You Can't Always Get What You Want: On Stephen King
Is there any other living novelist who calls for a perpetual re-evaluation as much as Stephen King? Thirty-seven years after the publication of his first novel, Carrie, King still seems not just underrated but uncomprehended. For years his critical evaluation was hampered by the dual whammy of his being not only a genre writer but an immensely successful one. He was ridiculed and dismissed when he was paid any attention at all, yet when he didn’t go the convenient route of fading away after a few bestsellers (all but two of his books have remained in print), a sort of grudging attention began to be paid to him. Occasionally it was even approving. At a conference of postmodern novelists at Brown University, the critic Leslie Fiedler, who had written appreciatively of King (even mischievously calling him a closet intellectual), announced to an assembled group that included William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, “When all of us are forgotten, people will still be remembering Stephen King.”
The serious consideration King has sporadically received over the years peaked in 2003, when the National Book Foundation honored him with a medal for lifetime achievement. The dedication was exactly right: “Stephen King’s writing is securely rooted in the great American tradition that glorifies spirit-of-place and the abiding power of narrative.” Notable among the expected harrumphing that followed was the noxious black cloud hanging over New Haven, which materializes whenever Harold Bloom decides a barbarian is about to defile the canon (see also Rowling, J.K.).
But respectability can leave a writer as underappreciated as dismissal does. In a way, the National Book Foundation’s recognition was confirmation that King had become A Writer Who’s Better Than You Expect Him to Be. Just a year earlier, a great deal of public affection greeted the release of From a Buick 8, the first King novel to appear since the accident that had nearly killed him three years before (he was struck by a pickup while walking on the side of the road). Reviewers understood the story of a mysterious Buick Roadmaster that comes out of nowhere and brings violence and terror in its wake to be a metaphor for King’s brush with death. They weren’t wrong, but they also underestimated the book.
Along with Spike Lee’s film 25th Hour and the majestic, lacerating song “Boeing 737,” from the Low Anthem’s latest album, Smart Flesh, From a Buick 8 belongs on the very short list of works of imagination that have managed to convey the rupture of 9/11 in all its shock and fear. The day is mentioned once in From a Buick 8, among a list of events in a paragraph meant to tick off the years. But the psychic legacy of the day colors the entire book. King took what turned out to be the great cliché of 9/11, that nothing would ever be the same again, and treated it as an irreducible truth.
That alone put him at odds with much of the commentary and decision-making that followed 9/11, from the sanctimonious pronouncements made on the left about the cause of the attacks before anyone had claimed responsibility for them, to the right’s use of them to justify its slavish militarism and contempt for human rights. Implicit to many of these responses was the belief that nothing had happened that couldn’t have been anticipated, and consequently that not only the causes of the attacks but the proper response to them was self-evident. Against these arrogant certainties, King focused on uncertainty as the very currency of American life.
A Buick that’s a portal from an unknown realm, a machine that can make people vanish and also discharge the mangled remains of creatures who try to make the trip to this world, is the stuff of sci-fi pulp. But King also reckons with the sometimes necessary violence done to creatures who so disgust us that we can barely credit the idea that they suffer. What dominates the novel is the Buick, simultaneously present and unremarked on. Impounded in a small-town police garage, itself a metaphor for the inadequacy of our methods for keeping the inexplicable at bay, the Buick, whose arrival and purpose remain unexplained, is a flutter of unease at the periphery of the everyday life King renders so precisely and warmly. That warmth makes us all the more anxious, conscious of how easily the quotidian can tear open. How, the novel implicitly asks, can we maintain our humanity living with the constant possibility of sudden violence?
The boy would never quite understand the way it had really been. How mundane it had been, at least on most days. On most days we had just gone on…. We had the miracle of the world out behind our workplace, but that didn’t change the amount of paperwork we had to do or the way we brushed our teeth or how we made love to our spouses. It didn’t lift us up to new realms of existence or planes of perception. Our asses still itched, and we still scratched them when they did.
Could any American reading that passage in 2002 not think of 9/11? It may be that a novelist who had written about vampires, or resort hotels harboring murderous spirits, or a viral plague that wipes out most of the world population, or freakish outsiders who are telekinetic or telepathic, was especially suited to consider how people attempt to carry on when the unthinkable has upended their lives. On the other hand, it could be that for all the fantastic and macabre in his work, King is so grounded in the American middle-class familiar that he could not help addressing such a violent intrusion into its living room.
That From a Buick 8 hasn’t been discussed as a 9/11 novel suggests that King is still far from being accepted as a serious writer. The insularity typical of the books celebrated as 9/11 novels is a trademark of what Terry Southern called the “quality lit” biz. To talk about a finicky finger sandwich of a novel like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008), with its limp metaphor of a multiracial cricket team standing in for the disparate-yet-blended multitudes of New York City, as a response to 9/11 is to praise a literature in which the wan and tasteful is an adequate response to mass murder. It’s not subtlety I’m against. From a Buick 8, in its indirect metaphor, is subtle. It’s timidity. The aftermath of 9/11 should not be dealt with as, literally, a Sunday in the park.
As the momentary cohesion of 9/11 gave way to the division and disgust prompted by the war in Iraq and the revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, King also abandoned subtlety. In the straight-up horror story Cell (2006), the act of dialing the digits 9-1-1 has the potential to turn people into murderous zombies. The metaphors of Under the Dome (2009) were even blunter. King used an invisible dome that descends on a small town, turning it into a tinpot tyranny, to represent the self-imposed isolation of the United States under George W. Bush. The Twilight Zone gimmick was equal to the deranged reality of an America awash in birthers and truthers, of future presidential candidates claiming death panels were being set up to euthanize the elderly, of media demagogues warning that FEMA was building concentration camps. It was a novel written by someone determined to keep fresh the outrages of the Bush years and the ones that have never stopped coming from the radical right—and, if only in the pages of his novel, to make the guilty pay.
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In King’s new novel, 11/22/63, the sense of justice that has always animated his fiction, his hatred of bullies and bigots and busybodies, collides with the futility of extracting revenge. Encompassing more than fifty years of US history, 11/22/63 charts the country’s deterioration from the politics of inclusion to the enshrinement of economic and spiritual meanness as the official expression of national character. The plot device might almost be a child’s wish-fulfillment fantasy: a portal allows the hero to go back in time to try and stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Before the book ends, King addresses the simplicity of that wish. 11/22/63 becomes a double tragedy—of the murder that scarred America’s psyche and, despite the evidence that our good intentions produce horrendous results, of the persistence of the messianic belief that Americans have the power to right any wrong.
Whether they idealize the past or the future, time-travel stories often play to conservative and liberal fantasies of a golden age. At first in 11/22/63 it seems as if King is falling into the trap, writing in the quaint style of Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970), an adventure in which a man flees the noise and charmlessness of the present for the more civilized past of New York City in 1882. In 11/22/63 the time portal is a pop icon, one of those silver railroad-style diners that instead of being abandoned or in disrepair is gleaming and welcoming. But the residents of Lisbon Falls avoid it. They’re convinced that the owner, Al, can sell his fatburgers so cheap because he’s really selling catburgers. King’s hero is Jake Epping, a 35-year-old divorced high school English teacher who doesn’t believe the rumors and is a regular at Al’s. Jake is almost a magazine illustration of the decent ordinary guy; he’s dedicated to his students, even taking on the drudgery of teaching an English GED class. When Jake gets an urgent call from Al, with whom he’s exchanged no more than pleasantries over burgers and coffee, he’s perplexed but willing to hear the old man out. Rather than explain why he called, Al takes Jake to the door of the diner’s storeroom, divests Jake of his pocket electronics, gives him some money and says he’ll see him in two minutes. Jake enters the storeroom and steps into 1958.