Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Stephen King - Carrie

If only it would be today and Jesus coming not with a lamb and a shepherd’s crook, but with a boulder in each hand to crush the laughers and the snickerers, to root out the evil and destroy it screaming – a terrible Jesus of blood and righteousness.

And if only she could be His sword and His arm.

Everyone has, no doubt, heard of Stephen King and his first work, Carrie, and yet it is paradoxically easy to distance oneself from the giants in the field. After a point, it’s easier to think of everyone on the subway holding a newly released copy of Under the Dome than it is to remember the realities of King’s writing. When I began Carrie, my first King novel in two or so years, I was immediately reminded of all the reasons that I read twenty of his novels in a period of just under three months. By the time I finished Carrie, I also remembered the annoying aspects of King’s writing that are just as much a part of his style as the positive parts.

Carrie is a mercilessly mocked misfit that comes to embody supernatural revenge through her latent telekinetic powers. The structure of the story is built entirely around a single massive set piece. The events are deserving of the focus lavished on them, but the extensive early foreshadowing serves to dampen any sort of surprise. The novel is told through an untold number of viewpoints, both pseudo-nonfiction and a standard third person. This cornucopia of perspectives leads to both great and terrible things. On the upside, we come to sympathize with (almost) every side of the equation, and therein lies the novel’s greatest strength. On the downside, the pacing of the book is often slowed down at critical moments. Learning about a man running terrified as he’s pursued by what feels like every demon of hell personified in an endlessly wronged schoolgirl? Awesome. Learning about sixty of them for every street that Carrie crosses? Not so much.

The strength of the novel comes from the characters, and the star of the cast is, of course, Carrie White. The number of truly innocent characters in fiction is fairly low, but Carrie is without a doubt one of them. She is both na├»ve and cynical, both pitiable and, by the end, reprehensible. In her character, King has taken a phenomenon as common as anything else in the world – the outsider, mocked by the whole for being different – and turned it into a tragedy as personal and as unjust as any global atrocity.

Of the other characters, most manage to come to life through their dilemmas and problems. Undoubtedly the greatest of the secondary characters is Sue Snell, who tries to right the wrongs done to Carrie. Of course, she’s far from black and white. She was there along with everyone else, taunting Carrie, and only now does she feel the cruelty of what she did. Often, it’s impossible to tell whether her actions are motivated by a newly found compassion, or whether they’re merely empathy in the guise of selfishness. And it’s not just that we don’t know, the character doesn’t either, and she admits it.

The only character that really falls flat is Carrie’s mother, Margaret White. For the first, but certainly not the last, time in his career, Stephen King investigates religion, this time in the guise of Margret’s zealotry. Unfortunately, this is probably his worst treatment of it. The early glimpses of her views are disturbing, but you soon come to the realization that there isn’t much under the surface, and some of the more outrageous aspects make the entire affair seem kind of silly. Dirtypillows, for instance, are just not a very frightening, nor realistic, term for breasts. I mean, fine, sexuality’s evil, but I just have trouble conceiving of the sheer act of puberty being sinful.

King’s prose in Carrie is similar to his writing throughout his career: down to earth and easy to follow. It’s easy to imagine these events taking place in some nearby small town, and King’s diction is a definite part of that. His writing feels like the raw speech of the average man and as such conveys a sense of time and place like few others are able to. The most interesting element in it here is his conveying of thoughts – often contradictory to the majority of the prose – in parenthesis, such as:

Carrie tried to swallow an obstruction and only
(i am not afraid o yes i am)
got rid of part of it.

Carrie isn’t flawless, but its successes – primarily the characterization of Carrie White – are so powerful that you’ll be haunted for days to come. Without the faintest aura of pretension, Stephen King manages to show the reader something about the consequences of their actions on others. Highly recommended, if you’re in the mood for a bleak novel that may just show you some things about yourself and your interactions that you didn’t wholly realize.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Steven Erikson - Bauchelain and Korbal Broach

Manservant required. Full time. Travel involved. Wage to be negotiated depending on experience. Call at Sorrowman’s Hostel.

Steven Erikson’s Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas are at once everything you’d expect and nothing at all like what you think you’re getting. In Memories of Ice, we’re briefly introduced to the enigmatic Bauchelain and the mildly sociopathic Korbal Broach. One is tall and suave; one is short and kinda insane. Both are incredibly powerful. What we get in Memories of Ice is never more than a taste, and it was obvious there was far more under the surface. I came to this collection expecting to have the cloth pulled back. I wanted to see figure out who these people were, and I wanted to see what they got up to when they weren’t messing with caravan guards. The second is satisfied in spades. The first…not so much.

Erikson’s style here is fairly different from his more epic works. The novellas are, by necessity, far more focused than their gargantuan brethren, and Erikson proves himself more than capable at telling a concise story. In addition, his talent for easily understood, yet chaotic, action is present in full force, abetted by his usual grasp of atmosphere.

“Every child should know terror, and are not my little ones terrible?”

Though humor has always been a part of the Malazan books, it’s never played nearly as central a role as it does here. In addition, while the jokes in Midnight Tides, etc, are almost wholly dependent on clever phrasing and wording, here Erikson takes a far more slapstick approach. If you’re easily offended, you might want to stay well clear. Erikson knows what he wants to convey, and he spares no punches when doing so. You’ll laugh, but you also just might feel the tiniest bit queasy as well.

The first novella is Blood Follows. It is exactly what I was expecting, a phenomenon no doubt aided by Memories of Ice giving away the ending and the back cover giving away the beginning. The killers are obvious from the first page, but everything falls together perfectly for a time. And then, before getting to delve into the psyche of the two, the story comes to a conclusion both abrupt and unsatisfying. Ah well, I thought, all will be revealed in the next.

It was not to be.

What follows is just over two hundred pages of murder and laughter. Now, that hardly sounds so bad, and it’s not. It’s just that I was expecting something more. The whole experience is roughly akin to sitting down to watch an anticipated movie: the beginning is highly promising, doing nothing but whetting your appetite…and then comes an hour and a half of a protracted gun battle, with a few car chases sprinkled in the middle for variety. It’s entertaining, sure, but it’s not particularly satisfying.

The Lees of Laughter’s End reads like the climax of your average fantasy. From the first few pages on, we get to witness the supernatural slaughter of just about everyone and everything on board the Suncurl, but without any context or real depth, the procession of murdered crew members never compels a real reaction. In the past, Erikson’s novels works partly because they’re such a mess. The Chain of Dogs was nothing but a string of climactic battles, but spaced out amongst other, less explosive narratives, and it suddenly worked. Here, there’s no breather room whatsoever, and the narrative soon becomes nothing but tiring.

The third novella, The Healthy Dead, is not quite as overwhelming as The Lees of Laughter’s End. Breakneck pace and scattershot plotting still dominate, but the whole affair is far more focused. Primarily, this is a brutal satire of healthy living, a fact that’s perfectly clear from the introduction: WARNING TO LIFESTYLE FASCISTS EVERYWHERE. DON’T READ THIS OR YOU’LL GO BLIND.

Bauchelain and Korbal Broach is a decently entertaining read, but not much more. In his central Malazan novels, Steven Erikson succeeds and conveying character depth with a mere handful of pages. Here it is the opposite. In three hundred pages dedicated to the scheming sorcerers and their diabolical manservant, we never learn a whit more about them than we did at the end of Memories of Ice.

If you want a good time, don’t hesitate but don’t expect anything particularly mind blowing. A new novella was released recently by the name of Crack’d Pot Trail, but as much as I love the mainstream Malazan novels, I have to admit that I’m going to wait for the other novellas to be collected in paperback form before purchasing them.