Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Stand by Stephen King

The trouble with picking up a bestseller that has been on the bookshelves of most countries across the globe for a good three and a half decades is, in my view, one and only one thing- hype. Hype gets to you as no other thing does, not even a thumping recommendation from someone you know as someone who reads a lot and, more so, who reads only the good stuff.

For a start, it could be just that feature of the book of having survived through thirty five long, generation-galloping years on the bookshelves that makes an impression on you, leading you into believing the brick-sized monstrosity to be great (the best, the very fucking best!) and egging you into deeming the publication a classic even before you have actually set out to read the darn thing.

Of course, thirty five years is no short period to discount this survival. A billion eyes have scanned through its pages already. They have scoured its length equally for both loopholes and trivia. A billion opinions have been formed, a million put into words, posted and published for billion more eyes to scan through and make something more out of what the author has originally penned. Rave rants, scathing reviews, essay long critical evaluations, one-para-maximum final verdicts…. thirty five years! Who are we kidding?

Hype is fucking inevitable.

And then there are the fanboys (including yours truly) to take care of what remains. Innocent, eager and always revving to publicize their mentor as some out-of-the-world supernatural being who can fart thunderstorms and crap gold-plated Rolexes. They are indebted to him for delivering them from their tepid reality, even if intermittently. And so they happily wage crusades in his name even as literary debates veer towards the negatives of their mentor’s writing ability after a point. They don’t care what the book being discussed is and they don’t want to know so long as they are able to proclaim him, by the end these discussions, as above the reach of all criticism (the best, the very fucking best!).  


So, as I was saying- hype is fucking inevitable.

Which was exactly what struck me as I opened the package containing my order of Stephen King’s (The) Stand. This was a good five months ago. The build-up of expectations was so high inside my head that I just couldn’t bring myself to reading it. What if it didn’t play out the way my highly anticipating brain wanted it to? What if it was something completely different from what it was being made out to be in all those public forums teeming with budding authors and literary majors and plain old English book lovers?

What if it turned out to be a dud? Not just any dud, a goddamn fourteen hundred paged uncut extended edition of a dud if you want me to be blunt about it; all because I couldn’t keep my tail from wagging at the scent of an air heavy with unjustified expectations.

And so I gave it a snub. I pushed it all the way down to the bottom of my to-read list, not wanting anything to do with it; that is until a chance encounter with a movie buff of a friend. It so happened that he had just finished reading the book. 

And I can tell you, after hearing what he had to say about King based on his experience, around two-thirds of that ginormous pile of timespan-generated, fanboy-fueled ‘hype’ just went down the crapper.

What he said to me was, (I quote, as is, and he may confirm to you if I’m anywhere wrong in the wordings, but if theres one thing I’m damn sure of not getting wrong, it’s his intent)-


This was three months ago. And having been considerably relieved-as you can see why- of any burden of anticipation, I started reading The Stand a day after. Of course I had to stop two hundred pages later and put it aside again, but that would be for different reasons (book weighs a kilo- I read standing in local trains where commuters are pleasant enough to give you free acupressure sessions that last throughout the journey-but no free space- do the math)

The first act of Stephen King’s Stand unravels on a chilling note. A biological testing facility located on a US army base has been breached and a deadly mutant virus gets accidentally released. A sentry who realizes what has happened escapes from the base with his family before it can be sealed off, but not before he has caught something. Thus begins the contagious spread of death across the lands of America and the globe, moving from one town to the other in a form so common that one would not even consider it worth a visit to the doctor- the flu. Except this flu is unlike any other and doesn’t go down even as you keep thinking in your folly that one more aspirin will do the trick and you’ll be up and running in no time. It drags you down instead, till the very end and chokes you to a slow and painful death. Over the length of Book One titled Captain Trips (nickname for the virus) you are shown through the eyes of four key characters how the world as we know it is coming to an end, with 99% of the human population succumbing to the disease in less than two weeks.

Book Two deals with the aftermath of the plague, the regrouping of the immune survivors, and also introduces to us the existence of an opposing force to this group in the form of Randall Flagg and Co. Notorious for his capacity to persuade followers into committing violence through fear of him, Flagg is the personification of pure evil and is set upon destroying those who haven’t flocked to him after the wipe-out. This section is an arousing build up towards the final act and ends rightfully with the stage being set for the ultimate battle between good and evil.

And then we come to Book Three, the final act of The Stand. Which is, essentially, that part of the novel where the author shows you the finger. Period.

As is expected, King gives each of his characters a distinct background that makes you imagine them with a sharpness only practiced bull-shitters can conjure in the readers’ mind. King’s heroes are human and yet far from mediocre - a quiet man working at a small-town gas station who becomes an unlikely hero, a pregnant teenager newly orphaned by the plague, a deaf-mute drifter who ends up losing an eye as well (as if being deaf-mute wasn’t enough misery), an up and coming musician battling self doubt and drug addiction, and many more. These are people whom you would never associate with heading the society under ordinary circumstances. Nevertheless, their evolution from being mere survivors to becoming leaders of the good side is plotted so naturally that it is nothing but believable. Also, even if you leave out the dozen odd characters that are relevant to furthering the main arc, there are numerous cameos in here of characters that even in their single chapter existences, become either endearing or spite-worthy for the Constant Reader.

The dialogues are sincere and catchy. They are able to bring out disparity in the roots of the cast without ruining the plot’s tension that is constantly building. The description of dystopian landscapes is brilliantly done and on most occasions drives home the point to quite unsettling effect.

But alas!

How saddening it is to see the merits of the author becoming the cause of his undoing as he pushes the limits and goes overboard in attempting to create something of epic proportions out of something that is clearly not meant to be thus. The characters- such loveable characters they are indeed, and in such great number. How far can a writer stretch his love for them without swelling up the storyline?

The Stand has multiple subplots that unfold along its length. Original and rich in detail, these are personal level narratives that make for gripping reads even if few of them are ended prematurely while a few others drag too long only to start tasting sour. But, ardent fanboy or not, I must admit the writing here is so frigging indulgent that you simply stop caring about how things will end for the protagonists after a point.

Barring the tightly written Book One, there are long drawn portions here so elaborately stretched to cover for lack of direction that halfway through Book Two you know the author has pushed himself into a corner with no place to proceed. King spends so much time in weaving conflict after impending conflict into the main arc that by the time any of it actually materializes you are past page twelve hundred and wondering how the fuck is all this mess going to be cleared up in the little space that is left.

Which brings me to Book Three ironically titled ‘The Stand’, seeing as the writer himself doesn’t seem to be interested in taking one.


Imagine Lord of the Rings. The end of the world is nigh, threat from evil, darkness gaining power, good must unite, etcetera etcetera. You know- the typical spiel. Now, if you compare the Stand’s main arc with LOTR’s, Book Three would be the epic battle, the final showdown, the clash of opposites.

Good pitted against evil- the good side playing underdogs with the will-they-won’t-they tag hanging around their necks, the bad side bursting with overconfidence, the likes of which high school bullies typically demonstrate.

Of course, a battle must be fought as has been fought over centuries of mankind’s existence. How else could all these terrifically elaborated character conflicts littering the first thousand pages be resolved convincingly? How else but with the cathartic occurrence of an epic confrontation, akin to the final battle for middle earth where men, elves and dwarves march against orcs to give Frodo and Sam the time to reach Mount Doom and destroy the One Ring in its fires?

And so you wait for it to unfurl, temple throbbing in anticipation.

And keep waiting…

And waiting, until it is page thirteen hundred and sixty you are staring at, realization suddenly dawning upon you that theres nothing left now to battle against.

Two pages… one scene.  That is all it has taken for King to finish all conflicts in one pathetic stroke of Deux Ex Machina that reeks of utter despair and helplessness.

Then its all over.

I felt cheated as hell. Robbed of a month’s time of my real life that I had spent living with Stu Redman and Fran Goldsmith and Nick Andros and Larry Underwood, only to get what in the end, again? Gritting teeth and a splitting headache!


I felt conned. 

The end is a cop out like no other, taking a blatant turn towards religion when sticking to the logical and much broader concept of good versus evil would've been the right way to go- not that King's increasing reliance on 'God' to move the story along shows itself only at the very end. It does before, and on many occasions. Yet these earlier references are shrouded enough to keep you in two minds about the true nature of the force that is guiding the 'good' side. And perhaps realising that he has no more tricks up his sleeve that'd allow him to proceed, King drops the shroud altogether in Book Three, his story now revolving completely around God's plan to destroy evil, which-not surprisingly- requires human sacrifice. 
Randall Flagg, the magical antagonist remains an undercooked pie throughout the story despite the amount of mystery surrounding his murky roots and in the end fizzles out with no stage at all to execute the menacing performance that was being promised from him in Book One and Two. (From what I have gathered though, Flagg is a recurring character in other novels of the author including the Dark Tower Series. Would, therefore, prefer to wait some more before passing a final judgement on him).

Of course, this changes nothing. My awe for our man’s writing abilities that have been proven time and again to exceed the reader’s expectations (the best! the very fucking best!) still remains intact and I continue- as I should- to hold him in high regard for his love for the written word.

But The Stand has got to be the most disappointing work of Stephen King that I have read till date. And despite the two thirds of the ‘hype’ around it that went down the crapper thanks to my friend’s review before I had begun, I am compelled to believe now that the novel has lasted this long on bookshelves largely because of the author’s name printed on it.

To conclude- Stephen King’s Stand is a bloated piece of directionless storytelling that deserves to be read by all budding authors, if not for anything else then to atleast understand how important it is for a writer to be honest and brutal even while he is editing or re-writing his first draft. 

Allowing your characters to move the story ahead on their own is one thing, but falling head-over-heels in love with them at the cost of the story itself can be truly annoying for a trusting reader.

(PS: To comment on the sloppy editing and bloated nature of an 'Uncut and Extended Edition' of a book seemed pretty unwise. So before I did, I checked for what exactly was it that was added to the original edition. Two hundred and fifty pages, in all... And as it turns out, the additional bits are infact what I loved the most about the book. So my 'stand' on The Stand remains unchanged despite this revelation.)


Unknown said...

Ravi, I knew you were good--I had read what you had said about Rushdie's latest; but this is beyond good. I do know a few adjectives, but I will refrain from using them. I will only say that a true fan of the King could have written this, this is perhaps the first time I have seen expletives and rather explicit ones at that being used in such an affectionate manner. The KING is fortunate indeed to command such feelings. Brilliant, incisive, scathing when it needs to be, admiring when that particular portion of the book deserves it--this is an all encompassing review. I can compare it to Percy's review of Emma, which again is a work of art. Doffing hat, Ravi, take a bow--take a BOW!

Vanita Bodke said...

This piece itself enlightens us so much... It is very long but you have done justice to what you read and felt about it ... Interesting indeed