NOTE: This is probably the post that so far (as of the sixth), I’ve had the least confidence in. I’m pretty sure it’s boring and useless and goes nowhere, but I’m also a pessimist and generally dislike what I’ve written, so whoever knows, I definitely don’t.
I am fussy about any number of things and believe that admitting to your pet peeves is a good way of denouncing guilt towards having them. One is that the term “Jesus’ [space provided to show possessive more easily]” is apparently grammatically correct—something I refuse to see as rational or even right. Along the same lines, I have a problem with people who pluralize abbreviations with an apostrophe ess, since there is no real reason for such (RPM’s, 50’s, etc.). I approve of this only with the case of letter grades or single letter abbreviations, namely “A” which when pluralized without the apostrophe is almost certainly going to be mistaken as aptly enough, “As.”
Another problem knit-picky thing that really gets under my skin is the use of the terms “author surrogate,” “literary alter-ego,” “author character,” and the like. What people have to realize is that there Kilgore Trout is in no way an alter ego of Kurt Vonnegut and I really shouldn’t have to explain that to anyone. But besides that point and digging a little deeper towards the topic at hand, I wish to discuss Stephen King’s personal store of the first person narrator and how each of the few times he touches on this front, it comes off a bit differently.
For discussion, I plan to stick to King’s first person writings in Christine, Different Seasons, Bag of Bones, and Duma Key. I think the only major works missing are The Green Mile (which I’ve yet to be able to finish) and Dolores Claiborne (which I split from the batch due to the odd female monologue style of the novel).
In Christine, King does an interesting emotional back turn, coming off of such overarching epic third person tales as The Stand and ‘salem’s Lot, he moves back to the juvenile story, something begun in Carrie. I evaluate this as an exaggeration on his youth by King, something mirrored later on by his choice of older protagonists to exaggerate (most apparently in The Green Mile). Here we kept a glimpse of King hiding in the shadows of Dennis, the narrator of two-thirds of the novel; King, a man scared of his age, to some extent, perhaps best summed up in Dennis’s own words, “If being a kid is about learning how to live, then being a grown-up is about learning how to die.”
The main issue with using first person narrative to track an author, in my opinion, is to trust it as an exact science. I plan on tracking Bret Easton Ellis in a post later this month on a more exact level, charting an evolution in his style through his books. For King, progression in first person fiction can perhaps give us rough snapshots of the man he might have been at that time, but this Polaroid has been charred around the edges and you can never quite be sure who you are staring at in this photo. (Maybe for some fun, I’ll extend the metaphor along the lines of “the figure appears almost ghostly,” you know, for chuckles.)
This image has changed quite a bit by the point of Different Seasons, which I move out of chronology here to track the elusive storyteller that King has become in modern myth. Different Seasons only came out the year before Christine, and perhaps the complex themes of this collection are what led King to write Christine, his first blatant horror novel since his debut (Carrie).
A good place to start discussion on Different Seasons is with “Apt Pupil,” which is actually the only story written in third person, King’s accustomed POV. Writing about Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door, King mentions the necessity of distance between our protagonist and the villain in a story (notably citing American Psycho as failing because of a lacking in this principle). This shows why he could not put himself inside “Apt Pupil,” but was forced to take his general role as a camera*.
For the most part in Different Seasons (three out of four stories, to be exact), King sticks with the speaker approach, addressing us through the various masks of narrators. The true horror story in the bunch, “The Breathing Method,” can be all but thrown out as giving us any insight into King, due to the reliance of the story on distance and frame narratives leaving us with “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Body.”
Once again, in “Rita Hayworth,” King digs into character and for the most part, in my opinion, becomes someone else. This progresses in The Green Mile and From a Buick 8, which is the first and so far only time that we’ve seen King use multiple narrators, blended in with third person. (He previous used a first person, third person blend in Christine.)
This leaves us with “The Body,” which is probably the truest story in the collection, not so much in pure facts, but in how it blends fact into fiction and portrays us with one of the first (if not the first) straight King author narrator, Gordie Lachance. The novella shows us King’s views on the life of the writer, while once again digging back to childhood to give us the actual story being told. What we get about Gordie Lachance, the successful writer, is located throughout the present tense parts of the story, that occasionally break up the flashback that makes up the plot.
This is further progressed in Bag of Bones, where King has a clear author surrogate in the form of Mike Noonan, a writer who eventually admits to having written the book as a memoir. This leaks a bit into metafiction, but is on the fringes of it, and since King thinks very little of metafiction, it is probably best to avoid that moniker. The most interesting idea coming from Bag of Bones is the idea that fiction writing, especially Vonnegut’s style of it (wikixample** – “Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”), is an evil, dark thing. As Vonnegut directly believed, King condemns it as sadistic. And yet, interestingly enough, we can’t be catch another snapshot of the author, this time winking at us from behind the face of Mike Noonan, because the horrors that Noonan went through to get him to condemn fiction are just that, stories that King has made up. Here perhaps the picture of the man we have found looks more like a monster than a ghost.
And finally we come to King’s most recent novel, Duma Key, where he has all but completely escaped his author surrogate. With this return to first person long fiction, King gathers some of the non-writer energy that he had in Christine and channels it into a classic horror yarn. He gets over the top in places, but that’s the way horror is supposed to be. Edgar Freemantle, King’s new mask here, is perhaps just as inpenetrable as his faces in “Rita Hayworth” or The Green Mile, but this face is more free of the exaggeration in both the latter and Christine, and the mask that King puts on this time appears similar to his own. (One such similarity being that Freemantle and King have both survived life threatening and changing accidents.)
Here’s to hopes that these changes, this growing chase for the author behind the mask, continues to be as enjoyable. Predictions aside, King’s mask appear to be growing closer now to his own face, like Murakami’s growing amount of self-addressment in his fiction, or Bret Easton Ellis’s pseudo-memoir, Lunar Park.
*This metaphor is inspired by Goodbye to Berlin (1939, by Christopher Isherwood), a book I have not read, but am familiar with the opening line by way of James Wood in How Fiction Works. The amazing first line is “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
**Fairly self explanatory, I believe.