Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Stephen King's THE STAND #OneBookAtATime

OK, we've pretty much established that Stephen King drives me batdung insane, but one of my best web-sisters loves him,* and insists that, since I liked Randall Flagg in all those Dark Tower books I read last year, I'll like The Stand. Even though the miniseries was kind of risible.**

So did I? Well, yes and no. Mostly yes, but not for the reasons most people like it, I suspect.

Once again, I am in complete awe of King's ability to create amazing characters and to write about them quite beautifully, even lyrically. Even in his mid-book series of slapstick vignettes in which a series of people who have survived the apocalyptic "superflu" (aka "Captain Trips") which is King's chosen instrument of world-ending destruction turn around and succumb to more banal and stupid ways to die like drug overdoses, electrocution, getting locked in a walk-in freezer, etc., the characters he kills off with such hilarious glee are vivid and believable and sometimes even sympathetic, even though some of them only live and die in a single paragraph. This is totally remarkable.

And his more important characters, whose stories he spins out over a good thousand and some pages, are just as stunning a set of creations. Trashcan Man, Frannie, Stu, Larry, Nadine, Lloyd, Glen, Ralph, Harold, Tom... they're all people you can believe really exist in the world, whole and flawed and trying to get by in the aftermath of the superflu. Watching them (well, most of them) trying to rebuild a democratic society when (again, most of them) finally come together in mid-novel is fascinating, believable and would come over as well-imagined even without the convenient sociological wisdom of Glen, who was, that's right, a sociologist before the superflu. Indeed, the rebuilding of the mini-America in the Free Zone of what used to be Boulder, CO is the best part of the book, for me. I would gladly have read a whole novel just about that. But alas, this is Stephen King, writing for his fans, and Stephen King fans demand horror and gore and big time morality play-flavored Good versus Evil. Which he more than delivers, ruining these great characters in the process in the way I have complained about before -- not letting them be themselves in all their awesome, complicated glory***, preferring to send them dreams and divine/infernal messages and mysterious knowledge he can't narratively justify so just punts and calls "intuition" or "gut feeling." Barf. And telegraphing fates way in advance of their actual occurrence, so we know, hundreds of pages ahead of time, that so-and-so won't ever see such-and-such again. Double barf.

But I knew I'd be running into that going in, since it was, after all, the miniseries of The Stand that first really rubbed my nose in how crassly King characters get manipulated into executing his plots. Fortunately, that wasn't all that was going on in these 1100+ pages; what really kept this book interesting for me, in addition to the rough and ready civics, was its status as a complete love letter to the geography of America, from Maine to the midwest, from Arkansas to Colorado, from Indiana to Las Vegas, even when the country is transformed into a giant graveyard of dead cars and deader people, King's love for the landscape comes through on every page. The man has obviously made a joyous, directionless road trip or two in his day.

And I'd love to have someone like him as a traveling companion, with or without the obstacles of a million stalled out cars on the highways. But the second he started talking about how he "just knew" we had to take a certain turn, or to try to talk me into feeling that way, boot. Outta the car. My life is my own, Jack. Er, Steve.

*Who else could I be talking about here but EssJay, the @PopQueenie?

**How risible? We had us one of our infamous drinkalongs recently.

***And seriously, the glory of some of these characters is awesome in its complexity. Two of these in particular come to mind: Larry Underwood and Harold Lauder. Larry, a recovering rock star, spends a lot of the novel wrestling with a dual identity/morality crisis with its roots in a childhood in which he was dismissed as a "taker" who is "missing something" essential to his development into a fully trustworthy, capable adult, in his mother's opinion. Thrust into a positions of ever increasing responsibility, he struggles with this outdated and inaccurate version of himself through early failings right on through his selection as one of the Free Zone's leaders and, ultimately, heroes. Harold is barely out of his teens and still bears all of the wounds of a youth in the shadow of a pretty and popular older sister; a whip-smart nerd blessed with none of his sister's gifts, his own struggle is with an equally outdated self image as the eternal outcast. It's pretty near impossible not to see Harold in terms of Eric Cartman in the South Park episode in which Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan almost succeeds in turning Cartman into a decent human being. Harold has all the potential in the world, and all the opportunity, but his own lack of confidence in himself defeats him. For me, The Stand is a study in contrasts between these two young men; ultimately a lot of what brings about their divergent fates is the quality of the women they encounter on their journeys -- and whether or not they get to leave certain other women behind. Larry's negatively projecting mother dies at the beginning of his journey, and he moves on to meet Rita (a helpless older woman who forces him into a caretaker role early on), Nadine (a troublesome figure with an evil destiny who chooses it over him) and finally Lucy, who loves him unconditionally and believes in him no matter what. Larry is lucky. Harold? Poor Harold is stuck with Fran, his sister's best friend, who knew him when and can't forget his nerdy fat boy origins, won't let him forget them, either, and is not a very nice person anyway (cue Fran partisans screaming for my blood, but dude, she is a popular girl who never got over herself, no matter how she kind of sort of sucks it up and grows up later on).


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