Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bag of Bones by Stephen King

Another King novel and another good one, but I think the praise on the first couple of pages is a little overblown. They make it sound like King has elevated his fiction and hit a romantic and emotional homerun unlike anything he has ever hit before. Well, if you ask me, it’s the same old King. It’s good—don’t get me wrong. But it’s the same old King with his same set of characters and his same set of themes. His protagonist is an author (again!), but what’s neat about that this time is some revealing bits about the less-than-artful world of mainstream fiction. What publishers want from their authors, more than anything else, is a book every year, timed to release in between the book releases of all of the authors writing a book every year. It’s not about saying anything important. It’s about entertaining an expectant audience. The title refers to a possibly apocryphal quote from Thomas Hardy:

Compared to the dullest human being actually walking about on the face of the earth and casting his shadow there, the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones.

I agree with Hardy, and I suspect King does, too, which casts kind of an odd pall over a book lauded by the critics as containing “well-fleshed characters.” Well, as I’ve said before, if you’ve read any of King’s other thirty-some odd books, you’ve undoubtedly met some of these well-fleshed characters before. King returns to Hardy on the very last page of his first-person narrative, when his author Mike Noonan says:

Thomas Hardy, who supposedly said that the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones, stopped writing novels himself after finishing Jude the Obscure and while he was at the height of his narrative genius. He went on writing poetry for another twenty years, and when someone asked him why he’d quit fiction he said he couldn’t understand why he had trucked with it so long in the first place. In retrospect it seemed silly to him, he said. Pointless. I know exactly what he meant.

Silly, maybe, but I’m not sure I would agree with pointless. At least not yet. I wonder where King himself falls on that spectrum?

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