Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fact and Fiction in the Penny Press!

With a post title like that, you're all probably expecting me to turn right away to this week's People magazine, which features a corporate hack-job "profile" of Gossip Girl rancid tobacco addict boyequin Chace Crawford as one of the summer's "hottest bachelors" ... since the piece hyperventilates quite earnestly about how hot Chace is, how funny Chace is, how romantic Chace is, and how straight Chace is (and since the profile never alludes either to the stench of tobacco or the fact that Chase is life-splittingly hung over every single morning, that he wasn't even blow-dryably close to photographable for the first two or three hours of the shoot), it certainly qualifies as an example of the grey nether-ground between fact and fiction.

But no, I leave such vitriol for others (including the good folks at IHateChaceCrawford, who've certainly got their work cut out for them with this vacant-brained piece of pork rind)! We've got slightly bigger fish to fry in this installment of In the Penny Press, and we'll start with the Fiction end of the spectrum, which brings us to the latest issue of Esquire. This issue has some other interesting stuff in it (although it's once again simply loaded with stupid mini-articles giving tips about grilling, and once again simply loaded with full-page ads for cigars, for all the world like we lived in an alternate reality in which none of the magazine's hip young go-getter subscribers know that smoking causes mouth, lung, heart, kidney, throat, brain, and skin cancer, not only in you but in all the people you smoke near)(top-notch habit, that - ever so attractive), but the clear highlight from a marketing perspective certainly has to be the short story by Stephen King. It's called "Morality," and it's a big-boy work - as its title implies, it's a little morality play about normal people facing abnormal moral choices, with not the slightest hint of the supernatural anywhere to be seen.

Quite apart from its merits or lack of them, "Morality" only solidifies in my mind a conviction that's been growing for some time: sooner or later, American readers are going to have to figure out what to do with Stephen King.

It was one thing when he was just churning out progressively unreadable schlock horror novels - plenty of people do that, and it's easy for those so inclined to ignore. That got a little more complicated when he bought a picturesque mansion, let Sunday magazines photograph his enormous library, and most of all started donating serious amounts of money to worthy causes. These are literary warning signs, the kinds of things a schlock horror novelist does when he's beginning to want to be taken seriously as a writer.

Uproarious laughter is the proper response from the publishing industry, accompanied by a brayed version of the rhetorical question, "If you wanted to be taken seriously, why'd you write about friggin killer clowns?" But it's been a long time since the publishing industry had what's known in bull-riding circles as "a pair," and so King's steady encroachment on the lower slopes of Parnassus hasn't been endured stoically - it's been actively encouraged. In 2003, the National Book Foundation gave King a medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and psychics from every state in the Union were bombarded with the same message from Nathaniel Hawthorne: "What the fuck?"

There's been a book of essays on the craft of writing; there's been a couple of novels with only nominal horror-elements (if you don't count the prose); there've been straight-up fiction stories in mainstream quasi-literary magazines, and now there's "Morality" in the latest Esquire.

Reading the story doesn't help us know any better how to think about this new, emerging Stephen King. It's the story of a struggling young couple in New York - Chad is a substitute teacher who never gets enough work to pay the bills, and his wife Nora is an in-home care-provider for a wealthy stroke victim named Reverend Winston. The two of them are living a life of quiet desperation, always on the edge of solvency, when Winston makes Nora an offer she at first wants to refuse: all his life, he's been a perfectly good, moral person, but before he dies, he'd like to know what it feels like to commit a sin. Since he's recovering from a stroke, he's not really able to do the actual committing himself, and that's where Nora comes in. If she'll perform his sin by proxy, he'll pay her an enormous sum of money, enough to solve the young couple's money problems. She agonizes over the idea, Chad agonizes over the idea, and then they decide to do it.

The sin? Nora is to enter a playground, walk up to one of the little children, and punch him squarely in the face, while Chad films the whole thing for the Reverend's viewing pleasure. Nora does it, they collect their money, and then King hauls in a rather predictable array of moral aftershocks. And by that point, any reader of short fiction that isn't by schlock horror novelists with Nobel aspirations will see more problems than can be readily counted, starting with the biggest three: 1) the entire story is based on coincidence, 2) all three main characters in the story behave in ways no real person would ever behave, even for a moment while very drunk, and 3) the act the good reverend chooses for Nora to perform might be a crime, but it's sure as Hell not a sin.

1 & 2 are the real problems here, though: King might want to try his hand at mainstream fiction, and certainly everybody in America is entitled to try a little self-reinvention, but there's no getting around the fact that King's apprenticeship for writing conventional fiction is nearly 40 years of writing schlock horror novels in which lazy, shopworn contrivances of the worst ilk are standard reading fare, in every book, on every page. You can't snap your fingers and suddenly be a writer who didn't learn his trade that way - and no matter how many high school water polo teams King underwrites, he doesn't strike me as having one-thousandth the humility necessary to re-learn writing from the ground up.

And if he's not willing to do that, we're all going to see more variations on "Morality" from him - in Esquire, in The New Yorker, and who knows where else - "serious" tales of ethics and suburbs and characters lunging at three-dimensionality. None of it will be any good - how can it be, when all of it was learned in a candle-lit House of Wax? - but all of it will want to be, and when one of the top-selling novelists of the 20th century so loudly wants something, every reader is pulled into the melodrama of it.

And really, that same theme of overreaching finds its way into the "Fact" portion of the Penny Press this time around. In the latest GQ (the with a naked Sacha Baron Cohen on the cover, advertising his upcoming film, the most-hyped/least-funny film since, come to think of it, Borat), John Jeremiah Sullivan (think of that wedding! talk about schlock horror!) does his level best to write a serious, probing piece about a subject who was a walking punch line from the moment he first shuffled onto the public stage: Levi Johnston, the wavy-haired lantern-jawed bo-hunk who impregnated Bristol Palin, the idiot daughter of Sarah Palin, the idiot Alaska governor John McCain, in a desperately irresponsible gimmick-trick, picked to be his vice presidential candidate in the last election. The pick alone forced the majority of voters to confront the fact that McCain was just plain insane, and that probably cost him the election, and the entire world stepped back from the edge of an unthinkable abyss - but even before then, Levi and Bristol were "on the rocks," as the tabloids say, and once the votes were counted, the Palins pried him off the skin of their family like a bloated tick.

Cast off, cast out, no longer part of the apparently ongoing story of the Palins (Jeremiah Sullivan makes a horrifying offhand reference to a "2012 run"), and, touchingly, no longer allowed to be much part of the life of the child he engendered with Bristol - that's where this article finds young Levi. Jeremiah Sullivan meets up with him in small-town Alaska, where Levi does what can only be referred to as a sinful amount of bear-hunting but appears to have no job and no job prospects (beyond the offhand mention of a possible reality-show about hunting)(all these heart-stopping offhand mentions combine to make this piece considerably more frightening than King's story). Our author does a wonderful job of conveying what virtually every small town in Alaska makes a visitor feel:

It is a shithole surrounded by such loveliness. Stand there and blink back and forth, shutting your left eye, then your right. Left eye: spit of highway, aggressive proliferation of half-abandoned strip malls, a few roads dwindling off to little houses. Right eye: the mountains, the expanding sky, the shadowy crevasses, a bald eagle. Highway, strip malls, little houses; mountains, sky, crevasses, eagle. Highwaystripmallslittlehouses; mountainsskycrevasseseagle.

Both eyes: Wasilla.

And he's equally evocative on that sharp, nauseating moment in American history when all these various Wasilla people suddenly threatened to matter:

It takes some mental effort to recover the feeling of how much he seemed to mean at one time, and practically yesterday. Obama has made him seem kitschy already, has stolen his power to signify. Not presuming anything about one's politics - referring instead to the sheer dynamism of events since the election. We are a couple of beads further along the necklace of cultural time from Levi. We are post-Levi. It's decadent to think of him now. But the chemical traces remain of a plausibility structure inside which his very face seemed full of information and even warning. Something was happening to the country, it was splitting in two. Levi looked like a place where the ripping might start. We were laughing at him then too, of course - that was largely it. If McCain's choosing Palin had been cynical (as born out by their recoiling from each other in defeat), not until his embrace of Levi did it become farcical. .... We knew he was there only because it had been deemed worse for him not to be there. That gave him a curious magnetism. And John McCain, fine, he was trying to win a campaign, he's an opportunist. He's also a United States senator and a war hero, and there was something in how he greeted Levi - how for a second it mattered whether he greeted this boy, and in what manner - like an acknowledgment. Not of one man to another, exactly, but of one force to another. It was either the beginning or the end of something. Briefly recall when you didn't know which.

That's just about as good as hopped-up Red Bull deadline-prose gets, and the whole article shines with it. For the brief span of its pages, we can indeed recall when we walked around every day wondering very dark things about our own countrymen, urgently asking ourselves the same questions over and over again: Can't they see what's happening here? Can't they see what's at stake here? Are they REALLY going to treat the most important presidential election in modern memory like an evening of 'American Idol'? "Hey! The grumpy old guy picked a hottie hockey-mom who's JUST LIKE US!"

Then you stop reading, and you close the magazine, and reality reasserts itself. Fact separates from fiction and both start behaving themselves again: John McCain will never be president, Obama is alive, in charge, and still enjoying popularity in the polls. Sarah Palin will not, cannot ever be taken seriously as a candidate for national office, and apart from reading a very entertaining magazine article by John Jeremiah Sullivan, none of us needs to think about Levi Johnston at all.


Anonymous said...

John Sullivan is the king. Long live the King!

steve said...

Er, well, I tend to agree, but who ARE you, exactly? Are you actually in a position to rob me of the FUN of using the name 'John Jeremiah Sullivan'? MUST I call him plain old John Sullivan?

Of course, if you're HIM, I don't have a choice (and you've got a bit of an ego going there ...).