Friday, January 24, 2014

Stephen King: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999)

"The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted."

On a early Saturday morning in June 1998, nine-year-old Trisha McFarland becomes separated from her mother and older brother while hiking on a portion of the Appalachian trail.

Trisha leaves the trail to relieve herself, and then, after trying to retrace her steps for ten minutes, she is uncertain of where she is. "In that tender place between her chest and her stomach, the place where all the body's wires seemed to come together in a clump, she felt the first minnowy flutter of disquiet."

Trisha believes she is walking in a straight line, but is actually "turning more and more to the west without realizing it, turning away from the Appalachian trail and most of its subsidiary paths and trails, turning in a direction where there was little but deep second-growth woods choked with underbrush, tangled ravines, and ever more difficult terrain."

As the hours - and, eventually, the days - go by, Trisha tries to fight off both a disquieting inner panic and a "cold and scary voice" that speaks of her worst fears. When she hears on her Walkman's radio that a search party has been sent out to look for her, she is unaware that she is "nearly nine miles west of the area the searchers considered their highest priority".

Trisha keeps her fears at bay by listening to Red Sox games at night. Her favourite player is relief pitcher Tom Gordon, who as the team's "closer" comes into games with the lead to record the final three outs. In fact, Trisha secretly considers Gordon "the handsomest man alive"; she is wearing a shirt with Gordon's #36 on it, as well as an autographed cap. Hearing the cheering crowd at Fenway Park makes Trisha feel less alone. "The radio was her lifeline, the games her life preserver. Without them to look forward to, she thought she would simply give up."

After a week in the woods, during which time she actually crosses the border into New Hampshire, Trisha has lost about twenty pounds. Despite growing more and more physically weak, Trisha "discovered deep and totally unexpected reserves of strength within herself". She survives on berries, beechnuts, fiddleheads, and water (some of which makes her violently ill). She contends with multiple wasp stings, a long trek through a swampy marsh, and (possible) hallucinations about something in the woods that may be stalking her.

She dreams of Tom Gordon at night and he appears to her, in his blindingly white home uniform, during the day, as she tries to find her way to safety. Trisha tries praying, but does not have sufficient faith to do so. She recalls a conversation she once had with her father about God. Larry McFarland told his daughter he didn't believe in a God "that records all of our sins in a big golden book and judges us when we die", but rather in something he called the Subaudible, "some insensate force for the good".

At one point, Trisha hallucinates seeing three hooded men in long robes. The main one, dressed in black, calls himself the God of the Lost. "The world is a worst-case scenario," it tells her, "and I'm afraid all you sense [that much of life is sadness] is true. The skin of the world is woven of stingers, a fact you have now learned for yourself. Beneath there is nothing but bone and the God we share."

Heidi Strengell, Dissecting Stephen King: From the Gothic to Literary Naturalism:
The question of the nature of God is intertwined with fate in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. While musing on her parents' divorce and her brother's recurring question why the children have to pay for what their parents do wrong, Trisha draws the same conclusion as a number of other King characters: just because. She survives because she accepts the facts of life and eve the role of fate in it. ...

Throughout King, God requires human assistance. ... Good often triumphs over evil both in King's mythical works related to The Dark Tower series and in the works that explore the existence of good and evil in traditional terms. In both, responsibility and compassion for one's fellow human beings can overcome seemingly overwhelming obstacles. Also, despite God's seeming passivity, he comes to the aid of those who help themselves.
Similarly, as Tom Gordon tells Trisha in one of her dreams, "it's God's nature to come on in the bottom of the ninth" - after the person has done everything she can do for herself. Trisha survives her ordeal through her own inner strength and wits. It is on her ninth day (inning?) in the woods that she finally faces down what she believes is the God of the Lost, in the form of a huge black bear.

Though The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is billed as a novel, it is shorter (219 pages) than some of King's novellas.

Next: Hearts in Atlantis.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Stephen King: Bag of Bones (1998)

Shortly after the sudden death of his wife, novelist Mike Noonan develops a severe case of writer's block. He also begins having recurring nightmares that eventually draw him back to the summer cottage he and his wife frequented on Dark Score Lake in western Maine. (Wikipedia's entry includes a detailed description of the supernatural plot.)

Early in Bag of Bones, Noonan offers his thoughts about writing and (especially) the publishing industry as his agent pushes him to sign a multi-book contract. It seems safe to assume that some (or many) of Noonan's opinions mirror those held by Stephen King, as Bag of Bones was his first book under a new three-year contract with Simon & Schuster. (King had been associated with Viking since 1979 and The Dead Zone.)

However, King left when Viking balked at his request for significantly higher advances. Also, King was said "to favor the idea of switching to a house with more literary cachet". Bag of Bones is leaner than the usual King novel. Although it is still a sizeable tome - at 529 pages - there is not a lot of extraneous material. Much of the fat that marred King's previous books (like Insomnia and Desperation) has been trimmed away.

After his wife's death of a brain aneurysm, Mike finishes his latest novel, but is unable to begin any new projects. Indeed, the prospect of sitting down at his computer at times makes him physical ill. Noonan says that what a publisher wants,
especially from an author who can be counted on to sell 500,000 or so copies of each novel in hardcover and a million more in paperback, is perfectly simple: a book a year. That, the wallahs in New York have determined, is the optimum. Three hundred and eighty pages bound by string or glue every twelve months ...

Less than a book a year and you're screwing up the publisher's investment in you, hampering your business manager's ability to continue floating all of your credit cards, and jeopardizing your agent's ability to pay his shrink on time."
This sounds a lot like what King wrote back in 1985, in "The Politics of Limited Editions":
If the idea of a writer having an economic responsibility to publish what he writes seems absurd to you, I can assure you it does not seem at all absurd to the booksellers of America, or to a writer himself after he has been told that his seemingly whimsical decision to publish a book in a small-distribution format had actually taken the bread out of children's mouths or might have been a contributing cause to the closure of an independent small-town bookstore that might otherwise have turned the corner ... or at least staggered on a while longer before collapsing.
Noonan is referred at one point as "V.C. Andrews with a prick".
You've seen my name on a lot of bestseller lists ... if, that is, your Sunday paper carries a list that goes up to fifteen instead of just listing the top ten. I was never a Clancy, Ludlum, or Grisham, but I moved a fair number of hardcovers ... I stood just outside the magic circle of the mega-bestsellers ...
A writer of Noonan's mid-list stature needed to publish every single year to maintain his visibility. According to Noonan's agent,
Grisham could afford to take a year off. Clancy could. Thomas Harris, those long silences are a part of his mystique. But where you are, life is even tougher than at the very top, Mike. There are five writers for every one of those spots down on the list ... If Tom Clancy were to go on hiatus for five years and then bring Jack Ryan back, he'd come back strong, no argument. If you go on hiatus for five years, maybe you don't come back at all.
Fortunately, Noonan is able to keep his publisher satisfied by sending in older manuscripts he had written years before and stored away. He mails off four novels this way and is thus able to have a new hardcover on store shelves every autumn "just like clockwork", all the while actually writing only "notes, grocery lists, and checks". Amusingly, these books - one of which was written nearly 12 years earlier - are very well-received, heralding what the critics say is a more mature phase of his writing.

King once described himself as "a girl of easy virtue" when it came to writing and Noonan likens his role as a professional author of mass-market fiction to working as a prostitute:
Critically ignored, genre oriented ... but well compensated and with the shabby acceptance accorded to state-sanctioned whorehouses in Nevada, the feeling seeming to be that some outlet for the baser instincts should be provided and someone had to do That Sort Of Thing.
"Perception is everything," Noonan says at one point. He understands very clearly that how he is marketed by his publisher is the way he will be perceived by the general public - and people will read or not read his books accordingly. This perception often has very little to do with the actual book(s) he has written; it all happens before any engagement with the text occurs.

King had claimed he doesn't care what critics say; he loves to write, and he is grateful that so many people want to read his books. But reading Noonan's comments - and scattered statements by King about being typecast as a genre author - it is clear that King cares quite a bit about his reputation, perhaps more than he wishes he did. All of this would reach a head (of sorts) in 2003, when the National Book Foundation presented King with its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.


In BoB, the unincorporated township of TR-90 is another of King's small Maine towns with dark secrets. Roughly a century earlier, Sara Tidwell, the singer in a travelling blues band known as the Red Tops, was raped and murdered by a group of boys from the TR. Sara's eight-year-old son witnessed the attack and was drowned in the lake by the gang. Sara's spirit has haunted the TR ever since, and has exacted some measure of revenge by orchestrating the deaths of several children (and grandchildren) of the young men involved in the crime. It falls to Noonan to break Sara's hold over the town.

Amy Joyce Palko, Charting Habitus: Stephen King, the Author-protagonist and the Field of Literary Production (2009 thesis):
King has often expressed an unease over the division between folk and mass culture, and has found himself in need of defending his choices to produce work that contributes to this ideal of folk culture rather than being aimed at the mass market. ...

King is keen to assert his folk culture credentials; he wants to highlight the affinity between his work and an idealised, nostalgic, even at times pre-technological fantasy of folk cultural production. In this way, he attempts to distance himself from the detrimental aspects experienced by one typed as a commercial best-selling writer. ...

Through the figure of author-protagonist Mike Noonan in Bag of Bones, King investigates the dialectic between popular and folk cultural production by comparing Noonan's participation in the field with that of his wife, Johanna, and the long deceased blues singer, Sara [Tidwell]. Noonan's positioning within the field and his methods of production reveal that he is a popular, best-selling author who, unlike his wife and Sara, competes for economic capital.
King contrasts Noonan's writing career and the publishing industry with Tidwell and the Red Tops' raucous blues, and examines the differences between mass and folk culture, the high and low. Tidwell's past and musical style/presentation may be idealised, but it still acts as a foil for a contemporary mass culture driven by powerful economic forces.

Sara and her band never recorded, and thus never became part of the music industry. Tidwell is described as "frank and free", unencumbered by commercial concerns, unlike Noonan, who has become a slave to the "hierarchical realm of book lists, market shares and target audiences".

Next: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Chris Floyd: "The Unlearned Lessons of American Atrocity"

Chris Floyd, Empire Burlesque (January 14, 2014):
Just over nine years ago, in November 2004, the United States military carried out an atrocious war crime at the behest of its civilian leaders. Having already committed what America's chief jurist at the Nuremberg trials called "the supreme international crime" -- aggressive war -- the American military now declared a whole city full of innocent civilians to be a "free fire zone" and proceeded to pulverize the town with bombs, missiles, chemical weapons and finally a ground attack by thousands of troops. This came after the American military had cut vital supplies of food and water to the city -- another brazen war crime. ...

The vicious, murderous, criminal attack on Fallujah was a microcosm of the vast atrocity of the invasion of Iraq -- an atrocity that continues today. A fake reason for an act of aggression was sold to a gleefully gullible media, and through them to a docile public raised on the potent poison of "American exceptionalism," to provide a "justification" for an action whose real purpose had to be concealed. And what was that purpose? To demonstrate and advance the bipartisan American elite's unslakeable desire for domination -- and to demonstrate that anyone who resists that desire will be punished, tormented or killed. ...

[T]he Iraq war was an atrocity from the beginning -- from long before the beginning, in fact. Its very conception -- the idea of launching an act of aggression against a broken-down country which posed no threat, could not defend itself, and which had already seen more than half a million of its children killed by American-enforced sanctions -- was an atrocity. And the brutal -- and brutalizing -- atrocities on the ground began long before the attack on Fallujah.

Just as a brief reminder, let's go back in time with -- who else? -- the New York Times, which carried this report about our Marlboro Men and their crusade for truth and light just a few days after the invasion began.
At the base camp of the Fifth Marine Regiment here, two sharpshooters, Sgt. Eric Schrumpf, 28, and Cpl. Mikael McIntosh, 20, sat on a sand berm and swapped combat tales while their column stood at a halt on the road toward Baghdad. For five days this week, the two men rode atop armored personnel carriers, barreling up Highway 1.

They said Iraqi fighters had often mixed in with civilians from nearby villages, jumping out of houses and cars to shoot at them, and then often running away. The marines said they had little trouble dispatching their foes, most of whom they characterized as ill trained and cowardly.

"We had a great day," Sergeant Schrumpf said. "We killed a lot of people."

... But in the heat of a firefight, both men conceded, when the calculus often warps, a shot not taken in one set of circumstances may suddenly present itself as a life-or-death necessity.

"We dropped a few civilians," Sergeant Schrumpf said, "but what do you do?" ... He recalled one such incident, in which he and other men in his unit opened fire. He recalled watching one of the women standing near the Iraqi soldier go down.

"I'm sorry," the sergeant said. "But the chick was in the way."
"The chick was in the way." I've carried this story with me for 11 years. Less than two weeks into the war, it seemed to sum up the whole shebang. It embodied the amoral philosophy that has guided the bipartisan American elite -- and its media enablers -- not only throughout the Iraq War and its still-churning aftermath, but in every action undertaken to advance the agenda of domination. This is what it all comes down to, this is the blank, inhuman, heartless heart of the imperial enterprise: "The chick was in the way."

Monday, January 06, 2014

Stephen King: The Dark Tower IV: Wizard And Glass (1997)

For fans of The Dark Tower, it had been six long years since The Wastelands (the third book of Stephen King's epic series). In September 1996, King included a gift in the combined sets of Desperation and The Regulators: a 59-page paperback containing the first two chapters of the next Dark Tower novel. Then, in November 1997, the 787-page hardback Wizard and Glass appeared.

At the end of The Wastelands, Roland of Gilead and his ka-tet (Eddie Dean, Susannah Dean, Jake Chambers) were aboard Blaine the Monorail, travelling along the Path of the Beam, towards the Dark Tower. Blaine is insane, however, and was threatening to crash itself, killing everyone on board, unless Roland et al. could stump it with a riddle.

As W&G begins, they do, naturally; otherwise, there would be far fewer than 787 pages in this volume! Blaine lets them off in what appears to be a deserted railroad station in Topeka, Kansas. A discarded newspaper (dated June 1986) reports that an epic flu nicknamed "Captain Trips" is currently decimating the country's - and the world's - population.

This is, of course, the world of Stephen King's The Stand. However, since Eddie is from New York City in 1987 and has no knowledge of a deadly super flu, this must have happened in another world, or a parallel reality. Roland explains that as the Dark Tower weakens, boundaries between these different worlds are breaking down.

Henrik Fåhraeus:
In King's epic tale, the world has "moved on"(2), and the whole multiverse is in danger of collapsing. [Roland Deschain] is on a quest to find the Dark Tower, which supposedly exists at the very center of creation. ... [H]is purpose is not primarily to save the world, but to ascend the tower in order to find out if the room at the top is inhabited by God or if God has abandoned his creation.

(2) A term frequently used throughout the seven novels, meaning that the world has changed in fundamental ways. Civilization is crumbling, science is a lost art, and even the laws of physics seem different.
Since I did not enjoy The Drawing of the Three and The Wastelands - the second and third books of the series - I was looking forward to Wizard and Glass about as much as a heaping plate of liver and spinach. However, W&G was pretty good, certainly the best of the series, so far.

The novel does not move Roland's journey forward very much. It is mostly a long flashback that tells in great detail Roland's first test as a young gunslinger. As his ka-tet travels along I-70 in Kansas, Roland tells them his story during one long night beside the fire. Roland also recounts the heartbreaking story of finding, and then losing forever, the love of his life, Susan Delgado.

Wizard and Glass recounts what Joseph Campbell called the "monomyth" or the "hero's journey". In Campbell's 1949 book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, he described the monomyth:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Wizard and Glass contains a myth within a myth. Roland and his two friends, Cuthbert Allgood and Alain Johns, are sent from Gilead to the small town of Mejis. While there, they uncover a conspiracy, led by John Farson, in opposition to the baronies of the Affiliation. Farson's men are stockpiling horses, oil, and weapons for a possible revolution that threatens to lead to all-out war. The three young gunslingers must foil these plans.

Along the way, Roland falls in love with Susan Delgado and, towards the end of his adventure, realizes he must make a choice:
Susan, and my life as a husband and father of the child she now carries ... or the Tower. [...] I would choose Susan in an instant, if not for one thing: the Tower is crumbling, and if it falls, everything we know will be swept away. There will be chaos beyond our imagining. We must go ... and we will go. [...] I choose the Tower. I must. Let her live a good life and long with someone else - she will, in time. As for me, I choose the Tower.
Henrik Fåhraeus:
Believing Susan to be safely on her way to Gilead, the ka-tet proceeds to deal with the rest of Farson's men. ... Afterwards, when the blood red moon rises, Roland realizes that Susan is far from safe. In the Wizard's glass, he watches how the frenzied and superstitious townspeople of Hambry "celebrate" the reaping festival by burning Susan at the stake. ... Though Roland is not directly responsible, he did abandon Susan for his "greater quest" ... Fate teaches him a horrible lesson, but it is one that still does not heed, for he will keep sacrificing friends and companions in order to reach the Tower.
Despite the foiling of Farson's plot, things look bleak for Mid-World:
There is a sense - inarticulate but very much there - that things have gone amiss ... For it is here, in the sleepy Out-World Barony of Mejis, that Mid-World's last great conflict will shortly begin; it is from here that the blood will begin to flow. In two years, no more, the world as it has been will be swept away. It starts here.
Unfortunately, it would be another six years before King's fans would learn of Roland's next steps. Spurred on by his 1999 accident (which nearly killed him), King would publish the final three volumes of the series in rapid-fire succession in 2003 and 2004.

Next: Bag of Bones.