Saturday, July 28, 2012

Stephen King: Different Seasons (1982)

In "The Breathing Method", one of four novellas collected in Different Seasons, an inscription on the keystone above the large fireplace in a mysterious private club at 249B West Thirty-Fifth Street in New York City reads:
It is the tale, not he who tells it.
In his introduction to Night Shift, John D. MacDonald wrote:
I do not give a diddly-whoop what Stephen King chooses as an area in which to write. The fact that he presently enjoys writing in the field of spooks and spells and slitherings in the cellar is to me the least important and useful fact about the man anyone can relate. ... [T]he main thing is story. ... [O]nce you know how, you can write in any area. Stephen King is not going to restrict himself to his present field in intense interest.
With Different Seasons, King made good on MacDonald's prediction. Three of the four novellas have no horror or supernatural elements whatsoever. Forget genres, King is saying with this collection. Don't think of me as a horror writer – think of me as simply a writer.

In the Afterword, King states that each of these stories was written after finishing the first draft of a longer novel.
[I]t's as if I've always finished the big job with just enough gas left in the tank to blow off one good-sized novella. The Body, the oldest story here, was written direct after 'Salem's Lot; Apt Pupil was written in a two-week period following The Shining (and following Apt Pupil I wrote nothing for three months – I was pooped); Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was written after finishing The Dead Zone; and The Breathing Method, the most recently written of these stories, immediately following Firestarter.
(Douglas Winter, who interviewed King for his book, The Art of Darkness, offers a different chronology: "Rita/Shawshank" was written after The Stand while "The Breathing Method" came after Cujo.)

All four novellas revolve around the act of telling stories.

In "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (Hope Springs Eternal)", Red, a convicted murderer, gathers strands of information from a variety of sources to tell us the story of fellow Shawshank prison inmate Andy Dufresne, an accountant who was falsely convicted of killing his wife and her lover. After 27 years of blind hope, "brute persistence" and seemingly limitless patience, Andy escapes and becomes a folk hero to the other inmates, an avatar of hope against an inhumane institution.

"The Breathing Method (A Winter's Tale)" is a gothic horror story in which a group of older, professional men gather each week at a Manhattan brownstone to trade tales of the uncanny. On a snowy Christmas Eve, a retired physician recounts the tale of an unmarried pregnant woman who came to his office back in 1935.

"Apt Pupil (Summer of Corruption)" is a tense, psychological thriller in which Todd Bowden, a seemingly all-American teenager, blackmails a Nazi war criminal into telling him stories of the death camps. Todd is obsessed with the firing squads, the gas chambers, the ovens, the experimentations – "all the gooshy stuff". Bringing up the past has unexpected consequences and as his relationship with Kurt Dussander deepens, Todd finds that he no longer has the upper hand.

The tour de force of this collection is "The Body (Fall from Innocence)". It is a classic coming-of-age story, a journey from innocence to experience, in which four close friends (all 12 years old) head out from their homes in Castle Rock, Maine, on an overnight trip to see the dead body of a boy their own age who went missing three days earlier. One of the boys, Gordon Lachance, now an adult with a successful writing career much like Stephen King's, is recalling those eventful two days.

Safe inside the confines of a tree house the boys have built near a vacant lot in Castle Rock, the boys - Gordie, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp, and Vern Tessio - play cards, smoke, and look at girly and true crime magazines. Vern relates a conversation he overheard, in which his older brother mentioned the body near some train tracks, roughly 30 miles away. The four boys decide to look for the body – one final summer adventure before trudging back to school the following week - packing sleeping bags and concocting a cover story for their parents.

A common theme in many of King's books - Rage, The Shining, The Dead Zone, Carrie, among others - is the damage (both emotionally and/or physically) that parents regularly inflict on their defenseless children. Each of the four boys has suffered some type of neglect or abuse from their families.

Chris's alcoholic father is always on a "mean streak" and beats him on a regular basis. When Teddy was eight years old, his father punished him for breaking a plate by searing both of his ears on a hot stove. Vern seems to exist mainly as a punching bag for his older brother.

Gordon's parents are still mourning the accidental death of their other son, Dennis, who was ten years older than Gordie. Dennis died five months earlier when his Army jeep was broadsided by another truck. Gordie says he relates to the title character of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a book which Gordie assumed was science fiction when he chose it for a school book report. He says he still really enjoyed it. "Nobody even notices him at all unless he fucks up. People look right through him." Like Ellison's nameless main character, Gordie and his friends' identities are in flux. They are embarking on young adulthood and the act of self-creation, searching for their true selves.

Any semblance of a loving or caring environment is one that the boys must carve out for themselves, among themselves. King is a master at portraying the special bonds of young adulthood, and the love that exists between friends. This entire story is testament to that fact, but there are some exceptional moments. One occurs early in their hike, after the guy who runs the town dump insults Teddy's father (who is confined to a veterans mental hospital and who Teddy, despite the abuse he has suffered, still loves and defends). Teddy explodes in anger and tears, and Chris goes to comfort him, holding his hand and telling him:
Lissen, Teddy, what do you care what a fat old pile of shit like him said about your father? Huh? I mean, sincerely! That don't change nothin, does it? ... He still stormed the beach at Normandy, right? Do you think that pile of shit was at Normandy? ... He was rankin you, man. He was tryin to rank you over that friggin fence, you know it? No strain, man. No fuckin strain. He don't know nothin about your old man. ... He's just dogshit, man. Right, Teddy? Huh? Right?
Teddy apologizes for his outbursts. "Hey if I spoiled your good time, I'm sorry."

Vern suddenly says: "I ain't sure I want it to be no good time. ... [G]oing to see a dead kid — it shouldn't be a party, maybe. ... I mean, I could be a little scared. If you get me.

Within this tight group of friends, Vern knows he can share his honest fears and worries in a way he cannot do with anyone else in the world.
I'm ascared to look at that kid cause if he's, you know, if he's really bad ... I'll have nightmares about him and wake up thinkin it's him under my bed, all cut up in a pool of blood ... I can't help it. But I feel like we hafta see him, even if there are bad dreams. You know? Like we hafta.
(As King writes in "The Mangler" (Night Shift): "It was the way things worked – the human animal had a built-in urge to view the remains".)


Near the spot he overheard his brother describe, Vern spies a single, pale white hand sticking out of the blackberry brambles. Gordie:
It would have been better to see the whole body, all at once, but instead there was only that limp outstretched hand, horribly white, the fingers limply splayed ... It told us the truth of the whole matter. It explained every graveyard in the world. The image of that hand came back to me every time I heard or read of an atrocity. ...

Chris and I were the first to reach the body of Ray Brower. He was face down. Chris looked into my eyes, his face set and stern – an adult's face.
The corpse of Ray Brower is death stripped of metaphor. It is the end of life in its most raw form: a lifeless body in the bushes, crawling with bugs. Seeing the corpse brings the concrete idea of death - the reality of his brother's death and his own mortality - home to Gordie for the first time. The idea of death is no longer an abstract thought.

What makes the tragedy brutally real for Gordie is knowing that Ray's Keds were knocked completely off his feet; he sees them hanging in the bushes about three feet away. Earlier in the story, Gordie says that for him, summer will always mean running down to the market on a hot day with some change in his pocket, "my feet dressed in Keds".


On the first day, after the boys have set up their camp for the evening, Gordie tells one of his stories: "The Revenge of Lard Ass Hogan". (Both this story and "Stud City" are included within the novella; they were published by King while he was in college.)

Hogan - "this fat kid nobody likes" - enters a pie-eating contest. To get revenge on the people who have teased and hurt him, he drinks a bottle of castor oil beforehand. When he gets sick after eating a couple of pies, it starts an epic domino effect of vomiting among both contestants and audience members alike. Hogan then walks home.
"Just goes upstairs to his room, locks the door, and lays down on his bed."

I downed the last swallow in Chris's Coke and tossed it into the woods.

"Yeah, that's cool, then what happened?" Teddy asked eagerly.

"I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Teddy asked.

"It means it's the end. When you don't know what happens next, that's the end."

"Whaaaaat?" Vern cried. There was an upset, suspicious look on his face ... "How’d it come out?"

"You have to use your imagination," Chris said patiently.

"No, I ain't!" Vern said angrily. "He's supposed to use his imagination! He made up the fuckin story!"
The full conversation is actually a sly bit of literary criticism: what makes a story, when is a story complete, the storyteller's responsibility to a reader, how much effort should a reader put into a work of fiction, etc.

A little later, Chris tells Gordie to not pay any attention to Teddy or Vern, that the story was good. "They come outta you like bubbles out of soda pop. ... It's like you could tell a million stories and still only get the ones on top. You'll be a great writer someday, Gordie."

The boys talk about starting junior high in a few days. Chris says, "And you know what, Gordie? By next June, we'll all be quits."

Gordie is shocked. "What are you talking about? Why would that happen?"
It's not gonna be like grammar school, that's why. You'll be in the college courses. Me and Teddy and Vern, we'll all be in the shop courses, playing pocket-pool with the rest of the retards, making ashtrays and birdhouses. ... You'll meet a lot of new guys. Smart guys. That's just the way it works, Gordie. That's how they got it set up. ...

"Meet a lot of pussies is what you mean," I said.

He gripped my arm. "No, man. Don't say that. Don't even think that. They'll get your stories. Not like Vern and Teddy."

"Fuck the stories. I'm not going in with a lot of pussies. No sir."

"If you don't, then you're an asshole."

"What's asshole about wanting to be with your friends?"

He looked at me thoughtfully, as if deciding whether or not to tell me something. ...

"It's asshole if your friends can drag you down. I know about you and your folks. They don't give a shit about you. ... It's like God gave you something, all those stories you can make up, and He said: This is what we got for you, kid. Try not to lose it. But kids lose everything unless somebody looks out for them and if your folks are too fucked up to do it then make I ought to. ... If you go along with us just because you don't want the gang to break up, you'll wind up just another grunt ... Nothin'll get written down. Cause you'll be just another wise guy with shit for brains."

Chris Chambers was twelve when he said all that to me. But while he was saying it his face crumpled and folded into something older, oldest, ageless. He spoke tonelessly, colorlessly, but nevertheless, what he said struck terror into my bowels. It was as if he had lived that whole life already, that life where they tell you to step right up and spin the Wheel of Fortune, and it spins so pretty and the guy steps on a pedal and it comes up double zeros, house number, everybody loses.

While it is a fool's game to match up autobiographical details in a writer's fiction, I feel safe in saying that what Gordie says about his writing career are King's thoughts as well.

Gordie sees writing as private act – and he remains somewhat embarrassed about it:
I always felt uncomfortable when the talk turned to my stories ... I wanted [Richie] to read them and at the same time I didn't – an uneasy mix of pride and shyness that has never changed in me very much when someone asks to look. ... [Richie said:] "You're pretty good at this. Why don't you show these to Chris? I said no, I wanted it to be a secret, and Richie said: Why? It ain't pussy. You ain't no queer. I mean, it ain't poetry."
As an adult:
Me? I'm a writer now, like I said. A lot of critics think what I write is shit. ... My story sounds so much like a fairytale that it's fucking absurd. ... [T]he writing isn't so easy or as much fun as it used to be. ... And I wonder if there is really any point to what I'm doing, or what I'm supposed to make of a world where a man can get rich playing "let's pretend". ...

Nowadays writing is my work and the pleasure has diminished a little. ... And although no one is going to call me the Thomas Wolfe of my generation, I rarely feel like a cheat ... What scares me is how often it hurts these days. Back then I was sometimes disgusted by how damned good it felt to write. These days I sometimes look at this typewriter and wonder when it's going to run out of good words.

When the boys get back to town and Chris heads back to his own house, Gordie can't think of anything to say.
Even if I had known the right thing to say, I probably couldn't have said it. Speech destroys the functions of love, I think — that's a hell of a thing for a writer to say, I guess, but I believe it to be true. If you speak to a deer you mean it no harm, it glides away with a single flip of its tail. The word is the harm. Love isn't what these asshole poets like McKuen want you to think it is. Love has teeth; they bite; the wounds never close. No word, no combination of words, can close those love bites. It's the other way around, that's the joke. If those wounds dry up, the words die with them. Take it from me. I've made my life from the words, and I know that is so.

Keith Silva, "A Requiem for Ray Brower: Encounters with Death in Stephen King's 'The Body'" (thesis):
Death is a fact of life, just like the facts that parents do not always love their children, adults can often be cruel and hurtful, and friendships that appear at the age of twelve that would seem to last for eternity seldom do. Although "The Body" is imbued with these elements of indifference, despair, and death ... [e]ach death (and life) is remembered and it resonates with the ones that preceded it until finally Gordie can fully realize what mortality actually means and what a joy it is to be living and alive.
Silva points out another of King's strongest themes, the randomness of life and death:
In the end, survival is not a result of heroic triumph, and there is no action that can restore innocence destroyed by experience. In the end, survival is the result of random chance tempered in the end by fate.
All you can do is what Lard Ass Hogan did after his pie-eating contest: Go home, lock the door, lie down on your bed and be glad you are still alive.

Next: Christine.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Stephen King: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (1982)

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

A 22-year-old college student named Steve King wrote that sentence in the spring of 1970. It was the opening line of what the ambitious young writer dreamed would be "the longest popular novel in history".

Amazingly, he wasn't too far off. More than forty years later, King is perhaps the most popular writer in the world, and that long novel - The Dark Tower, which totals 4,250 pages over eight volumes - is his magnum opus.

The Dark Tower defies classification, incorporating several literary genres, including fantasy, science fantasy, horror, western, and even Pynchonian absurdities and metafiction (two things not usually associated with King). It is also, at its core, the oldest story of them all: the quest or a hero's journey, what Joseph Campbell referred to as the "monomyth". In the Gunslinger's case, his quest is for the Dark Tower, which "stands at the root of time".

The five stories in this first volume were written over a period of 12 years and first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction:
The Gunslinger (October 1978)
The Way Station (April 1980)
The Oracle and the Mountains (February 1981)
The Slow Mutants (July 1981)
The Gunslinger and the Dark Man (November 1981)
King, from the afterword to the paperback edition:
The Dark Tower began, I think, because I inherited a ream of paper in the spring semester of my senior year in college. ... [It] was bright green, nearly as thick as cardboard, and of an extremely eccentric size - about seven inches wide by about ten inches long, as I recall. ... I was at that time living in a scuzzy riverside cabin not far from the University, and I was living all by myself - the first third of the foregoing tale was written in a ghastly, unbroken silence ... Those two factors, the challenge of that blank green paper, and the utter silence (except for the trickle of the melting snow as it ran downhill and into the Stillwater [River]), were more responsible than anything else for the opening lay of The Dark Tower.
The Gunslinger was initially inspired by Robert Browning's 1855 poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came", which King read as a college sophomore. (Browning's title comes from a line in Shakespeare's King Lear.) King wanted to write a "long romantic novel embodying the feel, if not the exact sense, of the Browning poem".

His creativity was also sparked by "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly", Sergio Leone's 1966 spaghetti western, which King saw in a Bangor, Maine, movie theater.
[B]efore the film was even half over, I realized that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained [J.R.R.] Tolkien's sense of quest and magic but set against Leone's almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop. ... And in my enthusiasm - the sort only a young person can muster, I think - I wanted to write not just a long book, but the longest popular novel in history. ... If you were to ask me why I wanted to do that, I couldn't tell you. Maybe it's part of growing up American: build the tallest, dig the deepest, write the longest.
In 1982, King estimated that he would need roughly 3,000 pages to tell the rest of the story, based on a synopsis he sketched out, adding that (at his current rate of production), "I'll almost surely die before completing the entire novel ... or epic .. or whatever you'd call it."

King did nearly almost die, after only four of the projected seven volumes had been published, when he was struck by an automobile in June 1999. After his recovery, King pushed himself to write the final three volumes, which were published in 2003 and 2004. And he went back and revised (and slightly expanded) the first book. (An eighth book was published in 2012; chronologically, it fits between Books IV and V.)

King has said the original version of The Gunslinger (for all its charms) suffered from "a high degree of pretension" and "what seemed like thousands of unnecessary adverbs". And so King removed as much "hollow blather" as he could. There were also "many errors and false starts" with respect to what followed years (or decades) later and its tone was unlike the subsequent volumes ("it was, frankly, rather difficult to read"). Finally, King wanted "to give newcomers to the tale of the Tower a clearer start and a slightly easier entry into Roland's world. I also wanted them to have a volume that more effectively foreshadowed coming events."

(The various changes in the text are discussed in detail here: And Just as Far as Ever from the End: A Textual Analysis of The Gunslinger by Stephen King, by Sharmin Kent.)

As the 2003 revised edition is clearly the definitive version, that's the one I read:

All of The Gunslinger has the feel of a prologue, which I suppose it is. A gunslinger named Roland - the last of his kind in his world - is tracking the man in black across a vast desert, "white and blinding and waterless and without feature". He has been travelling for months. It is noted several times that the world has "moved on" - a description that seems to connote more than the simple passage of time. Civilization has been decimated, apparently, perhaps wiped away by a plague similar to that depicted in The Stand.

Near death at a desert way station, Roland is saved by a young boy named Jake Chambers, who, under hypnosis, reveals that he died in New York City in 1977 and was somehow transported to this world. He joins Roland, who tells him, "I have to make him [the man in black] tell me something. I may have to make him take me some place ... to find a tower."

Roland, while on a mescaline high, is told by an oracle: "The boy is your gate to the man in black. The man in black is your gate to the three. The three are your way to the Dark Tower." This is only one of numerous indications that Jake will have to be sacrificed to the gunslinger's quest. And when Roland is faced with a choice of saving Jake and never again seeing the MiB or letting the boy die and getting closer to the Tower, he chooses the latter.

The MiB then reads Roland's future with a special deck of Tarot cards, and shows Roland a vision of the universe's creation. Overwhelmed, Roland begs for the dream to stop, and the MiB tells him to turn back from his quest. Roland refuses, and the MiB, as a minion of the Dark Tower's master, tells him: "Start west. Go to the sea. Where the world ends is where you must begin."

Roland awakes from the dream, and discovers that he has aged ten years. He makes his way to the sea.
There the gunslinger sat, his face turned up into the fading light. He dreamed his dreams and watched as the stars came out; his purpose did not flag, nor did his heart falter; his hair, finer now and gray at the temples, blew around his head, and the sandalwood-inlaid guns of his father lay smooth and deadly against his hips, and he was lonely but did not find loneliness in any way a bad or ignoble thing. The dark came down and the world moved on. The gunslinger waited for the time of the drawing and dreamed his long dreams of the Dark Tower, to which he would someday come at dusk and approach, wainding his horn, to do some unimgainable final battle.

In the first half of The Gunslinger, King focuses more on the bleak landscape, or the gunslinger's few thoughts about his pursuit of the MiB, rather than any back story (although he does include a few flashbacks to Roland's youth and beginnings as a gunslinger). It is only in the final two of the five stories - written in the late '70s - that the action starts to pick up. Despite what King said about the book's readability, it was engaging and solidly written, although it did suffer from time to time from some overheated (and bizarre) prose, such as "Volcanoes blurted endless magma like giant pimples on some ugly adolescent's baseball head."


The second volume of the series - The Drawing of the Three - would not be published for another five years. When it was, King admitted that he had little idea where the rest of the story would lead:
I'm never completely sure where I'm going [when writing], and in this story that is even more true than usual. I know from Roland's vision near the end that his world is indeed moving on because Roland's universe exists within a single molecule of a weed dying in some cosmic vacant lot ... [B]ut what of the gunslinger's murky past? God, I know so little. The revolution that topples the gunslinger's "world of light"? I don't know. ... Except somewhere inside, I do. Somewhere inside, I know all of these things ... When it's time, those things - and their relevance to the gunslinger's quest - will roll out as naturally as tears or laughter.
Jessica Waller, "Stephen King's The Dark Tower and the Postmodern Serial" (2008):
This sense of writing without knowing is a vital characteristic of King's postmodern serial: it allows the reader to fully grasp that this is a universe where all worlds are collapsing and falling into one another, and the novels themselves become the product of that collapse.

King, afterward to The Dark Tower IV:
I have written enough novels and short stories to fill a solar system of the imagination, but Roland's story is my Jupiter - a planet that dwarfs all the others (at least from my own perspective), a place of strange atmosphere, crazy landscape, and savage gravitational pull. Dwarfs the others, did I say? I think there's more to it than that, actually. I am coming to understand that Roland's world (or worlds) actually contains all the others of my making ...
King, July 2003:
[T]he books that I wrote instead of the Dark Tower from probably 1988 on . . . all of them refer to the Dark Tower books in some way or another.
King says these novels are connected (albeit sometimes only by the slimmest of threads) to the Dark Tower series: 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, The Talisman, It, The Eyes of the Dragon, Skeleton Crew, Insomnia, Rose Madder, Desperation, The Regulators, Bag of Bones, Everything's Eventual, Hearts in Atlantis, Black House, and From A Buick 8.


The five Gunslinger stories were published in a limited edition by a speciality press in 1982. Its release was not publicized and most King fans had no idea the book existed. It was only when the title was included among King's published works in Pet Sematary (1983) that it became widely known. By then, of course, the limited edition of 10,000 had sold out. In response to the outcry and demand, a trade paperback was released in 1988.

Next: Different Seasons (1982).

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: Infinite Jest, The Audio Book

In March, Hachette Audio released an audio version of David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, in two versions, as an audio download (56 hours) and as a Playaway - an iPod-sized device that runs on a battery.

Hachett advertises the recording as "unabridged", but, as I'll explain shortly, the audio book is definitely not unabridged. In fact, roughly 10% of the novel - the famous endnotes - is missing.

Note: My review of the recording (I received a Playaway from Hachette) is at the bottom of this lengthy post. But first - Wallace's novel is read by Sean Pratt, who was also kind enough to answer a few of my questions by email.

1. When did you come into the project?

I first heard about it from the producer, John McElroy, in 2009, when he mentioned the possibility that he'd be producing IJ for Hachette. We talked about the project for over nine months, until it was green-lighted.

2. Are you a big fan of Wallace and/or the book?

I'd heard of DFW and IJ, of course, but like most people, I'd never read any of his work. Once, I knew we were a "go" for the project, I did watch some interviews, etc. on YouTube as well as read about the book itself. I thought both he and his work were very interesting and complex.

3. What are some of the other books you have narrated?

I've done a LOT: about 660 titles in 16 years. They include almost every genre you can think of....and some I'd rather not discuss... :-) Favorites would be Ben Hur, Raintree County, Searching for Bobby Fischer, Michael Burlingame's Bio of Abraham Lincoln, The Drunkards Walk, many of the Robert Heinlein books, and A Death in the Family.

4. How did doing this book differ from the others? If you have done non-fiction books, then this one is quite different, with a non-linear manuscript, nearly 400 endnotes/digression, and a cast of hundreds. How was it decided how to read it, techniques to use ...?

It's unlike anything I've narrated! Period. Is it like anything you've read?

The demands are enormous. Wild syntax. Serpentine sentences. Unattributed dialogue. Foreign language (some of it made-up). Crazy characters who come and go, willy nilly. Yikes! But I can always tell when an author has taken the time to read their work aloud in order to hear what the words sound like. The flow is always better, the tempo is consistent and the words and phrases have a real melody to them. When you narrate a well written book, like IJ, it's like a surfer catching a wave; it just carries you along. Without doubt, though, it's the most difficult, most rewarding book I've worked on.

5. How many hours a day did you work? How long did the project take? (Is that different than other books?)

First of all, the decision was made not to read the endnotes. As a narrator, that seems right to me. IJ is difficult enough to follow, at times, without creating yet another level to distract the listener. Don't get me wrong, the endnotes are great, but given the constraints of our format, I can't see how they'd have worked. I know that's not what DFW's biggest fans want to hear, but as a performer, that's what I believe. What we have here is the pure narrative as it unfolds.

Second, to some extent, you need to trust the narrator to make choices. They're not always the choices the director or another actor would make, but they're his. John gave me a lot of leeway on my performance. Still, there were moments where I understood his reservations and made adjustments. One, actually involved DFW's use of abbreviations. I wanted to spell all of them out for the listener as a courtesy; it's hard to comprehend what's going on in an audiobook when you're not spelling things out. I mean, while most people know what "i.e." or "Dr." means, not many know "e.g", "Q.v.", "c", "A.D.A" or some of the more idiosyncratic ones that DFW came up with. But John convinced me that they were many instances where they needed to be kept "as is" and so that's what we did; that's why they call it a collaboration.

6. With so many uncommon words (Madame Psychosis's radio show has a ton of them), did you have phonetic cheat sheets? Multiple takes?

If you count "scoring" the text - when to breath, what's the most important word or phrase in each sentence, is this parenthetical phrase more or less important than the main sentence, circling words to be looked up later, etc - that takes a significant period of prep, especially for so long a novel. Our recording sessions ran five to six hours, with breaks every hour or so.

7. With two-page sentences and odd sections (i.e., James Incandenza's filmography), what kind of a challenge was this book? (Did you have phonetic cheat sheets?)

On two-page sentences: That's where the scoring comes in. They're too hard to tackle, otherwise.
On keeping characters straight: I had separate sheets with all the characters and their voice notes, a pronunciation guide, and a blank sheet to take notes on.

And as I said, note 24 (J.O.I's filmography) isn't included in the recording. It's a PERFECT instance of why the endnotes present such a challenge for the audiobook format: a long list of discrete subjects, punctuated with technical language, and parodic precis of each film. Works on the page, but man, it would be quite another experience to listen to it.

8. Did you listen to Wallace reading from IJ and, if so, how did that influence your approach? (I heard a small part of The Pale King being read (the opening section) and I thought the reader lacked DFW's voice's warmth.)

In general, I don't listen to the author because...

1) For good or ill, I want my interpretation to be first and foremost in my head. Does an actor watch Oliver's Hamlet before he starts rehearsals? I sure wouldn't!

2) Authors and narrators have very different jobs: one writes, the other reads aloud. I think if you'd listened more to Robert Petkoff's performance (which I thought was great, incidentally), you'd see where he takes it. As an actor, his range is necessarily broader than Wallace's, and that makes all the difference.


In another interview, Pratt conceded that "I had no idea what I was getting into when I agreed to it ... Not just the length, but the depths of people's devotion [to the book]. ... It was the hardest book I ever had to narrate... it was maddening, engaging, enlightening, frustrating and entertaining."

For those people unaware of Infinite Jest, here's Hachette's description:
A gargantuan, mind-altering comedy about the Pursuit of Happiness in America set in an addicts' halfway house and a tennis academy, and featuring the most endearingly screwed-up family to come along in recent fiction, Infinite Jest explores essential questions about what entertainment is and why it has come to so dominate our lives; about how our desire for entertainment affects our need to connect with other people; and about what the pleasures we choose say about who we are. Equal parts philosophical quest and screwball comedy, Infinite Jest bends every rule of fiction without sacrificing for a moment its own entertainment value. It is an exuberant, uniquely American exploration of the passions that make us human - and one of those rare books that renew the idea of what a novel can do.
As Pratt noted, this audio book does not include the 388 endnotes - which are nearly 10% of the book. I think that is a huge mistake, because they are not necessarily any harder to read or understand than the main portion of the book. Hachette includes a PDF file of the endnotes with the audio download, but that's not much help if you are listening while in transit, or blind. At Goodreads, someone quipped, "That is like reading Finnegans Wake and not including the words that make no sense."

Hachette spokeswoman Megan Fitzpatrick told The Huffington Post that the decision to ignore the endnotes was an "incredibly difficult decision for all involved, and we debated different options for a long time before beginning production. Because some of the endnotes are pages-long digressions, if we had them read in line with the main narrative, we would have run the risk of making the already complex story unfollowable for listeners."

Nick Maniatis of The Howling Fantods website wrote in mid-April that the "endnotes are essential to the enjoyment and understanding of this novel [and] there is much significant material missing if the endnotes are excluded". I agree. While some endnotes are simply casual asides offered by the narrator, many others include key information to the book's many subplots.

Roughly one month later, Maniatis spoke with Hachette Book Group's Vice President of Audio, Anthony Goff, who confirmed that the audio endnotes will be recorded and available. Maniatis reported on May 24 that Goff "understand[s] that having recorded end notes are essential to Infinite Jest".
By way of explanation it was made clear that current audio book technologies (both in file size support by digital delivery, and sheer file management if end notes are recorded as individual files make it very difficult to do things exactly as they would like. i.e. 450-ish files if the content was produced in order to allow readers to skip end notes - though why you'd want to skip them when the first 350 pages are already dizzying is another question - the novel trains the reader to cope...

The Audible UK version of the original audio book will become available for purchase around September (pdf end notes), and the 6 hours of recorded end notes are expected to be available in the summer for everyone (for an additional, smaller, cost).

The end notes will not be integrated, but it does sound like Hachette Books have long term plans for making this work as the technology allows it. Maybe some enterprising person (or Hachette Books...) will take note of where each end note occurs so people who've purchased the whole text can integrate them somehow.
I note that the issue of the limitations of current technology was not mentioned during the initial complaints about the missing endnotes, although, in retrospect, it was hinted at. Statements from Hachette mentioned "the complexity of the endnote issue" and conceded that it was "unable to include them".

Once the endnotes are released, however, I have no idea how a listener would use them with the original release. Do you need to switch between two devices? How would it work with separate mp3 audio files? Because new chapters or sections of the book often begin within a track, I don't see why endnotes could not similarly be included within the respective tracks. Not every endnote would need its own track.


So (finally) what do I think of the actual in-hand recording?

I love it. I love the fact that Infinite Jest exists in an audio format at all. (I wish they had used the original hard cover art for the Playaway rather than the 10th anniversary paperback version.) The reading, while abridged, is thoroughly enjoyable. Any fan of Infinite Jest should be thrilled with Pratt's performance.

(The Playaway consists of 55 tracks, each roughly an hour in length. The back of the Playaway has eight buttons (play/pause, reverse, forward, volume, speed of playback, etc.) and a little window displaying the track number and time remaining). It requires a AAA battery.)

I listened to various parts of the book, mostly a few sections from near the middle of the novel:
Gately driving Pat Montesian's Aventura through the Boston streets for food supplies for Ennet House (pages 461-69 and 475-79)

The AFR's murders of the Antitoi brothers (480-89)

A conversation between Gately and Joelle and the question of her beauty/deformity (531-38)

Randy Lenz's night-time activities (538-47)

Gately's midnight showdown with the Nucks (601-19)
Pratt's different voices seem true to the book's many characters, though I was distracted by the voice used for Joelle van Dyne, which sounded like a slightly effeminate man.

Listening to someone read a book forces you to listen to every word, whether you want to or not. It both slows the text down and opens it up, so you really hear the rhythmic repetition and hard snaps of consonants in a sentence like "She pulled some Commonwealth Substance-Abuse study in a black plastic binder off a long black plastic bookshelf filled with black plastic binders."

Pratt's reading gives a entirely new perspective to Infinite Jest. What comes through in his reading is Wallace's extraordinary linguistic dexterity, his unerring ear for dialogue, his care in crafting sentences, and his sly and understated wit. I found myself grinning at various sentences, the casual humour of which I almost certainly missed when reading silently to myself.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Stephen King: The Running Man (as Richard Bachman) (1982)

It's 2025, and the United States is a dystopian nightmare. Ben Richards, an unemployed member of the permanent underclass, lives in Co-Op City, where the high-rise projects resemble the dull gray turrets of a penitentiary, with his wife, Sheila, and 18-month-old daughter, Cathy. The baby is seriously ill and Ben has decided to apply as a contestant on one of the Network's reality television (Free-Vee) shows to earn money for medicine.

Richards goes through a series of mental and physical tests at the Games Building, along with hundreds and hundreds of other desperate people hoping against all odds (and risking their lives) to hit the jackpot. Richards does well on the tests and is selected to appear the following week on the most popular show, "The Running Man".

Given a 12-hour head start and several thousand dollars, Richards must elude the show's Hunters for 30 days, who are under orders to kill him. He can go anywhere in the United States, but he must mail back two short recordings of himself back to the Network every day. Failure to do this will forfeit his chance at the grand prize of one billion New Dollars (though he will still be hunted down). The submitted tapes (often altered) are used to further whip the studio audience and viewing nation into a frenzy, howling for Richards's blood. (The Network claims the Hunters are not given the packages' postmarks to track the Runner's whereabouts, but Richards is highly skeptical.) In six years, no one has come close to winning.

In addition to the Hunters, millions of viewers are also on the lookout for the Running Man. The show's host engages in a chilling call-and-response with the studio audience as a distorted picture of Richards (showing him more sullen and simian-looking, with a jeering facial expression) is shown:
"What will you do if you see him on your street?"
"And what are we going to do when we find him?"
The Network has stoked a fear of the underclass and a fear of crime; whether that fear is warranted is irrelevant.

The nationwide frenzy of anger and bloodlust is an obvious allusion to the Two Minutes Hate practiced in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Emmanuel Goldstein says: "Proletarians, in practice, are not allowed to graduate into the Party. The most gifted among them, who might possibly become nuclei of discontent, are simply marked down by the Thought Police and eliminated."

Richards volunteers for the reality shows because he is unemployed, having been blacklisted because of his alleged anti-social and insubordinate attitudes and statements. One of the heads of the Network says that "The Running Man"'s main functions are "good theater" and "pleasuring the masses and getting rid of dangerous people". The show is a disturbing conflation of entertainment and law enforcement. The show's producer tells Richards that he "symbolize[s] all the fears of this dark and broken time".


Douglas W. Texter, in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Dystopia: The Culture Industry's Neutralization of Stephen King's The Running Man" (Utopian Studies 18.1 (2007)), calls The Running Man "a very Marxist-oriented interrogation of the American superstructure".

Texter outlines the dystopian maneuvers of the novella:
First, almost two decades before programs such as "America's Most Wanted" and "COPS" appeared, King offered a predictive and trenchant critique of reality police television shows. Second, influenced by Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, King both employed and modified the dystopian convention of using a dialogue between the protagonist and a member of the ruling elite to demystify and interrogate structures of power. Third, The Running Man ends with an incredibly ghastly scene: an eviscerated protagonist flying an airliner into a high-rise office complex. In rendering this scene, King . . . rewrote one of the seminal episodes of American literature: the evisceration of the waist gunner Snowden in Joseph Heller's Catch-22. . . .

Although incredibly violent and derivative of Vietnam War coverage, The Running Man is not really about war. Rather, it uses the techniques of war reporting and game shows in service of assuaging the nation's fears about urban crime.

King describes himself in 1971 (when he wrote the book) as "a young man who was angry, energetic, and infatuated with the art and the craft of writing". He has claimed that he wrote The Running Man in either one week or possibly in an intense 72-hour marathon. In the original introduction to The Bachman Books (1985), King said The Running Man might be the best of the four Bachman novels "because it's nothing but story".

There are several similarities between The Running Man and another Bachman book, The Long Walk. King again works his themes of oppressive government, one man fighting against the system, games of chance, and a loathing of the mob and group think.

Richard's poverty and desperation reminded me of King's comments about how, before he sold his first novel, he would hope that writing money from his short stories would arrive in time to pay for one of his children's antibiotics.

Clues to Bachman's identity: descriptions of rats nesting in a basement and a man on a ledge ignoring the drop are possible allusions to two Night Shift stories. Also, Richards asked to be taken to an airport in King's fictional town of Derry, Maine.

A movie based on The Running Man, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was released in 1987. The class consciousness and desperation of the novel were gutted and so it bears scant resemblance to King's work. Indeed, Texter believes it was "transformed into the very thing it both predicted and criticized".

The first name of King's pseudonym was taken from Richard Stark, a pen name of Donald Westlake. When asked about the dichotomy between himself and Stark, Westlake said: "I write Westlake stories on sunny days. When it rains, I'm Stark." King has quoted that line when talking about his novel, The Dark Half, which he wrote shortly after his Bachman cover was blown. King is far more pessimistic when wearing his Bachman hat, full of caustic black humour and sardonic asides.


The Network's other shows also tend towards death and mutilation. On "Treadmill to Bucks", contestants with weak hearts and lungs are asked a series of questions and each incorrect answer increases the speed of the treadmill. The other shows are self-explanatory: "How Hot Can You Take It?", "Swim The Crocodiles?", and "Run For Your Guns".

(While in college in 1969-70, King wrote a newspaper column called "King's Garbage Truck". His third effort (March 6, 1969) is a list of some possible new game shows, including "The Brutality Game", a battle between 40 policemen and a studio audience of hippies, pacifists, minorities, and college professors, "The Middle-Aged Game", "The Wife-Swapping Game", and "The Burial Game".)

How real is King's fictional show? Remove the 'killed upon capture' aspect and it sounds identical to a show that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were set to cast and produce more than 12 years ago called "The Runner". An advertisement pitched the show thusly:
Alone and on the run, one citizen - the Runner - must carry out a series of secret missions while trying to evade capture. Pursuing the Runner across the country are Agents, who have at their disposal not only the latest technology to track the Runner's every move, but also the greatest resource on the planet - the American public.
Members of the public were encouraged to register online and help catch the Runner. The prize was one million dollars. The project was axed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.


Texter believes that The Running Man parodies or critiques the American educational system as a whole and standardized testing in particular. Richards's tests (Verbal Comprehension, Visual Logic, and Math Diagnostic), like the SATs, open doors for some people and exclude others. Having each successive test on the next higher floor mocks the idea of upward mobility.

Richards scores high on the tests, not because he is properly educated (he dropped out of trades school at sixteen to get married), but mainly because he reads (a suspicious activity in these times). In going over his scores, Dan Killian, the show's producer, Dan Killian, notes:
In short, you are regarded as anti-authoritarian and anti-social. You're a deviant who has been intelligent enough to stay out of prison and serious trouble with the government, and you're not hooked on anything. . . . [W]e - and here I speak in a larger sense than the Game Authority, I speak in the national sense - view these responses with extreme disquiet.
As Texter notes, the high scores mark Richards for extermination:
First, they [the Network executives] want to know that the trouble-making Richards is smart enough to be a threat to national security. Second, they need to determine whether he's cagey enough to survive for at least a few hours and thus produce entertaining television for the masses. ... To survive even briefly and thus provide entertaining coverage, he must be fast and accurate. The more accurate choices he makes, the more captivating his final destruction will probably be.

The horrifying spectre of air pollution and asthma and lung cancer hovers over the book. The five-year old sister of Bradley and Stacey Throckmorton - two young black kids that help hide Richards from the Hunters - is dying of lung cancer. Bradley is an avid reader and has seen government studies that show the air is excessively toxic. He and Richards share a class identification and a simmering rage towards authority. Bradley: "They gave us Free-Vee to keep us off the streets so we can breathe ourselves to death without making any trouble. . . . Sometimes I think that I could blow the whole thing outta the water with ten minutes talk time on the Free-Vee. . . . People's mad. All they need is a reason."

Richards uses his 10-minute films that he sends back to the Network to educate viewers about the deadly quality of the air, but these are censored by the Network, which plays a different voiceover, spewing various slurs against the Hunters and authority in general. Not many people notice that his mouth and the words are not in synch.

Texter: "King argues that true knowledge about social conditions can come only from self-education and social activism." He also notes that The Running Man was written at a time when environmental degradation was becoming a serious concern. King penned the novel nine years after Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), two years after President Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act (which led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency), and one year after the Clean Air Act was passed and the first Earth Day was celebrated.

The Running Man - like all of the Bachman books - is thoroughly entertaining and packed of the same social/political themes and concerns of more "serious" writers. Even after King was awarded the National Book Foundation's medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003, his reputation as a junk peddler is so solid as to be indestructible. As Texter sums up: "Stephen King wrote something akin to Nineteen Eighty-Four or Catch-22? Not a chance, most critics would say. He only writes horror that sells terrifyingly well."


At the start of this project, I had decided to skip the Dark Tower series, as it seemed like a genre I would neither appreciate nor enjoy. However, King sees his eight Dark Tower books as the centerpiece of his entire writing career, and I have learned that many of his novels have connections to, and elements of, the Dark Tower in them. The argument has been made that all of King's writing comprises one inter-connected universe, and that perhaps King's dozens of novels are better seen as individual chapters in a huge mega-book he has been writing for more than forty years. So. . .

Next: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger.

Not An Original Idea

My little project of reading Stephen King's books in published order (and blogging about them) is far from an original idea.

Dan at "Stephen King Reviewed" got off to a decent start, but apparently stopped in 2009 after 16 books.

Jamie Todd Rubin is also reading King's books in order, but not blogging about each one.

In May 2011, Suzanne Johnson at began reading The Dark Tower series for the first time. It looks like she has been reading at a comfortable pace to have people reading (and commenting) along with her. The schedule of what she has done so far is here.

James Smythe (or is it Smith?) of The Guardian (UK) began reading King's books in order in late May. He (assuming Smythe and Smith are the same person) has read four books so far.