Don DeLillo, Underworld
After reading On Writing (Stephen King's memoir of the craft) and enjoying The Stand, I wanted to tackle more King. So I started at the beginning.
"What none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic."
The story behind the writing of Carrie is far more interesting than the book itself. The novel's genesis may not be widely known enough to be considered legendary, but I suspect any writers who have read a fair amount of King know it well.
I thought it would make a Cavalier [a men's magazine in which King had published several short stories] story: a straight point-to-point tale of an ugly-ducking girl with the "wild talent" of telekinesis, who finally uses her talent to get even with the bitches in her phys ed class who had been tormenting her.So he did. And he quickly realized that the story would be longer than anything Cavalier would publish. But it probably would not be long enough for a novel. It would end up as the "confused, anarchy-riddled, literary banana republic" known as a novella, not a short story, not a novel, but something in between - "a story with absolutely no market".
The story had so many strikes against it from the very beginning that it never should have been written at all. The first problem had occurred about an hour after I sat down and began writing. I decided I couldn't write it at all. I was in a totally foreign environment - a girls' shower room - and writing about teenage girls. I felt completely at sea. ... I (1) had never been a girl, (2) had never had a menstrual cramp or a menstrual period, (3) had absolutely no idea how I'd react to one. ...
I crumpled up my two pages and threw them in the kitchen wastebasket. About an hour later Tabby saw them there, fished them out, read them, and pressed me to go on.
I persisted, not out of any noble motivation, not out of any glimmerings into the future, not even because my wife had asked me to, but because I was dry and had no better ideas. If I had had one, I would have dropped Carrie in a flash. I pushed my way through scene after difficult, sticky scene, taking little if any pleasure in any of it, only doing the most competent job I could ... I think it would be fair to say that I detested it. It was neither fish nor fowl; not a straight story, not strictly a fantasy, not strictly science fiction. The length was wrong and the ending was terribly downbeat. My considered opinion was that I had written the world's all-time loser.In early 1973, he sent it off to an editor at Doubleday with whom he had had previous dealings, and after a meeting and some re-writing of the last 50 pages, Carrie was published in April 1974. King was 26 years old.
One wonders about the arc (or even the existence) of King's writing career if those pages had stayed in the trash. Considering how prodigious King's work flow was at that time, some type of success might have come anyway, or he might have been at a low point where it was finally time to admit that writing would be nothing more than a sideline.
King, writing in Danse Macabre:
The story deals with a girl named Carrie White, the browbeaten daughter of a religious fanatic. Because of her strange clothes and shy mannerisms, Carrie is the butt of every class joke; the social outsider in every situation. She also has a mild telekinetic ability which intensifies after her first menstrual period ...Is that heavy, turgid subtext really there? Perhaps a little. The book does chart Carrie's awakening and assertion of herself, and she is clearly terrified of an empty future in the shadow of her abusive mother, who is described as a religious fundamentalist, but is, in my opinion, nearly insane. Carrie notes that life under her mother's dominance would be a kind of living death:
[T]he book tries to deal with the loneliness of one girl, her desperate effort to become part of the peer society in which she must exist, and how her effort fails. If it had any thesis to offer, this deliberate updating of High School Confidential, it was that high school is a place of almost bottomless conservatism and bigotry ...
But there's a little more subtext to the book than that, I think - at least, I hope so. ... Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, and what men fear about women and women's sexuality ... The book is, in its more adult implications, an uneasy masculine shrinking from a future of female equality. For me, Carrie White is a sadly misused teenager, an example of the sort of person whose spirit is so often broken for good in that pit of man- and woman-eaters that is your normal suburban high school. But she's also Woman, feeling her powers for the first time in her life and, like Samson, pulling down the temple on everyone in sight at the end of the book.
Heavy, turgid stuff - but in the novel, it's only there if you want to take it. If you don't, that's okay with me.
High school would be over in a month. Then what? A creeping, subterranean existence in this house, supported by Momma, watching game shows and soap operas all day on television ... walking down to the Center to get a malted after supper at the Kelly Fruit when it was deserted, getting fatter, losing hope, losing even the power to think?More King thoughts:
Carrie was written after Rosemary's Baby, but before The Exorcist, which really opened up the field. I didn't expect much of Carrie. I thought who'd want to read a book about a poor little girl with menstrual problems? I couldn't believe I was writing it. ... I'm not saying that Carrie is shit and I'm not repudiating it. She made me a star, but it was a young book by a young writer. In retrospect it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader - tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom.Carrie is a good debut novel(la), though not as interesting to me as either The Long Walk or Rage, two other novels which I believe were completed and in King's drawer by this time. (Both of them were published a few years later under the name Richard Bachman.)
The novel feels like an expanded short story, and the inclusion of documented sources about the Carrie White "incident" - news bulletins, excerpts from scholarly books, interviews from various investigations - felt at times like a poor substitute for developing the story and characters in a more traditional way. What is interesting about Carrie is that it is a horror story that makes little effort to hide what's coming. The fine details are unknown, but King drops not-so-subtle hints of what is coming almost from the start of the book:
"her violent rampage of revenge" (back cover)A careful reader may also notice that none of the sources quote Carrie herself, so there is a question of whether she remains alive.
Carrie is telekinetic, and has a "potential of immense magnitude" (pp. 4, 6)
Her mother is now dead (67)
Something happened at the school's Spring Ball, an incident known simply as Prom Night (82)
"the destruction that came to Chamberlain, Maine" (91)
"He and George and Frieda had less than two hours to live." (141)
Carrie is in many ways a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale, with even their four-syllable names (Carietta) being similar. One of the most obvious allusions is when Carrie loses her "prom slippers" while running across the school lawn at what is clearly the end of the Spring Ball.
King establishes several themes that he will return to again and again in his fiction: a child protagonist with cruel or distant parents, or a main character, often an outsider, with a secret or a secret ability. He will continue interrupting sentences to include whatever may be running quickly through a character's mind, set off either in parenthesis or in italics. There is a theme of identity and conformity in high school that King will also discuss (in far greater depth) in the Bachman book, Rage. King calls the ending of Carrie "a dream revolution of the socially downtrodden".
Three inside jokes: King quotes from a poem Carrie had written in a Grade 7 English class led by Mr. Edwin King. Edwin is King's middle name, and he taught high school English back in the '70s. ... The book mentions something known as "King's Evil", a skin disease (scrofula) which could allegedly be cured during the Middle Ages in England and France by the mere touch from royalty. ... A roadhouse bar is named the Cavalier.
Carrie is also one of the most-frequently banned books in United States high schools, one of several of King's books to be banned in schools. King's observation: "If a book is banned, go find that book and read it because that is what you should be reading."
"True sorrow is as rare as true love."King, Book-of-the-Month Club News, 1987:
"Whenever anything important happens in America, they have to gold-plate it, like baby shoes. That way you can forget it." (sounding a tad DeLillo-esque, actually)
I'm not any big-deal fancy writer. If I have any virtue it's that I know that. I don't have the ability to write the dazzling prose line. All I can do is entertain people. I think of myself as an American writer.Next: 'Salem's Lot.