Both of these novels feel like major departures for King. The psychological dynamics of each are essentially the reverse of those in King’s greatest work: An author who made his name chronicling his characters’ downward spirals is now trying to write upward.
Almost all of King’s greatest writing (the only exception I can think of is “The Body,” the novella that became Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me) follows the central character down into despair. While Stanley Kubrick’s film version of The Shining shows us Jack Torrance purely from the outside—it’s Wendy Torrance’s movie more than anybody else’s—the novel embeds the reader deep inside Jack’s disintegrating mind. Pet Sematary, Carrie, and Christine all star characters who are succumbing to horror. In Cujo King even manages to wring pathos out of a large family dog’s descent into madness. He’s adept at showing how we lose our integrity, hope, and sanity; hence one of his most recognizable tics, the italicized paragraph in which a monster’s thoughts suddenly surface within the mind of a man. I still shiver when I think about the bitter, hopeless anger of the old man who owned Christine: you shitters. That awful voice, the Screwtape voice we sometimes catch muttering around the corners of our minds: Stephen King shows us what would happen if that voice ruled the world.
It’s really a fine piece, and if you’re a Stephen King fan a really must read. Tushnet zeros in to the specific King technique that characterizes his fiction:
Stylistically, King has always relied on the Hitchcockian close-up, the sudden zoom of the narrative camera. He uses this trick in that glinting first sentence of IT: “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” A thing which recurs, and gathers horror around itself with each recurrence, like a snowball. The Dead Zone has its refrain of the bad hot dog, the Wheel of Fortune: these little irrelevancies which create a moral catastrophe for the hero. The very littleness of the objects underlines our helplessness—it takes only a bad hot dog to bring us to anguish.
But what caught my eye was her assessment of King’s work.
This writerly skill, plus King’s sheer tenacity, means that his more self-consciously literary readers are finally starting to throw around terms like Great American Novel. He deserves it; several of his novels are great in themselves, but especially great as portraits of a particular culture and time. It’s amazing that he’s managed to work so much Americana into his books with only an occasional lapse into hokeyness. Think of everything his cold fingers have touched: the prom, the classic car, the hot dog, The Wizard of Oz, the Winnebago, “Hey ho—let’s go!”
Now associating King’s work with the “Great American Novel” perked my ears. In American literature, The Great American Novel is a very specific term for American novels that transcend to greatness while capturing a particular essence of American culture. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby are usually touted as being Great American Novels. To say one has written the Great American Novel is to give that writer the highest honor possible. I would never have conceived anything of Stephen King being the Great American Novel, not because I dislike his work but because (1) I’ve never read any of his work and (2) because he’s so popular with people—how should I put this?—who are sort of anti literary in their fiction taste. Please don’t think I’m putting fans of that type of reading down; I’m not. We all have different tastes and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying horror or mystery or romance or crime thrillers.
In fact, literary fiction can easily fall into any of those genres. Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice is a romantic tale. Fyodor Dostoyevski’s The Brother’s Karamazov is a crime thriller. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is a mystery. What makes one work literary and another not may be reduced to opinion. Still there are markers that would indicate a higher level of art that would signal literary to me. No need to dwell on that here. Perhaps that’s a discussion for another day.
Ms. Tushnet also goes on to say
The Shining is one of my candidates for Great American Novel. It’s a murder mystery in which the murder victim is, first and foremost, Jack Torrance’s conscience. It’s filled with scenes in which, as Torrance researches the Overlook Hotel’s bloody past, he finds himself confronting his own suppressed or hazy memories. He tells us the self-serving stories he’s told everyone else, in which he’s a fun guy who’s just the victim of other people’s misjudgment. These are stories even Torrance himself has begun to believe, because accepting the truth would destroy his sense of self. And then in the snowbound depths of the Overlook Hotel, the truth begins to come back to him, all the dead memories rising and buzzing around his skull like the wasps who mysteriously resurrected themselves in the bug-bombed nest.
So there, she identifies King’s The Shining as a candidate for “the Great American Novel.” Well that is actually amazing. So I made this comment to the article’s comment section:
I have never read a Stephan King novel, mostly because I can't get it out of my mind it's pop culture, genre schlock. I have to admit that's unfair. However, someone who's written 50 novels in 40 years as you say hardly substantiates that his work is literary. It smacks of dime novels. But based on this piece I realize I do need to at least sample his work. I'll check out The Shining.
My comment spurred some reaction. At this point one third of all the comments to the article were discussion off of my comment. Some agreed with me and some didn’t. Check out the comments section.
So I imagine a number of readers on my blog have read Stephen King. What do you think of his work? Was I unfair? Has he really written the Great American Novel? Which of his novels would you recommend?
By the way, I found King’s The Shining on Amazon for Kindle on sale for $1.99. So I grabbed it.