Monday, December 27, 2010
All Hail the King... Stephen King!
First and foremost, I say 'one of the best' not 'the best'. Why? Because I don't like using the word best, mainly because I believe it can never be used precisely. 'Best' implies relative merit, and this cannot be done unless all the possibilities have been considered. To be clearer, to be able to say that King is the best writer ever, I need to have read all the books ever written by all the other writers. And thats obviously impossible! So i'll just say that Stephen King is a great, brilliant writer.
As I've read all his novels I can say with some credibility that I have actually seen (well, read) him evolve as a writer through the years. Obviously he has always been a good writer; when I say evolve, I mean that he has become much more confident in his art and so in his recent books he attempts things positively mind-blowing. So it is that while 'Dreamcatcher', 'IT', 'Black House', 'The Shining' and 'Hearts in Atlantis' were all very, very good…. one of his most recent books, 'Lisey's Story', was absolutely stunning. I'll go so far as to say that 'Lisey's Story' confirmed to me his greatness as a writer… confirmed that he has reached the peak of his powers. And finally convinced me to write this homage.
In his books more than anywhere else (with the exception of 'Closer', the movie) I have seen the enaction of the axiom 'sometimes its the journey that counts, not so much the destination'. The story seems almost incidental in many King novels. You could read his books just for the story, but that would be like visiting Rome and just seeing the Colosseum. A waste, because theres so much more to be taken, enjoyed, from his books. Instead of a race to the last page a la the thrillers of Dan Brown (to name just one such writer), you can truly enjoy the writing; savoring every clever play on words, the magical sentences, the language and most of all the process of narration raised to the level of an art-form.
He is classified as a horror writer, but I believe this belittles his writing. His books are more psychological and sprinkled with a bit of fantasy than the cheap horror we're used to. Normal people use ghosts to scare, not very imaginative and something most people could do. King, on the other hand, instead of using ghosts or phantoms to scare you, makes you afraid of everyday things. Cellphones, cars, clowns, dogs - these are things that were matter-of-fact to me in my pre-king days, and post-king they've all acquired incomprehensibly sinister connotations. He even makes something as shapeless as an amoeboid shape into something utterly terrifying.
King does things with his writing that normal people wouldn't even be able to conceive. I feel that the greatness of a work of art depends on how many people would be able to accomplish it. By the same token, the greatest artists are those who not only blow us away with the skill of their accomplishment but moreover, and much more importantly, confound us with their imagination. They bring to life things that normal people cannot even imagine, let alone accomplish. They conceive of things that are beyond the imagination of the majority of mankind. King falls in this category.
His greatest gift is his style of narration. Simple and yet complex at the same time. Simple, because unlike some other pretentious writers (I'm thinking of you, Mr Salman Rushdie), he doesn't take pages to get to the point. His writing is simple in the sense that its direct and almost always to the point. The complexity is in the narrative style. He has evolved from the straightforward narration of his earlier books, to narrating stories 27 years apart, not just contemporarily, but intermingled in his novel, 'IT'. In 'IT', one chapter begins in 1958 and ends with an unfinished sentence, and the next chapter continues the same sentence in 1985 without breaking the flow of the narrative. Difficult just to explain, imagine how difficult it must be to think it up and them accomplish it!
And finally to 'Lisey's Story'. A deeply touching, moving, heartbreakingly beautiful gem of a book. And as if all this wasn't enough, a book where he has reached new, stunning heights of narration that I never imagined could even exist. You know a writer is at the peak of his powers when he can narrate not 1, not 2, not 3, but 5, COUNT IT!!! 5! stories concurrently. And then he goes on to link them emotionally, linguistically, geographically and meteorologically; by words, actions, feelings, emotions, weather and geography. UNBELIEVABLE, and yet accomplished flawlessly by King. The final proof of his utter mastery of his craft.
'Lisey's story' was followed by 'Duma Key', where just the first page is filled with so much style, so much imagination and such unbelievable prose that others writers couldn't achieve in their entire lifetimes.
His strengths? Besides the narrative style, that is. Theres the way he manages to describe something as uninteresting as the weather in such a way that even now when I think of 'Cujo', I can feel the heat of that summer; when I think of 'Pet Sematary', I'm transported to that dark, windy night; the snow of 'Dreamcatcher'; the tunnels of 'IT'; the hotel of 'The Shining' and of course, 'Lisey's Story' takes me everytime, without fail, to Boo'ya Moon! I could go on and on with the examples… but you get the picture. He describes not to fill up pages but to actually transport you there physically. I think that he does it very well indeed if I remember these details even years after reading his books.
Then there is the way he gives minor personality quirks to his characters (a way of speaking, phrases or even one word). This imbues his characters with a realism that makes us feel for the character. A bond that the reader forms not just with the protagonist but with almost all the characters. His characters are not simply props necessitated by the plot but complete human beings in their own right. Their quirks, when they don't add to the story, lend an air of authenticity to the plot. So it is that when you read his books, the setting always seems like a place that already exists and the story takes place there, instead of seeming like something hastily created from scratch just to facilitate the story.
It wouldn't do to list every single way King is brilliant at writing. There isn't enough space, and even if there was, there aren't enough words, and even if there were, I don't think mere words could ever do justice to his writing. I'll just say that heres an excellent writer, whose sole purpose in writing a book is the telling of a story and who does it with the minimum of fuss and a maximum of originality and creativity. May he continue writing for many, many more years to come.
A final word. This is a homage to Stephen King, the writer. Not Stephen King, the person. I'll elaborate. I believe that humans are not to be worshipped. Because humans are fallible & unreadable. Hence, I believe in hailing achievements rather than achievers. Achievements remain forever, a testament to the heights that humans can reach at their best. Motivation should be taken from major achievements, not men. A great painting, a great sculpture, or a great book, show us how good, how brilliant, man can be at his best. And thats all that is needed to be inspired.
Thank you Mr King for inspiring me!