Monday, November 19, 2012

Stephen King: The Tommyknockers (1987)

I was not looking forward to reading The Tommyknockers. Not after reading things online warning that it was one of King's worst books, a self-indulgent mess, written in the depths of his addictions, a hefty tome of 558 pages sorely in need of an editor. Indeed, in one ranking of King's novels, it was slotted #61 out of 62.

Well, The Tommyknockers wasn't that bad. It will not crack my Top 10 when I'm done with this project (or my Top 20, probably), but two-thirds of it was pretty enjoyable. The ending was unsatisfying, with the wholesale destruction reminding me too much of Firestarter.

One summer day, while walking in the Maine woods with her elderly beagle, Roberta "Bobbi" Anderson (a writer of western-themed novels) trips over a hunk of metal sticking a few inches out of the ground. She pulls at it, but it doesn't budge - and so she starts digging around it. She finds that it is actually a much larger piece of metal.

The novel's other main character - Jim Gardener, an alcoholic poet and long-time friend of Bobbi's - returns to Haven, Maine, and joins Bobbi in her excavation. (Gard is also against nuclear power* and when he gets drunk, he has a tendency to voice his opinions rather forcefully. One of Gard's meltdowns (so to speak!) at a post-reading party is a captivating set piece, as he argues relentlessly, until the host suffers a heart attack and an industry spokesman's wife is reduces to hysterics).

* The meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania happened less than three years before King started work on the manuscript and the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine occurred late in the writing process.

Bobbi experiences something akin to a "physical craving" to continue digging in the woods. Much later in the book, she says she really had no choice:
I never asked to stumble over the goddamn thing. Free will was not a factor here ... Do you think people can choose to put away any knowledge once they've seen the edge of it? ... When ordinary people see something sticking out of the ground, they got to dig on it. They got to dig on it because it might be treasure.
It is slowly revealed that the object is not treasure, but an ancient flying saucer that has been buried for thousands of years. As more of the saucer is exposed to the air, it releases toxins that affect Bobbi - and will soon affect everyone in Haven. Bobbi experiences a surge in brain activity - it's described as unlimited energy - and begins building various implausible machines, including a typewriter that runs telepathically ("a direct tap into the subconscious, more like dreaming than writing"). She is also losing weight, her hair and teeth are falling out, and she is experiencing excessive menstrual bleeding, but she remains focused on digging.

Because of a metal plate in Gard's skull, the result of a skiing accident when he was a teenager, he is mostly immune to the ship's power, though he does suffer from frequent nosebleeds. As an "outsider", the town views him with suspicion. Eventually, the hatchway of the ship is uncovered and Bobbi and Gard explore inside. The creatures in the ship appear to be dead, but they are actually only hibernating, waiting for someone to come along and "re-animate" the ship. This is foreshadowed much earlier in the novel when Gard imagines some "twenty-fifth-century archaeologist" uncovering the "spent fuel rods that were stacking up in big hot piles". King believes that the legacy of both nuclear energy and the alien ship are beyond human manageability.

Anthony Magistrale wrote that the novel "becomes a thinly disguised parable of nuclear energy and the willingness of modern communities to risk human safety and the sanctity of the land for the corporate promise of clean and cheap energy".

Douglas Winter calls The Tommyknockers
a satirical invention of the pragmatic side of science fiction, which seemingly worships the technological solution over human emotion. The novel is focused upon people who play with things that they do not understand: it is intended to serve as a direct allegory for what we, as a nation, are doing with our collective lives.
The Tommyknockers is also a novel about addiction: humanity's craving for technological advances and King's own dependency on drugs and alcohol.

On Writing:
In the spring and summer of 1986, I wrote The Tommyknockers, often working until midnight with my heart running at a hundred and thirty beats a minute and cotton swabs stuck up my nose to stem the coke-induced bleeding.

Tommyknockers is a forties-style science fiction tale in which the writer-heroine discovers an alien spacecraft buried in the ground. The crew is still on board, not dead but only hibernating. These alien creatures got into your head and just started ... well, tommyknocking around in there. What you got was energy and a kind of superficial intelligence. What you gave up in exchange was your soul. It was the best metaphor for drugs and alcohol my tired, overstressed mind could come up with.

Not long after that my wife, finally convinced that I wasn't going to pull out of this ugly downward spiral on my own, stepped in. ... She organized an intervention group formed of family and friends, and I was treated to a kind of This Is Your Life in hell. ... Tabby said I had my choice: I could get help at a rehab or I could get the hell out of the house. She said that she and the kids loved me, and for that very reason none of them wanted to witness my suicide.

I bargained, because that's what addicts do. I was charming, because that's what addicts are. In the end I got two weeks to think about it. In retrospect, this seems to summarize all the insanity of that time. ...

[W]hat finally decided me was Annie Wilkes, the psycho nurse in Misery. Annie was coke. Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie's pet writer. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging, but I decided that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up.
Most critics were not kind when The Tommyknockers was published. Christopher Lehman-Haupt (New York Times) admitted to being a King addict and said it was "hard to resist the sheer energy of the storytelling", but reported the novel was plagued by "repetition, implausibility, an illogically switching point of view, [and] manipulative narrative leaps ... We already knew he could grip us with good horror stories and so-so horror stories. Now he has shown that he can grip us with a lousy horror story as well."

Publishers Weekly:
The Tommyknockers is consumed by the rambling prose of its author. Taking a whole town as his canvas, King uses too-broad strokes, adding cartoonlike characters and unlikely catastrophes like so many logs on a fire; ultimately, he loses all semblance of style, carefully structured plot or resonant meaning, the hallmarks of his best writing. It is clear from this latest work that king has "become" a writing machine ...
The middle section of the book - 217 pages entitled "Tales Of Haven" - tell us about the town of Haven and introduces many of the town's residents. You could call it self-indulgent, but it is also testament to King's talent at creating characters and telling their stories. King gives us pages and pages about the history of Haven, just as he did with the town of Derry in It. There is one essential difference, though. The background of Derry was critically important to the plot of It, while Haven's history is not very important to The Tommyknockers' narrative. It's not a total digression - the saucer plot is brought forward a bit - but it could easily have been cut by 50%-75%.

King, 1983:
I think that if there was any change suggested to me that I didn't want, all I would need to say would be, "No, I won't do that." And it would never be a question of their withdrawing my contract, would it? They'd just finally say, "Well, okay then, don't do it that way." When means, in effect, that if I'm willing to be really intransigent, there'll be no editing at all. ... It's a terrible position to me in. I think I just have to resolve to take editing, even if I think the changes are wrong. To do otherwise is to become a monster and claim that I'm doing it right, and I don't need any criticism, editorial help, or guidance. And I can't do that.
King, 1990:
At this point, nobody can make me change anything. ... That's why it becomes more and more important that I listen carefully to what people say, and if what they say seems to make sense, I have to make those changes even when I don't want to, because it's too easy to hang yourself. You get all this freedom - it can lead to self-indulgence. I've been down that road, probably most notably with The Tommyknockers. But with a book like Misery, where I did listen, the results were good.
But is such writing at such length always self-indulgent? I recently read something Nick Hornby wrote in The Believer back in 2004, and it resonated with me:
Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word, compress, compress, compress. ...

Where would David Copperfield be if Dickens had gone to writing classes? Probably about seventy minor characters short, is where. (Did you know that Dickens is estimated to have invented thirteen thousand characters? Thirteen thousand! The population of a small town! If you want to talk about books in terms of back-breaking labor, then maybe we should think about how hard it is to write a lot - long books, teeming with exuberance and energy and life and comedy. I'm sorry if that seems obvious, but it can't always be true that writing a couple of hundred pages is harder than writing a thousand.) At one point near the beginning of the book, David runs away, and ends up having to sell the clothes he's wearing for food and drink. It would be enough, maybe, to describe the physical hardship that ensued; but Dickens being Dickens, he finds a bit part for a real rogue of a secondhand clothes merchant, a really scary guy who smells of rum and who shouts things like "Oh, my lungs and liver" and "Goroo!" a lot.

As King Lear said - possibly when invited in to Iowa as a visiting speaker - "Reason not the need." There is no need: Dickens is having fun, and he extends the scene way beyond its function. Rereading it now, it seems almost to have been conceived as a retort to spareness, because the scary guy insists on paying David for his jacket in halfpenny installments over the course of an afternoon, and thus ends up sticking around for two whole pages. Could he have been cut? Absolutely he could have been cut. But there comes a point in the writing process when a novelist - any novelist, even a great one - has to accept that what he is doing is keeping one end of a book away from the other, filling up pages, in the hope that these pages will move, provoke, and entertain a reader.
I love that phrase: "keeping one end of a book away from the other"! That's what King is doing in many of his doorstops. Could each of It or The Stand or The Tommyknockers been told in half as many pages? Probably. But King loves to write, and he wants to tell his stories his way, offering character background and lengthy digressions that may not be all that important to the plot, but are still entertaining. (P.S. Having a character have some silly verbal tic like "Oh, my lungs and liver!" is exactly the kind of thing King does quite often.)

King also makes references to many of his own books in The Tommyknockers, including The Dead Zone, It, Firestarter, Pet Sematary, The Shining, The Stand, The Talisman, and Cycle of the Werewolf. Also, one character notes that Bobbi's books are well-crafted westerns, "not all full of make-believe monsters and a bunch of dirty words, like the ones that fellow who lives up Bangor wrote".

Next: The Dark Half.


Zenslinger said...

This is the first King book I remember kind of not liking. I was plowing through it on a ski vacation, wanting to like it, getting a little bored.

laura k said...

Of course writing at length is not always self-indulgence. Just like writing sparsely is not always teh best route. To me the point isn't that the editing is always right, it's being open to editing and re-writing.

Many people - maybe most, these days - find Dickens self-indulgent. I love the long, descriptive passages. I enter into a time where that was the only way to experience Victorian London. I wish I could do it and it makes me drool with envy. But so many contemporary readers find it boring and unnecessary.

I don't know how this relates to King. :)

Zenslinger said...

I wondered about the long passages about politics and farming when I read Anna Karenina recently. They were sort of interesting, but didn't have much connection to character development.

Someone as prolific as King is going to keep producing a lot of writing regardless of whether it's any good!