can also be a redeemer – formulaic can be cosy, it can be like an old friend who always tells the same stories but you enjoy hearing them anyway, and you enjoy them doubly when you haven’t heard them for a while. That is how Christine feels.

The world of Christine is like the world of Carrie, of Needful Things, of Pet Sematary, of any number of others because, aside from the fact that most King books reside in the same fictional universe anyway, they also share a habitual tendency to dedicate themselves to the lives of the working class, of the oddballs, of the young. He writes these characters with almost obsessive desire to plant colloquialisms, to live out their ordinariness, their father who drinks beer and watches sports, their dog or cat loved by the children – and then the ground is ripe for extraordinariness.

Although there are weighty criticisms levelled at Christine, it remains undeniably an iconic novel in genre fiction, with cruel imagery to corrupt even the biggest Herbie fan. If you are intent on reading the majority of King in the coming years, as I am, Christine needs to be on your list. It is essential reading – so get in the car, because Roland D LeBay is driving and he’s not a patient man.

Finders Keepers, by Stephen King – Boring Bill Can’t Ruin This Ending

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There is a problem with Finders Keepers and its name is Bill Hodges. While other characters are exciting, despicable, and electrifying, Hodges manages to slow down the pace and the prose, he manages to stagnate the narrative. The characters around him begin to wade through his aura of mundanity and they too start to do things more slowly; as others are fighting for their lives, or committing atrocious crimes, Bill Hodges is thinking about how little he understands computers. And then he’ll spend some time thinking about that thing that happened a few years ago and the fact he eats salads but he doesn’t like them but he does.

Finders Keepers obligingly allows old Bill in about a third of the way into the novel. There he is, eating a goddamn salad, on his way to corner a criminal. King doesn’t seem to want to make him interesting, and it should be no particular surprise. It’s the rather dull characters that we imprint on, the ones who until now have led envious, but not exciting lives. Jake in 11/22/63 is no one very special, called upon to do something extraordinary. Mike in Bag of Bones is a pretty standard writer whose most enveloping mystery is his own life. But for Bill, who has led a seemingly self destructive, exciting buddy cop movie sort of life, and then retired, he has never really surpassed his own history. He’s perhaps a little rubbish at it all now. He is no Inspector Clouseau, but unentertainingly close. 

All that bitching and moaning out of the way, I still ended up loving Finders Keepers (big surprise there). When Boring Bill Hodges comes on the scene, it took me a long time to regain pace, but I’m glad I stuck with it. Morris Bellamy is a superb, cold and brutal villain, far more entertaining than Brady Hartsfield from Mr Mercedes, and he is a sadistic joy to read. Pete Saubers continually reminded me of Arnie Cunningham from Christine, but unlike Arnie, Pete seems to curb his obsession before it becomes possession.  Holly and Jeremy bore me tirelessly, sorry Bill, I find even your friends uninteresting.

Read Finders Keepers for its ending. Like Mr Mercedes, the finale to this novel closes a classic King young vs old narrative, before giving you all the reasons in the world to read the final book in the trilogy. If you, like me, felt apprehensive about the Hodges trilogy because it all seems too ordinary, the final book seems to be anything but ordinary. So read the books, even if you don’t like Hodges, because what’s coming is going to be worth it. 

The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis: On Death, Literary Fiction, and Max the Cat

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I don’t know if I was already thinking about mortality so intensely before reading this book, but I’m now in a thanatopic loop after finishing it. I’ve read more upsetting books on this topic, granted (Night, by Elie Wiesel), but this one seems to scream and lurch inside me when I read it, and why? Because its monstrosity comes from the mundanity of human beings.

Moral Contemplations of a Murderer

Holocaust Memorial Day passed a little while ago and the false memory of my family hung over me, as if I’d known them. I’m told there was a six year-old in that train whose blood, under a microscope, looked a little like mine does now. Alongside that faceless child, there were many more, distant aunts, uncles, traditions and stories, all murdered, all now a full-stop in my family’s history. I don’t even know their real name; British Border officials tried their faithful best, but Yakob’s surname, a now disturbingly rare and glaringly Jewish amalgamation of nouns that followed my great-grandfather, my grandfather and then my mother, is really just a Anglophonic guess at a funny foreign name. When Szmul, the only Jewish narrator in The Zone of Interest, works with the trains unloading new arrivals destined for the showers and the vans and the rifle butts, I wonder if he ever met them.

In my previous post, I quoted Paul Doll’s repeated claims of normality, then later in the novel (p.222), in another moment of introspection (sans the self-justified intentions of rape), the reader is audience to odd, near-moral contemplations. Could it be that Paul Doll is feeling the membrane of the Nazi bubble thin? Whether it be intentionally so or not on the part of Amis or his narrator, there appears to be a suspect ignorance that sits beneath these lines – it almost feels as though Doll is asking the questions simply to be viewed as moral by the reader. He swears never to allow them to recur, but would they have any effect if they did? Perhaps the only moral truth demonstrated is that Doll clearly knows that they are the right questions to ask oneself.

“If what we’re doing is good, why does it smell so lancingly bad? On the ramp at night, why do we feel the ungainsayable need to get so brutishly drunk? […] Why did the lunatics, and only the lunatics, seem to like it here? […]
. . . There is a placard on the office wall that says, My loyalty is my honour and my honour is my loyalty. Strive. Obey. JUST BELIEVE! And I find it highly suggestive that out word for ideal obedience – Kadavergehorsam – has a corpse in it (which is doubly curious, because cadavers are the most refractory things on earth). The duteousness of the corpse. The conformity of the corpse. Here at the KL, in the cremas, in the pits: they’re dead. But then so are we, we who obey . . .”

Death and cadavers, it reads a little cheaply to me if taken wholly seriously.

Literary Fiction, An Awkward Fit

“The person who deserves most pity is a lonesome one on a rainy day who doesn’t know how to read [literary fiction].”
― Benjamin Franklin (apparently)

Have you ever finished a book and wondered if you actually got it? Coming away from a book about the Holocaust and then reiterating that the Holocaust was bad is, sort of, well, obvious, after all. Barbarism is laid out in the novel, given more room for cognition, breathing replaced with an arrythmic stutter, and it made an impact, an original one at that, but did I miss something? I feel like I did.

For example, whilst I noticed Doll’s narration continuously using numerical figures where the actual noun would have been standard – “1stly” instead of “firstly” – I’m not exactly sure why Amis did it (and it does feel like Amis did it, not his narrator). Reluctantly, I searched online and found nothing substantial enough to answer me – I suspect that until a specialist in Stylistics writes on the matter, I won’t be satisfied.

I mentioned in the previous post that I was tentatively enjoying the lack of description for physical surroundings, and although I remain happy with such an approach to a novel, then add in a somewhat disorientating pace to the final third of the novel and the whole thing began to thoroughly confuse me

My point is that I finished what was a powerfully savage, and sometimes exquisite, book feeling unsure about what had actually happened from start to finish. And so it joins the ranks of those novels that I have loved the process of reading, though perhaps not found enough of a story to feel connected to it by the end. Was this literary fiction, and therefore the reason I didn’t keep up? 

I think Michael Hofmann did a superb job in reviewing the book less favourably than I would and that’s where I take some reassurance that my confusion isn’t without some grounding at least.

Max the Cat

Max, perhaps

As I researched around cats in literature, Alison Flood reminded me in her Guardian Books blog of the wonderful tale of Emir Filipović, an academic who, whilst researching his PhD, came across a 15th century manuscript stained by the pawprints of a cat, doubtlessly vying for the author’s attention. “[T]he past was full of ‘normal’ everyday events, just like today,” Emir tells Alison, “and a picture such as the one with the cat pawprints tends to remind everybody that people who lived in the past were not much different than ourselves.”

Max, whose mousing skills I quote in my previous post, is character who has no dialogue. Some would say not, claiming he’s just a literary device, easily disposed of when the time comes, and that’s fine, if you’re willing to say the same of the Jews who are wordlessly loaded off the trains and murdered, but still, just like Max, form a living, feeling force in that fictional world. 

This legendary mouser, no doubt, mirrors the plot and the ideologies within it: a ferocious killer unconcerned with either end of the scale, at cruelty or compassion, who eventually turns on those he serves. The idea that he serves anyone but himself is dubious, of course, and I’m reminded of Christopher Hitchens’ comments, “Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.”

And so here it is: I’ve always entertained my own brand of rebellion, one encapsulated by the very philosophy that I believe cats too embody, the basic and life-altering, “Fuck you.”

It’s not grounded in morality, a sadist can use it as much as a pacifist can, after all, but instead it’s looking at those in power square in the eyes, unmoving, those who would rule you totally given the chance, and saying, fuck you. When Max coolly clawed at Thomsen, drawing blood, I smiled reading it, envisioning this cat empowered by a simple philosophy. Perhaps too disposable is the idea that this feline betrayal mirrors Thomsen’s changing values in the story, or his odd humanity in the constant setting of his depravity, far too motif/thematic, too school literature lesson, perhaps; I honestly cannot pin any real, justifiable analysis on Max. But it is a glorious Fuck you, in any case, and for that I won’t forget him.

I whipped my hand away – but not fast enough; there was a thin red stripe on the base of my thumb, which in a minute or so, I knew, would start to seep.
“You little shit,” I said.
He didn’t flee, he didn’t hide. He lay there on his back staring at me with his claws unsheathed.

– p.260

Lightning over a dark horizon - Stephen King's "Revival"

Religion, Music and Drugs in ‘Revival’ by Stephen King

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I finished Revival  – and without taking the planned break at page 300 to write a post marking the milestone, whoops. Instead I found myself obsessing over the story and was helpless but to relentlessly tear through the rest of the novel at every available moment. What follows however is not a review, I’m simply not one to be trusted on that front, and so instead I present a discussion of what interests me most about Revival.

spoilers

On Religion

Stephen King is a believer in God. He told Rolling Stone magazine last year, “I choose to believe that God exists, and therefore I can say, ‘God, I can’t do this by myself. Help me not to take a drink today. Help me not to take a drug today.’ And that works fine for me.”

This particular use of belief as a tool for support or strength that King seems to have plays into the novel. Where faith parts with Jamie Morton, drugs and alcohol appear to take over; where faith parts with Charles Jacobs, obsession and amorality. Both are examples of one such supportive crutch being replaced with others. Whilst this may have been the doorway to a novel that battled faith against atheism, I was glad to see King refrain from doing so.

You’re not real!‘ I shouted. ‘You’re not real! It’s all a bunch of tricks! Damn you, Jesus! Damn you, Jesus! Damn you, damn you, damn you, Jesus!

Those words are spoken by our narrator as a young boy marking the end of his belief. I like to believe that King used damn intentionally, a nod to the pervasiveness of adoptive theological language in our everyday tongue, ironically even in the renunciation of faith itself. 

 

On Music and Drugs

I recently spoke to an old friend of Stephen King. He’s a musician from Chicago, who fell into addiction at the same time that King was climbing out of it. Michael McDermott’s music (think Springsteen, Chris Rea, Dylan, etc.) made such an impression on the novelist, in fact, that an essay penned by Stephen now takes pride of place on his website. I mention Michael because I saw him, for better and for worse, in the pages of Revival. Taken in by the rock’n’roll lifestyle, both our narrator and McDermott fell into addiction at a young age and subsequently saw big-time success slip away – and just like Jamie, McDermott is now clean and sober. 

Jamie’s story feels genuine because it echoes much of what Michael has told me in our conversations: the helplessness of addiction, the hypnosis of playing rock’n’roll live, and the longevity of love through it all. Did King draw from his own experiences of addiction and those of his friends then? It seems likely.

“Nobody lives one day at a time like a drug addict. You don’t think yesterday or tomorrow. You just think now, where is it? I was high much of the eighties, and I’m not a very reflective person, so it never crossed my mind that it was an existential thing, or that it was wasteful or anything else. It was just what I was doing that day.”

– Stephen King, Guardian interview, 2000

“I went to jail for it (I was facing 3 to 6 years in prison), that didn’t stop me. Ruined relationships, that didn’t stop me. Became a car thief, that didn’t stop me. Overdosed, that didn’t stop me. […] I would be asked to speak at churches and between services I would be outside in my car, drinking whiskey and snorting cocaine.”

– Michael McDermott, in a forthcoming interview on my Huffington Post UK blog.

“The future was looking brighter. I would score at the fair, find a place to crash – maybe at a local homeless shelter, maybe outside – and tomorrow I’d ride the big gray dog to Shytown. There was a musicians’ exchange there, as there is in most big cities, with players sitting around, telling jokes, swapping gossip, and looking for gigs. For some this wasn’t easy (accordion players, for example), but bands were always looking for competent rhythm guitar players, and I was a smidge more than that. By 1992 I could even play a little lead, if called upon to do so. And if I wasn’t too wrecked.The important thing was to get to Chicago and get a gig before Kelly Van Dorn put out the word that I was unreliable, and the pisshead just might.”

– Jamie Morton, Chapter 5, Revival

 

 

100 Pages in… Revival, by Stephen King [No Spoilers]

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kinghciar1One hundred pages in and I’m reminded of something: Stephen King is effortlessly absorbing. And he is a master craftsman in world-building. So, put those together and you find yourself often in Derry, Castle Rock, Dallas, or Harlow, without so much of a scuff of your feet as you hit the dusty road. After a slightly drab, though ultimately cathartic, stumble through Mr Mercedes, Revival has me hooked again, feeling the heat and smelling the electrified air.

Both in time and space, Revival‘s narrative takes over the steering wheel. In some novels, I find myself making a concerted effort to drive the narrative on with my attention in tact, identifying reasons to be intrigued and indulging in intricacies of language where plot offers only nuances of change. Now, that’s no negative aspect, as far as I’m concerned, because sometimes a story requires less adrenaline, less races of the heart, and more inspection of the finer details – it can often to be the clue to the whole thing being really rather beautiful – but it’s nice to get inside, feel the tug and shove of relentless shifts of time and place, and simply enjoy the ride, however bumpy it may be.

I was bound to love this story, as it turns out. Science, religion, music, sex, drugs and violence – it’s a list to entice most. And although I know there were some mediocre reviews for this book, I sit happily in the knowledge that the experience is subjective to the reader. I relate to the above topics, especially religion and drugs and music, so I’m completely invested in knowing how everything turns out.

My Uh-Oh moment so far? When King’s narrative monkey jumped on the shoulder’s of relative strangers. When that happens, you know something terrible, something utterly awful is going to happen. Well, it did.

And I loved it.