Friday, November 10, 2017

August Reads Part Two

It by Stephen King
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Last month, I ranked It as the number five best novel written by Stephen King. After finishing it, for what I believe to only be the second time (I originally only made it to the halfway point when I was a young'un), I don't think I would shift its place. With such a long and dense novel such as this, it can be difficult to maintain precision with critique. Like the sprawling plotlines themselves, I worry my words of praise and damnation could unspool themselves to epic length.

Let us begin, then, with the positive attributes of this mammoth tome. King's powers, many that they are, include a control of suspense practically unmatched—surely placing him among such masters of the form as Dickens and Collins. Each session I had with It had me running through a hundred pages or more without noticing the steady tick of time. I'd glance up from the paperback and be almost late for work. The absorption is practically total. The success of this can be attributed to the casual ease of his prose (King demands little of the reader's expertise with vocabulary or syntax) and to use of repetition. A hallmark of King's prose is the recitation of almost talismanic phrases, either irrupting from the subconscious (marked, typographically, with a paragraph break, in italics, often contained within parentheses) or repeated by the narrator. These phrases function like musical motifs, grounding the reader's attention in the whole work, like signposts marking progress, warning against straying from the path. In It, the talismanic phrases are not simply aesthetic or poetical devices but rather narratively motivated: the phrases repeated by the protagonists as defense against the psychic intrusion of the antagonist; the phrases used as weapons against the protagonists, to shake their confidence and increase their fear. In a novel of average length, the repetition might not wear so much on the reader, but after 1,100 pages, I began to tire of reading the same gaggle of words in italics.

When I first read this and the second time, I remember thinking the Derry Interludes were dull and unnecessary filler, but this time around, I thought higher of these sequences. King's project isn't simply to illustrate the trauma of childhood carried into adulthood, but the intergenerational trauma carried from one era to the next, personified, literalized, as ritualistic eruptions of violence. The Derry Interludes, narrated by historian/librarian Mike Hanlon, offer glimpses into the past of the long shadow Pennywise casts over Derry. One of the most successful effects in the novel is the insidious way Pennywise is woven into the fabric of the town itself, to the point where their definitions blur into each other. Can one have Pennywise without the town and vice versa, a question wisely posed by the novel through the Derry Interludes. One of my favourite scenes in the novel and the miniseries, which looks to be adapted differently in the forthcoming film version, is the haunted photographs of Derry's past.

Something I had never considered in my previous readings of the novel was how King uses the discourse of children's adventures stories to scaffold his novel. In some ways, It is about the reckoning of the past and trauma through the detritus of popular culture (an example: for Richie, the terror manifests as a teenage werewolf, complete with classic 1950s varsity jacket, distorted from the film I Was a Teenage Werewolf). King's fiction has often been postmodern:
the past is no longer something to orient ourselves with in the present but rather a vast collection of images from which to draw on repeatedly, like frantic waves of seemingly novel commodities which "randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles" (Jameson 19) (quoting myself from here)
While his cannibalizing is often overt and on-the-surface, in It, he draws upon the long history of children's adventure stories without signposting them so obviously. While the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are explicitly referenced in a scene or two, King doesn't signal his mobilization of the structure. This effect is similar to that in The Little Friend by Donna Tartt: both are self-conscious imitations of a pulp style, but through a postmodern lens. And I don't mean postmodern as explicitly self-referential or aesthetically avant-garde. Rather, I use postmodern in the Jamesonian sense, the cultural logic of late capitalism. I should even be careful to attribute this use of children's adventure stories to King himself but instead to the text, because I can't with any specificity point to King's intentions.

Now, onto the not-so-great stuff. Here, I shall quote myself, where I defended charges of sexism against the novel. It seems, in reaction to feminist readings of King's fiction and re-readings of the novel, the climactic sex scene is being re-examined. I maintain the scene is gross and sexist. I wrote this in another spot:
It’s not so much that Beverly is *defined* by her gender or her sexuality. That much we can all agree on and it’s a credit to King’s skill at characterization that she is more than the constant references to her “budding” breasts the narrator can’t seem to forget. No, rather, and here I shall mobilize that “lazy trend” of feminist critique, it’s not the individual character, but as Mike points out, the gender imbalance. It’s also not simply Beverly herself as a character but Beverly as she exists in the *discourse* of children’s adventure stories, a rich and complicated history King is drawing upon (hence the setting of the 1950s, the end of the era’s golden age). Other than Nancy Drew (to which King explicitly draws a comparison, specifically highlighting Nancy’s father’s intervention), girls in adventure stories often did not have starring roles or if they did, their agency was subordinate to that of the boys’. King’s attempt at rectifying this, by making it her idea to have a tween gangbang, is a classic example of “good intentions” (as with lots of King’s politics, they’re marred by his reductive sense of good intentions… cf. the Magical Black Person). We must widen our lens and look at Beverly in *context* of the discourse in which she has been placed. Again, we have yet another girl whose agency is expressed through her sexual viability, her currency as sexual creature. I hesitate to use “sexual object” because as you note, the objectification her body (which is pronounced throughout the novel, either in the 50s or the 80s) is at least thematically motivated. Bev’s character, while rich in some ways (most importantly, her steady hand and steady eye with the slingshot), is still another girl characterized by her body. In “Woman on the Market,” Luce Irigaray writes that “wives, daughters, and sisters have value only in that they serve as the possibility of, and potential benefit in, relations among men” (172). The only way she can think to bring them together is to open herself to them and allow them to essentially take a piece of her (virginity). The scene is icky not just because of the ages of the characters but because none of the boys offer up their butthole to accomplish the same end. Her value, when it comes down to it, is how she can be used, exhausted as a commodity to artificially create a bond.

But what's the point of rehashing the same argument about the gangbang? Most people dislike it and it's been wisely excised from both adaptations. What matters is how this use of Bev is dismissed as just simply gross and not indicative of the ways in which women are objectified and commodified by heteropatriarchy. Enough of this.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy was okay. I did like how when the protagonist meets the anarchist hottie, he asks for her pronouns. I did not care for the peppy quippy narrator voice which irritated and did not do enough to get across the horror of this summoned demon.

Kiernan's Agents of Dreamland was incredible. It's a classic Lovecraft homage with some hardboiled shit tossed in but what elevates it from ordinary is the aesthetic push. The narrative cuts between stories and rarely provides much in the way of exposition. Similarly, the novella deploys a fun bit of false document, with a very real-sounding lost film. I loved this. These Tor.com novellas have been mostly good. I'm going to keep with them.

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