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Reliving The Horror

1 Oct

I’ve been watching Daniel Anthony Torrance suffer for nearly seventeen years.

As a child, Danny was beaten by his alcoholic father, who then locked him and his mother in an empty hotel secluded in the Colorado Rockies. For months, Danny and his mother suffered horrific threats. They were forced to view violent, sexual and torturous images. Repeatedly. Nearly continuously. And after every means of communication with or access to the outside world was cut off and there was no longer any hope of outside intervention, Danny’s father attempted to kill his wife and child with a hammer.

This is the story of Stephen King’s The Shining.

When I was twelve years old, I took in Danny’s story in the form of a TV miniseries, a classic horror novel, and Stanley Kubrick’s unsettling film. I honestly have no idea how many times I’ve lived through the story of that horrific winter in Colorado.

Copies of Stephen King's The Shining and Doctor Sleep

Shock and aw.

But when I began reading Doctor Sleep, Stephen King’s long-gestating sequel to The Shining, and I began reading about Dan Torrance’s dissolute adulthood, I started to cry. I didn’t realize until this weekend just how badly I had wanted the little boy from The Shining to be okay, how hard I had hoped over the last seventeen years that the same psychic gift that allowed Danny to survive that horrible winter in the Overlook Hotel would also offer him the emotional and psychological resources to recover from it.

Instead, Doctor Sleep shows us an adult Dan discovering that drugs and alcohol don’t just help him bury his memories—they also help him tamp down his psychic gift and shut himself off from the world. Reading the new book’s opening chapters and watching Dan circle the drain, committing as much violence against his body and his future as his father ever did against his mind, my heart sank.

But the book goes on, and as it does, so does Dan’s life. He finds Alcoholics Anonymous, stops drifting, and, in a plot thread that provides some of the book’s most lyrical and humane moments, earns the book’s titular moniker while working at a New England hospice.

I mention lyrical and humane moments. At their worst, King’s hordes of imitators resort to schlocky shock-horror to get a reaction from their audience, pummeling the reader with violence for violence’s sake. But King himself has, believe it or not, always excelled at well-observed human moments. We all have split-second thoughts that we would never want to share—moments of anger, disgust, self-aggrandizement, lust and condescension to which we’d never admit. King’s talent for finding those fleeting thoughts, diving into them, exploring them in depth is unparalleled in popular fiction. (Maybe even in literary fiction.) And at his best, the supernatural elements of King’s stories have always served as our entry point into exploring very real, very present anxieties that plague our modern life.

I’m pleased to say that, despite the body-swapping and the roving horde of psychic vampires, Doctor Sleep belongs in the rolls of King’s best.

The book is filled with what seem at first to be (somewhat clumsy) artistic flourishes, like the almost on-the-nose metaphor of a young Danny learning to bottle up his demons. In other places, King seems to be giving his audience a sly wink: A young girl’s habit of rubbing her mouth only seems justified as an in-joke for those of us who remember Dan’s father in detail because we grew up squeezing our copies of The Shining hard enough to leave finger dents in the pages.

But most of what I thought was clumsy in the first half turn into important plot points later in the book. (Spoiler in white text: Adult Dan learning to release those demons and be rid of them is key to the final resolution of the plot.) And even the parallels that looked like in-jokes turn out to matter in the world of the story, too.

King sometimes has a tendency to contort narratives into happy endings that feel forced. With a book like this, that seems inevitable: Despite the horror of the story, forty years of readers have grown to love The Shining. The tendency to let all of that good will seep into the fabric of the sequel must have been incredibly insidious. But by the time Doctor Sleep crescendoes on the site of the old Overlook hotel where The Shining took place, that one big, heart-warming plot twist that felt too convenient by half one hundred pages earlier actually feels earned twice over. Maybe it was just the decades of good will I have built up for the property, but I reached the end satisfied.

As I finished the book, I couldn’t help but think of the beautifully animated interlude in the middle of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows about three young men who struggle to come to terms with the reality of death.  After all these years, Danny’s life is complete, and we can bid farewell to the ghosts of the Overlook, waving to them the way one waves off an old friend.

George Saunders, Everyone! George Saunders!

7 Jan

We’re a scant four hours away from the new George Saunders book hitting the shelves, which means it’s time for me to put on a costume*, go to a midnight release party at my nearest bookstore, and commune with the rest of the teeming masses who are crowding the aisles while eagerly waiting to be allowed to hold our pre-purchased copies of Tenth of December.

Okay, George Saunders isn’t a hot enough pop-cultural property to warrant midnight release parties, but he should be, if only because those parties would be well worth remembering.

Saunders is a short story writer who came out of the gate already charging at full tilt with 1996’s CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, a debut collection with a voice that seemed impossibly disciplined and a satirical point-of-view that was both deeply empathetic and painfully cutting all at once. He followed it up with 2000’s Pastoralia and 2006’s In Persuasion Nation, cementing his reputation for short stories that skewered the grotesqueries at the heart of western culture and politics.

But everything I just wrote makes his writing sound inaccessibly intellectual. It’s not. It’s immediate. It’s visceral. It’s fantastical and fatalistic and serene and—most of all—it’s hilarious.

I will always love my high school English teacher Mrs. Gosbee for her reply to a starry-eyed classmate who interrupted a lesson on choosing precise adjectival phrases to ask, “How do you say something is indescribable?”

“You don’t,” Mrs. Gosbee spat back. “If you’re writing about something, the words exist to describe it.”

I believe that that is true—I’m just not good enough to describe writing as fun and exciting as George Saunders’. Trust me: He’s good. Pick up his new book tomorrow. You won’t regret it.

*How would one even dress up for a George Saunders release party? Well, you could try stripping down to your underwear. But maybe dressing like an employee of an amusement park.

The Superbowl and American Mythology

6 Feb

Like millions of Americans, I spent tonight with a small crowd of people watching the Superbowl in my living room. Until the last few minutes of the fourth quarter, most of us barely watched the game. Instead, we mingled, snacked and waited for the commercials. They were largely unimpressive this year, and few of them caught many people’s attention.

Except for the trailer for The Avengers:

When that trailer came on, this room full of young professionals fell almost totally silent. As the spot closed, everyone in the room started talking about it.

“Wait, was that the Hulk that I saw?” said one woman, awed.

One man excitedly asked another if he ever read comics. Neither of them did.

Someone in another corner of the room said, “This is all the super-heroes!”

My friend’s girlfriend turned to me and asked, “Who was that blonde guy?’

“That was Thor.” Then I added, apologetically, “I’m a bit of a nerd.”

The truth is, though, that despite a lifelong passion for Batman, my only childhood foray into comics was brief and tepid. I watched a spattering of super-hero shows in elementary school (Batman: The Animated Series after school, the occasional episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman before bed on Sundays) but that was about it.

No, as a kid, I was more into mythology. The ancient stories of gods and champions seemed to unfold on two levels at once. On a deep plane, every enduring myth seemed to be a story about the life of primal ideals. Even as the ideals thwarted and fulfilled one another, the myths never became didactic, thanks to the myths’ other, more human level: The flawed and often petty personalities of the gods provided a compelling and relatable face for the myths’ deeper moral and philosophical dramas.

One night during my freshman year of college, a friend started waxing enthusiastic about an exceptionally talented representational painter named Alex Ross. He has dedicated his career to painting super-heroes, and his figures convey a sense of weight and presence that is rare in even the most skillful portraits.

Alex Ross' painting of Superman, half-asleep in a chairOne look at Ross’ work—Clark Kent slumped in a chair by a table lamp, his shirt unbuttoned to reveal the iconic Superman shield; Bruce Wayne donning his costume, his back criss-crossed with scars; Captain Marvel gasping with childlike concern at a landslide tumbling toward a schoolbus—and I got it. These weren’t thinly written caricatures of brutes and broads. These were olympian avatars of abstract ideals.

Alex Ross' painting of Bruce Wayne's scarred backThe titans and gods of ancient myth placed personalities on top of their respective virtues: There were gods of sport, romance, war, politics, duty, patriotism, revenge, justice. Their stories, though, weren’t always just neat allegories for prescribing behavior. They hit at deeper, messier truths about the way we relate to the world, to one another and to ourselves.

To quote one of my favorite passages from G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man,

…the barbarian who conceived the crudest fancy about the sun being stolen and hidden in a box, or the wildest myth about the god being rescued and his enemy deceived with a stone … knew more about the crisis of the world, than all those in the circle of cities round the Mediterranean who had become content with cold abstractions or cosmopolitan generalizations; than all those who were spinning thinner and thinner threads of thought out of the transcendentalism of Plato or the orientalism of Pythagoras.

I believe that the mythic impulse that seemed so common in many ancient cultures is not only alive today, but is just as fundamental to how we develop an understanding of ourselves and of the world today as it was to developing a similar understanding thousands of years ago. At first glance, contemporary western culture doesn’t appear to have overt narrative myths—iconic characters whose relationships to one another are always generally the same but undergo iterations as their widely known stories are retold from generation to generation. Until you remember super-heroes.

In-Process Boards of Captain Marvel, by Alex RossSuper-heroes fulfill the mythic impulse in contemporary American culture. That’s why nearly everyone in the country can accurately describe Superman’s lineage, Batman’s history, Wolverine’s attitude, Spider-Man’s driving motivations. As the ancient Greeks related to the Homeric tales of Odysseus defying Poseidon, Jason stealing the golden fleece and Prometheus bringing fire to his people, we relate to the story of a scrawny kid from Brooklyn getting the opportunity to defend his hometown and calling himself Captain America. The medium may have evolved from blind bards singing poems by a roaring fire through amphitheater dramas through books and comic books to hundreds of people devoting years of their lives to putting together a hundred-million-dollar movie, but the social and emotional function is basically the same.

I don’t think I’m reading too much into it. The fact that the iconography of super-heroes brought a whole room to silence proves that these characters and these stories hit at something deeper in our collective poetic imagination. The buzz in the room after the Avengers trailer backs me up.

Turns out I didn’t need to apologize for knowing who Thor was.

Heirs To The Throne

18 May

During my freshman year of college, the director of my program suggested that we all spend some time reading the King James Bible and absorb its masterful command of cadence, voice and tone.  Pretty sound, safe advice–I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t respect the KJV’s beauty.  (Its textual integrity is another question entirely, of course.)  However, there are plenty of other equally compelling translations of the material, and I consider Robert Alter’s translations of The Five Books of Moses, The Psalms and The David Story (1 and 2 Samuel) chief among them.

Now, Alter has released a book exploring the effects of the King James Bible on the development of American prose, and I can’t wait to pick it up.

Thanks to Alison Lytton, who I’m glad to say still hasn’t completely abandoned print media, for pointing me toward the article and the book.

15 Books: Beowulf

2 Dec

Seamus Heaney's translation is better than the Christopher Lambert movie.

We’re reaching number 12 in my list of 15 books that have stuck with me in some way, shape or form, and the mileage I’m getting out of this months-old Facebook meme is definitely satisfying to me.  I’m going to try to knock out the rest of the posts in this series at a rate of at least two a week, so that we can get this done before the end of the year, but as I’m about to go through an inter-continental move, that may be disrupted.

Now, hit the jump for some nostalgic musings on an ancient old-English epic.

Continue reading

15 Books: “Winter Dreams”

12 Nov

by F. Scott FitzgeraldSure, the fact that “Winter Dreams” is a short story and not a book means I’m fudging the rules a little bit for today’s entry in 15 Books, but such is life. Hit the jump for reflections on what is quite possibly my all-time favorite short story, plus a link to the full text.  (This entry is pretty heavy on the autobiography, so I apologize in advance.  Bear with me, and I’ll have something lighter for you tomorrow.)

Continue reading

15 Books: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

2 Nov
by Laurence Sterne

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

A couple months ago, I gave in to a Facebook meme wherein I was asked to list 15 books that have stuck with me in some way, shape or form.

For number 13, I’ve selected a book that, try as I might, I could probably never give an accurate description of: Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which has been called the most thoroughly post-modern book ever written. It’s 300 years old. The book is essentially an assault on everything we imagine Victorian society considering good literature. Experimental to a point that wouldn’t be matched for hundreds of years, and laden with timeless humor that oscillates between bawdy and intellectual and that is still fresh and surprising in the 21st century, Sterne’s book makes it easy to forgive the fact that it’s almost impossible to get through.

More after the jump. Continue reading

15 Books: My Mentor

29 Oct
The cover of Alec Wilkinson's touching book

William Maxwell on the cover of Wilkinson's memoir.

Sorry for the once-again abrupt halt in activity, just as I was getting going. There was a death in the family that sent things haywire for a while, and that’s all I say.

Now, back to 15 Books after the jump, with an entry I read three years back and have not been able to shake since. Continue reading

15 Books: Lamb

28 Aug

So, the latest Facebook meme I’ve given in to was to list “15 Books That Stick With You.”  The idea is simple enough: you write down 15 books that have stuck with you in some way, shape or form, without regard to how having those books on your list will make you look.

Here I present to you my 15 Books, one per day, with a little bit of accompanying commentary.

15: Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

The cover of my edition of LAMB (which has been missing for some time, by the way).

The cover of my edition of LAMB (which has been missing for some time, by the way).

Christopher Moore’s goofy (and at times vulgar) take on the “lost years” of Jesus Christ is fun, but somehow never irreverent.  It’s hard to take offense at a book that has Jesus studying under one of the three wise men at the Shaolin temple.  (Because Jesus refused to touch a weapon, they created a new fighting style for Him based on redirecting an attacker’s momentum without harming him and called it “Jew-Do.”)

In celebration of Y2K, Jesus has resurrected his best friend and closest disciple—Levi who is called Biff—to write one final gospel, covering not just His ministry, but also the “lost years” of His life. Biff and Jesus spend the bulk of the book traveling through Asia in search of the three wise men, whom they hope can teach Jesus what He’s supposed to do as the Messiah.   Don’t expect a clear delineation of the gospel message: Moore goes to great lengths to try to incorporate principles from many eastern philosophical systems that just aren’t in Jesus’ message or scripture at all.  But I classify this book under the same category as Kevin Smith’s Dogma: If you make it to the scene where Jesus makes friends with a Yeti—heck, if you make it past the premise that there was a thirteenth apostle whom the gospel writers left out because he was a jerk—and you’re still taking it seriously, you’ve missed the point.

Ultimately, it should be a fun and dismissible book, but the sequence in India (where Jesus and Biff find the third wise man) has some moments of surprising emotional impact: Most notably,  Biff observing Jesus’ behavior after they witness ritualistic child sacrifice to Kali.  The image of Jesus lost in such frankly horrified conversation with his Father, oblivious to the other people around Him, is a rare moment where Moore combines tasteful economy of language with emotional sincerity, and it is all the more memorable by the gleeful frivolity of the rest of the book.

Amy Hempel

16 Aug

I ran into Amy Hempel this evening.  As usual, she radiated graciousness.  Also as usual, and maybe this is just her talent influencing my perception, she was absolutely stunning.  We made small talk for a few minutes about various topics before continuing on our ways, but the encounter got me thinking about perspective in fiction. Continue reading

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