Tuesday, February 13, 2018

It, by Stephen King

Stephen King builds tension by intermixing scenes of normality, if not banality, with scenes of violence and terror. In the opening of his novel It (1986), a little boy is following his paper sailboat as it floats on draining water from a storm down a suburban street.  He is having a great time, but then sees his boat swept down a drainage culvert.  He bends down to look for his boat and sees the face of a clown.  Moments later he is dead, his arm ripped off. This is pretty much the method of It (1986), though none of the subsequent scenes is quite as horrible as this one.
The edition I read was 1477 pages long.  This is long.  The book could probably have been shortened, as much as by half, without sacrificing tension.  We don’t need as many details as King offers.  We don’t need the overflow of information about each major character (there are seven of them—six boys and a girl, all the same age)).  It’s perhaps not necessary for every character to tell his or her own story (or to have it told).  And each of these individual stories is over long.
King deftly maintains two more or less parallel story lines: that of the main characters as children, and that of the main characters as adults 27 years later, trying to finish off the creature. I admire the skill with which King handled the two narrative lines, moving back and forth between them.  But I felt the children’s story line was more interesting.  And, as is the case with the novel as a whole, we learn far too much about every aspect of the characters, their backgrounds, and so on.
King writes well and with intelligence.  His prose is clear and clean, lacking in excessive subordination.  I read through several pages looking for passive verbs and didn’t find any.  This is one sign of an effective writer.  As with all his novels, he often alludes to other literary works.  In this one, many if not most of the chapters begin with epigraphs taken from William Carlos Williams’ long poem Patterson (1946-58). 
One mistake that King makes in this book is to offer literal explanations for supernatural or other-worldly occurrences. He tells us enough for us to suspect that the creature that gives the novel its title may have come from another world or dimension.  But his occasional narratives from the creature’s point of view don’t work. And in the final faceoff between the main characters and It, it’s not exactly clear how they are able to defeat the creature simply by punching it (which in itself is supposed to show the creature that they don’t fear it and therefore aren’t vulnerable to it—a kind of horrific version of the scene in Peter Pan where the audience has to announce its belief in Tinkerbell to prevent her from dying). In one improbable scene, the children build an Indian sweat lodge and, stoking a fire within it, they breathe smoke in hopes of having a vision that will assist them in some way.  The vision that two of them have provides information about It, its arrival on earth, and its awakening every 27 years to feed on whatever flesh is available. Is this information, interesting though it is, really necessary? Wouldn’t It be more horrifying if we knew less about it’s background? Would knowing less about It make It more horrible?
At one point after the children have successfully defeated (but not killed) the creature, they begin to lose “the bond that had held them together all summer.”  To restore the bond, the girl character, Beverley, who is 11 years old, decides to have sex with each of the six boys.  Her reason for doing this is not convincing.  Exactly why it has the desired effect is not clear. King describes the sexual encounters in excessive detail (maybe any detail would be excessive, given the subject), especially her orgasms with two of the boys for whom she has special feelings. King implies these are the moments when she begins to become a woman, that she attains a knowledge not yet available to other girls her age, and so on, blah, blah, blah. I thought, to be honest, these scenes were, for lack of a better word, creepy, and that they turn the reader into a voyeur. I refrain from using the term child pornography. Should I? I certainly don’t think King meant these scenes as pornographic, but maybe it’s the reader who decides whether they are. I should stress that he describes sex among the children in broad euphemisms and abstract language.  At any rate, sex, adult sexuality, is still ahead of these children until this scene, which all but one of them (incredibly) forget.  King links adult sexuality (referred to as “It” in this scene) to what the creature “It” represents.  “It” is, among other meanings, the future—adulthood.
King seems to take pleasure (or at least he gives this impression) in describing how people die violently.  This is especially the case in his description of the destruction of the town of Derry, where the novel occurs.  The destruction itself is magnificently narrated.  But I’m not especially interested in how unimportant characters meet their violent ends.
I enjoyed this novel but the experience of reading it was exhausting. King maintains the reader’s interest over 1477 pages, building tension and mystery so that, in the end, despite the length, one doesn’t want to put it (the book) down.

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