Jesus, I took my time with this one.
As I said at the beginning of The Stand, I was really looking forward to it. Having enjoyed the short stories of Night Shift less than expected, I was ready for a big old story to get wrapped up in. Stories don’t get much bigger than The Stand. However, I don’t think I did it justice.
I’ll stop pussy-footing around and say that I wasn’t blown away. This isn’t a book review or literary criticism, so what I’m going to say next shouldn’t be misconstrued as evidence of a weakness of my critical acumen, or a blind apologia for King. This blog is a record of my personal reaction to the works.
The scope and scale of the story did blow me away. To build and maintain the strands of the narrative over 1400 pages is something that I struggle to even begin to consider. Then again, I’m not a writer and I certainly don’t have the discipline and organisation to construct the web of a novel. But still, only a douche bag could refuse to accept the impressiveness of the magnitude of this book.
At the same time, its size was the root of many of the problems I had with its reading. For a start, you can’t sit down to a brick of a book with the same mindset as a novella or regular length novel. You know that he’s going to be taking his sweet time in establishing the multitude of strands before unravelling or entwining them. As I’ve probably said a dozen or so times, my reading time is greatly diminished these days. Reading in snatches, here and there is bad enough, but I’ve also had a few other projects on the go. It’s the sort of book you could do with putting a few full days into, maybe on holiday or if you have shit all else on. I’ll accept that my disjointed approach contributed to my failure to agree with those who think it’s his masterwork.
Perhaps it would have been different if I’d not taken so long over reading it, but I wasn’t swept up by the desperation and suspense of the plot. Randall Flagg didn’t scare me. I must be getting wooden-heartedly cynical as I get older but, convinced that there’s going to be an ultimately happy ending, it was hard to be truly affected by the machinations and fates of the exhaustively fleshed-out characters. Re-reading that last sentence, I can smell the bullshit of it myself. The vast majority of books and films come to a happy Hollywood conclusion. Their appeal to our base instinct that hopes ‘everything will turn out alright in the end’ is a huge key to their success. I’m sure I’m not alone in having an attraction to those books and films that subvert this norm and go with a more ambiguous outcome, or just plain admit that the cunts of the world often win out. I think really, a lot of it also probably had a lot to do with the fixation on good an evil as a battle between god and the devil. I’m sure I’ll come across as an immense hypocrite but I have no trouble imagining ghosts and demonic possessions and supernatural abilities, but when it comes to people acting as agents of the Lord and the success of their endeavours being contingent on their faith and following ‘prophecies’ I’m just along for the ride to see where we end up at that point. And the less said about the literal ‘deus ex-machina’ in the dénouement, the better.
It feels like a bit of a shame that I let that spoil it for me, especially considering the incredible depth and scope of the build up. I was gutted that Nick Andros bought it when he did. I much preferred him as a character than Stu and Ralph and a host of others. But that’s the way it goes. As always, his writing is the saving grace. I don’t think I’ll be too disappointed with any of his books as I work through them all. While I’m sure there’ll be some that just don’t click with me, I’m always going to get something from the very reading of him.
Thinking on, there was something else that contributed to my inability to really connect and adhere to The Stand. Christ almighty, did you see me there? I just used the word ‘connect’ in the Oprah sense. I feel way worse about that than I do about using the word ‘adhere’. Anyway, I’m sure the two or three people who read this will forgive me this indiscretion. Back to the point; it probably doesn’t help that I’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and also saw the film this year. As far as post-apocalyptic stories go, I found McCarthy’s about a hundred times more affecting. It’s probably borne of an interminable selfishness, which I no doubt share with the vast majority of humankind, in that when faced with the catastrophically altered and inevitably doomed fate of mankind, I would be primarily worried about how I would see it through from day to day and how I would ensure that those closest to me survived too. It’s an unfair and probably unnecessary comparison, but I couldn’t avoid it. The stories of the resurrection of the power plant and electrical grid and the fact that they were so quickly able to reconstruct a relatively ‘normal’ existence within a year seemed to soften the blow. Of course it didn’t, but there was way too much going on to get bogged down in the shattering grief of so many characters.
I’m probably setting myself up for a lot of hours of disappointment and swimming against the tide in my reading of the coming books, but one thing that struck me during my reading of The Stand was that I repeatedly compared it to a TV series. This year, I’ve been watching Dexter, Lost and Six Feet Under among others. While I love them all, you can’t deny that in the telling of their stories, there’s a lot of padding. To make my point, if you compare a 100 minute or two hour film to these series with their 12 to 24 episodes of 40-60 minutes each, you effectively have about the same length overall plot arcs, but the series cram in half a dozen cliff-hangers, stories within stories, asides etc. They’re obviously different, but closely related media that have similarly different strengths and pitfalls. For a film, things need to be that bit tighter, while a series has more freedom, but has to maintain the momentum with something more than end of episode cliff-hangers to keep you coming back week after week. There are times when watching a TV series that you’ll come to the end of the show and wonder whether anything has actually happened, or they could have probably covered the worthwhile stuff in about ten minutes. There are series that could easily be cut down to feature length and you wouldn’t even feel rushed. Of course, I don’t have examples. I’m not that much of a TV and film nerd to have them, and neither am I that convinced by my argument to do so. I’m just running my mouth.
I guess the important thing is that there are some TV show episodes, take Lost for example, where they barely progress the plot. How about the one in the last series that gave the back story for Jacob and his brother? Depending on how you look at it, they could have left it out. However, for me, it was enough to spend another hour in the world of Lost, bathing in the depth and texture of the intricately woven story, climbing and swinging from another thread of the narrative, before leaping to another vine next week.
After all that interminable bollocks, I should probably be asking myself whether The Stand would have worked as a 200-300 page novel, to complete this metaphor. The short answer is: yes, and there’s no doubt King could have done it, but it was never meant to be and the question is intrinsically moot.
OK, I’m done. I didn’t love The Stand, but I loved a lot about it.