Somehow I didn’t even know this was going to be a novellas collection, and I think after reading The Institute last week after waiting a few months to get to it, I am glad for this kind of book instead of another long novel. Mostly this is a solid collection that I don’t think actually works great for new readers. I think they should read his previous novel first. This collection will work for everyone on the Stephen King bi-annual plan, and that’s not a bad thing at all. There’s nothing all that memorable here, even if it’s perfectly competent.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone
The first book in the collection takes a trope I am used to with Stephen King novels, an adult looking back on childhood before rounding back into the present, and doesn’t exactly twist (ok, doesn’t twist it), but because this story takes place contemporary to now, the “nostalgia” elements or the time-marking ones of 2004 feel kind of funny to me here. Our narrator spent many days of his adolescence reading the small town’s rich miser novels. He reads a lot of American realism classics (which no one really reads anymore) like McTeague. They chat about the world, and about the billionaire’s general luddite tendencies. Each year for a gift, the old man sends people in his life lottery ticket scratchoffs. One year, the boy wins $3000 and he buys his friend an iPhone. The older man soon thereafter dies and from time to time the boy texts or calls his friend, missing him.
At school, he’s beat up by the town bully. He begs the universe for justice and the bully dies, from an apparent suicide, and in the desperate throes of grief and guilt, the boys receives a gibberish text message on his phone from his old, dead friend. This is all the set up for the longer story to come.
The novella spends a lot of time with memory, technology, and like Cell or Ur thinks and ponders about the connections between adherence to technology and humanity.
The Life of Chuck
This begins as a meditation on some future moment in which the earth is too far gone and we start to reckon with the actual damage we are doing to the planet. That moment where catastrophic nightmare starts happening daily or hourly and society starts to crumble, but we’re too inured to it all to note much beyond, to quote the characters, “It sucks”. But the story goes from there in an unexpected turn. The narrator and his comrades notice a near ubiquitous set of signs, banners, congratulations, ads, etc marking “39 Good Years” or something to that effect for “Chuck” and so eventually, working backwards, we get the story of Chuck and his 39 years. What looked like it would be a celebration of 39 years in say, a bank or something, was actually 39 years of life.
So I won’t say anything beyond this about the plot. The story plays out like Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward” and more so, in my mind, as Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet to the Brain” a story you should read today or listen to here, immediately: https://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_27/section_1/artc2A.html
Anyway, everything about the now seems truly awful, and it is, and I don’t know why — doubt, denial, or whatever — but stories that dwell on it, and especially the slow run things don’t depress me. I think forcing me to reckon with death on mass scale makes it easier to take. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times. I wonder if Stephen King thinks about this book coming out right now amid (waves frantically around at everything) and sees himself as just a marker of things or a prophet. I have to imagine he’s a little too grounded for it, but this one feels like he nailed it.
If you read enough Stephen King, you inevitably will find him writing about writers. And of course, writers love to write about writers. One of the things that’s more interesting to me beyond the characters he creates, is who are the real world writers he writes about. He loves to have his character churn through books, to name drop, to discuss…sometimes these are in the vein of: what pulpy writer is your character reading? In this book, it’s John D MacDonald (writer among other books of Cape Fear), and he also mentions Infinite Jest and Under the Volcano at times. Anyway, our narrator is a middling short story writer with a good job teaching creative writing. He awakes one day to an alert in his brain of a fully formed novel just ready to be written. Normally this would be a good thing, but apparently he spent a decade or more writing a badly thought-out John Updike derivative novel (so a Rick Moody?) that led him to a very dark place and he promised to give it up. So extracting a sabbatical from his wife and his boos is met with concern. He makes it out and goes to a cabin his father owned. All is set when a coming snow storm and a flu bring up the very real possibility of abandoning this novel as well. In the midst of a fever, he has a vision…..and it goes from there.
Not particularly strong, but also not weak. The writing and the story themselves are good, but the “Stephen King” part of this novel is not so great.
If It Bleeds
The Holly Gibney novella long promised. I didn’t even know this was part of it. I like Holly just fine and Will Patton’s narration of her character is distinct to be sure. We find Holly watching tv as part of her regular schedule, solving cases, working, learning, self-improving, when breaking news tells her that a bomb has gone off in a middle school in Pennsylvania killing several dozen teachers and students. As she’s watching, she notices a curious anomaly with the local news anchor which leads her back down paths. I won’t spoil anything. This is by far the longest of the stories and is most fully realized because of the material that came before it. It’s not that hard to build a world around a character in a novella when you have four novels backing her up. I think this could be a great way for King to extend The Outsider tv show by adding more stories in this realm. In the Outsider, I wasn’t the biggest fan of rolling those novels into the supernatural world being created there, but the third Bill Hodges novel was already heading that way.