Monday, July 27, 2009

Two More Book Reviews

Note: Both novels discussed herein have been adapted as films. I have not seen either.

Though he's never produced a truly great novel, Stephen King is one of most consistently entertaining contemporary American writers. I've read ten or so of his novels and have enjoyed each. The Shining is among his best. Its famous plot is quite simple - Jack Torrance a struggling writer takes a winter job as caretaker of a Colorado summer resort hotel, hoping that the ensuing seclusion will allow him to continue his recovery from alcoholism and mend relationships with his wife and precocious young son. As the winter progresses, snowstorms further isolate the family, Jack learns of the hotel's sordid past, and ghosts past guests and caretakers attempt to take possession of Jack's consciousness, and through him his son Danny, who displays precognitive ability.

What distinguishes King's novels from the legions of gruesome pap that passes as horror is that King seems to have taken the time to think about what actually frightens people. The Shining's setting provides a mounting sense of entrapment and the characters give voice to real fears: fear of disappointing one's loved ones, fear of the past, fear that one will be consumed by one's vices. King gives supernatural accents to ordinary monsters. Moreover, he gives us characters worth fearing for - the Torrances seem to be on the verge of a happy new life together, and the affection between them is genuine. At least in cinema, most horror films fail as anything but camp because they ignore these two concepts. The characters exist only to be victims for monsters that bear little resemblance to our everyday monsters. No matter how well paced and suspenseful, a Halloween or Friday the 13th film will never scare me because of the absurdity of their serial killers. The Shining, whose villainy and violence occupies a small fraction of its pages, will remain terrifying.


In "God Save the Queen", Johnny Rotten proclaimed "There is no future in England's dreaming and probably inspired P. D. James's speculative Children of Men, a novel that examines a world in which humankind suffers universal infertility. James's vision of the society that emerges is thorough and convincing. The state sponsors ceremonial mass suicides, criminals are permanently exiled, slaves are imported as England's aging population seeks to live its remaining years in quiet comfort and to cut them short if they are no longer comfortable. Perhaps the most interesting change is that citizens lose most interest in sex, so that the state must subsidize pornography to James effectively demonstrates the degree to which our lives, principles and work depend on belief in an ongoing future for humanity.

The novel's plot is unfortunately much less interesting than the setting. Oxford history professor, yes that's heavy-handed, Theodore Faron, cousin to England's dictatorial warden, encounters a group of political protestors whose name, "The Five Fishes", is among the novel's many Biblical allusions. Theodore is reluctant to join the group, but is eventually compelled when one of the members reveals that she bears the first human child in twenty-five years.

I remain ambivalent about the novel. James's intentions are admirable and clear. She is interested in the moral, political and spiritual implications of her concept, and not at all in its scientific mechanics. Her depiction of the new England that arises is thorough and thoughtful. Characters and plot are given short shrift. The members of the Five Fishes are mostly tokens: one seeks political power, one revenge, two are motivated by faith. There a few conversations concerning the existence of God that never get much beyond the "Theism is irrational/No it isn't" stage. The final developments in the plot happen too quickly to provide much suspense or development.

Besides the fullness of it world, the most admirable quality in Children of Men is its ability to suggest parallels to Biblical narrative while avoiding allegory. Broadly, the novel is an instance of a Biblical cycle in which the old humankind is done away with and a new humankind born from a single source. This is seen in the stories of Noah, Abraham and Christ. Like Christ, the newborn in the novel is not the child of the mother's husband, and there is a suggestion in the novel that its conception is supernatural. Like Christ, the newborn is hunted by an envious political authority. The imagery describing the infant's birth suggests the traditional Christian image of a stable. However, James does not attempt to create an isomorphism between the nativity story and her own, and so provides occasion for new meditation on the nativity without forcing an interpretation. It's unfortunate that James's own story is a bit lacking.


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