Dark arts: King has just published his 58th book
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Why Stephen King should stop worrying about literary extinction

Mark Lawson’s Critics Notes. 

A character in Stephen King’s new novel suffers from “prismatics” – his term for sudden episodes of super-sharp eyesight. Admirers of the American writer may soon need such an optical transformation when looking at the list of his previous titles. Revival, published just five months after Mr Mercedes, fattens the King backlist of novels to 58, a torrent that has forced Hodder & Stoughton to print the “Also by” page in a type size generally used for the exceptions on insurance policies.

These titles have sold more than 350 million copies globally, yet their author seems concerned with the prospect of literary extinction. In one conversation in Revival, the enduring power of pop music is contrasted with the way that “pop fiction goes away”. Even more pointedly, the narrator’s mother is a devotee of Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957), a bestselling writer of the early 20th century who, like King, came from Maine but is now largely forgotten.

More optimistically, the dedicatees of Revival include two predecessors in the horror genre whose reputations are very much undead – the creators of Frankenstein and Dracula – and so the question running under a reading of King’s latest fictions is whether the literary afterlife will treat him like his state-mate Roberts or Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker.

Fittingly, Revival is also concerned in a much more fundamental sense with posthumous possibilities. The narrator, a session musician and recovering addict called Jamie Morton, recalls inspiring and terrifying encounters with Charles Jacobs, a Methodist cleric from his childhood, whose hobby of electrical experimentation encouraged metaphors in his sermons about the power of lightning. Jacobs is forced to leave his ministry after events culminating in a pulpit address dubbed the “Terrible Sermon” but later re-emerges in the territories – state fairs and carnivals, TV, the internet – where showbiz and religion meet in America.

Christianity overlaps with horror fiction in the central assumptions that the world will end and corpses may walk. Revival is King’s most systematic treatment of the depth of American belief in religious supernaturalism and his title cleverly alludes to both the “revivalist” evangelical religious movement and to another kind of awakening: the dedication to Shelley leads readers to expect that the electrifying Charles Daniel Jacobs must at some point try to galvanise dead flesh.

Although King has generally preferred to work within the populist frameworks of horror, thriller or fantasy, his books have recurrently shown a rare talent for the re-creation of personal history, most directly in the coming-of-age novella The Body but also in several books – including Dolores Claiborne and the JFK-assassination novel 11.22.63 – that intricately recall past decades.

Covering events spanning more than 50 years, Revival opens another room in this museum of American social history. Jamie curates the TV shows of his adolescence (Mighty 90 and Petticoat Junction), once-exotic food (Neapolitan ice cream, translated in Maine as “van-choc-straw”) and the euphemisms used in a puritanical era to avoid swearing (“dadgum”, rather than “goddam”).

As with Alan Ayckbourn, who has written plays at a rate similar to King’s novelistic output, the astonishing productivity risks becomes a defining detail that distracts from the skill and interest of the content. But, in both cases, the craft is remarkably consistent. In his 58th book in his 68th year, King continues to display un­cannily sharp eyes and ears and deeply engages with the religiosity at the heart of US politics and culture.

In one startling image, a huge crucifix is decked out in red, white and blue light bulbs, decisively Americanising Christ. A serious book by a major writer, Revival reads like a populist sequel to Sinclair Lewis’s evangelical satire Elmer Gantry.

Pitch perfect

Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is rarely far from production but the current revival at Harrington’s pie-and-mash shop in London is the first to be staged in the sort of emporium (minus the flesh fillings) in which the murderous barber’s sweetheart, Mrs Lovett, works. This extends the trend of putting on shows in spaces that aren’t playhouses or that have been disguised: the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium is reconfigured as a disco for David Byrne’s and Fatboy Slim’s Here Lies Love and the Donmar Warehouse fitted out as a women’s prison for the current Henry IV.

But these strenuous efforts to get away from a theatrical feel make me think of an exchange in Christopher Hampton’s play Tales From Hollywood (1982), in which a fellow writer asks Bertolt Brecht to explain the “alienation” devices – interruptions, banners, lighting effects – that punctuate his plays. Brecht replies that he wants “people to be aware that they are in a theatre”, to which his rival asks: “But what makes you think they think they’re anywhere else?”

The present obsession with making audiences think they’re not in a theatre seems equally doomed. A place where football is played becomes a pitch. 

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era