Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Literary Virtues of Stephen King's It . . . So Far

My favorite It cover
Because I am retired and like to read, I decided to reread one of my favorites, Charles Dickens' Bleak House, and also to try to find out why so many people cite It as their favorite Stephen King novel. I read a little from each work every day and, as I near the halfway mark of both, I'd like to point out some of the literary merits of It.

Dickens' virtues, of course, are well chronicled and need no help from me, while King continues to have a band of hecklers and detractors, hence my decision to come to his rescue once more so he will not feel so bad about the billions of dollars he's earned by writing in the lowly horror genre.

Here are a few of the qualities that make It a terrific read:

1. Even though the Signet edition is 1090 pages, King doesn't dilly-dally for 100 pages or so creating a creepy atmosphere. It begins with this sentence: "The terror, which would not end for another 28 years -- if it ever did -- 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." I love this blending of immediacy and uncertainty. "Terror" is the only thing the third-person narrator can be sure of. He has no origin story, really, and can't be sure the terror will ever end. Furthermore, even as the teller, he is not sure the story can be told, that It can be put into words (but, man, he sure tries).

2. King is the king of evoking genuine, as opposed to sentimental, nostalgia. The word comes from the Greek for "returning-home pain," and King's nostalgia, in It and elsewhere, is poignant, spilling over into painful. He knows that reflecting on the "good ol' days," if done honestly, hurts a lot, partly because those days were only good in certain respects, and you, you imperfect dimwit, were already you, and also because, good or not, those days are not coming back, and you can neither revise nor revive them. His description, for example, of an adult returning to the home of his youth (even if that home is Derry, Maine) is so vivid we can all see the destruction of our own hometowns, where Billy Joe's Five and Dime has transmogrified into a Wal-Mart.
It terrifies me when Beasley does this.

3. There are times King seems to pad his giant door-stopper novels, and the discerning reader is encouraged to start skimming until King is ready to get back to his story. I felt some of this while reading Under the Dome. So far (I'm on p. 494) there is none of that in the gargantuan It. Instead, the pages are filled with fresh stories (a good example is Mike Hanlon listening to his terminally ill father relate the tragic history of The Black Spot and Maine's version of the KKK) that ultimately matter and would be intriguing even they didn't. Or, like Charles Dickens, he'll invent and develop a new character well past the point where most writers are already finished and are out on a book tour.

4.  And finally, so I can get back to the book, It goes big like a real piece of literature that means to remain relevant and make the reader squirm in the face of reality (a word rarely used to praise the King). Because I am a grownup who is somewhat rational, It doesn't give me nightmares about gutters and clowns. Rather, it troubles my sleep with the knowledge that Derry is an Everyplace, and the clown Pennywise is the evil that seeps into it and makes itself at home there.

It rises from the plumbing in every house that makes a home for child and spouse abuse, greed, racism, cruelty to gays and bullying in all its repugnant forms. In Derry, evil is in the soil, the water, the air, as it is in every town. So the only part of the plot that crosses over to the fantastical or implausible is that children -- now adults -- who have survived this evil, return to save their community from It's grip.

Most communities aren't that fortunate.

Just as an aside, King is playful enough to wink at his literary-snob, guilty-pleasure readers by naming three of his minor characters after major ones from Noble-Prize winner William Faulkner: Snopes, Sartoris and McCaslin. In the best of all possible worlds, some snob (like me) would be hiding It behind The Sound and the Fury when he sees those names. Somehow that strikes me as a kind of "gotcha" moment.

Well, back to It. I think I know how it's going to end, but I won't skip a single word on my way there.

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