Who is screenwriting our lives? Fate or coincidence?
You read it yet?
If not, turn back now, lest ye be spoiled. (...whistles Jeopardy theme...) Still here? Okay.
First things first - when I wrote my initial reaction last Friday, I rated this one quite highly. It left a bold impression upon first read. And while I still think it's a fine piece of work, the impression faded somewhat, and I revised my rankings as a result. It dropped from being my 20th favorite King novel to my 31st. This is more a testament to the books ahead of it and less a comment on Revival. But the incursion it made onto my imagination receded a bit, the more I thought about it.
I still think it's a strong work. In many ways, it reads better as a film than as a novel, and perhaps it'll make a great film one day, with only the problem of how to effectively portray Jamie Morton as child, adolescent, adult, and old man. (Aging the Rev is a less daunting problem.)
Let's start at the very beginning, i.e. the dedication page. At the end of a list of shout-outs, we find:
"And (to) Arthur Machen, whose short novel The Great God Pan has haunted me all my life."
I haven't read that one. Been meaning to for years. (Here's a link to the Project Gutenberg text for it.) I only know of it because King has mentioned it from time to time as a seminal influence on his writing. My understanding is that its subject matter has a few things in common with Revival, and it would be interesting to do a compare/ contrast of the two. Maybe someday.
The official King site sums it up thusly: "A dark and electrifying novel about addiction, fanaticism, and what might exist on the other side of life." Most of that sentence makes sense to me. Not the part about addiction. I think addiction is only a very minor theme of Revival. It doesn't seem as interested in exploring the topic as it is explored, say, in The Drawing of the Three, Misery, Doctor Sleep, etc. But close enough, I guess.
It goes on:
"This rich and disturbing novel spans five decades on its way to the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written. It’s a masterpiece from King, in the great American tradition of Frank Norris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe."
Now wait. What? Why those three authors? It's not anything at all like them. A little (and only a very little) bit of Poe, at the end, sure. But still, what? Is this a novel in the "great American tradition" whatever that is? It does span five decades, I'll give it that.
Sometimes, the official King site confuses me.
- the coming of age section: learning rock and roll and his romance with Astrid.
- the may-to-December romance of Jamie and Bree.
- Jamie's heroin addiction.
- Jamie's somewhat over-principled objections to the Rev ("You may be helping some of them, but you're pissing on all of them. (...) You're taking revenge on broken people because you can't take revenge on God for taking your wife and son.")
I want to stress these threads were perfectly fine on their own. I had no trouble reading them, and I felt invested in the drama of Jamie's life. Just, against the backdrop of The Terrible Sermon (Electric Jesus, loss of faith) the subsequent reinvention of the Rev in the Mr. Electrico-esque carny years (where the Rev cures Jamie's heroin addiction with his "secret electricity") and the development of the Charles Jacobs as a traveling healer in a revival show, I wasn't sure if any of this was just window dressing or if it would all be incorporated into a greater narrative.
I believe they were - and quite successfully. The rock and roll and Bree threads are resolved logically in the aftermath of Jacobs' last experiment, the romance with Astrid is of course the catalyst for Jamie's involvement in said experiment, and the heroin addiction (in addition to being a plot catalyst of its own) is mirrored by Jamie's antidepressants at the end. I need a story to do this sort of stuff - I can't stand loose ends. I like them to mirror each other and provide counterpoint.
(Kev - one of my two on-the-web go-tos for all King criticism - doesn't seem to be bothered by this: "King doesn’t skimp on the details of Jamie’s life; as in the middle section of 11/22/63, Revival gives its main character time to breathe, to live. It’s not that there isn’t a sense of urgency in the book – there is, and King ratchets that up as we grow closer and closer to the finale – but Jamie is a fascinating good guy, and many of the best parts of Revival involve simply watching him grow up, dabble in music, and fall in and out of love." All of which is true, certainly. I just prefer this stuff to be in service of a novel's theme and not exist for its own good-guy/life-lived sake.)
Obviously, there is a huge difference between antidepressants and heroin, I just mean there is a symbolic resonance between the two as storytelling devices. And as we-the-reader have seen firsthand the horror that justifies Jamie's retreat into chemical neutralization, there's a subtle tragedy in this - numbed and fighting a holding action against the inevitable horrors of life and death - which serves the novel's larger theme of religious mystery and horror very well.
As for Jamie's indignation with the Rev, I was on Jacobs' side during all of those exchanges. It just felt like Jamie was being completely unreasonable. Of course, once you get to the end, keeping in mind he's telling the whole story in retrospect after everything that happens, it makes a great deal more sense.
As for that religious mystery part of it - I quite liked it. Things start off with a traditional (and well-sketched-out) homey New England faith, much like the boyhood King had himself. But the Rev is into electricity - really into it. After a Jesus-like healing of Jamie's brother, the Rev's wife and child are killed in a road accident, and the Rev becomes unhinged. (p.s. The "terrible sermon" isn't all that terrible, but it was shocking for its time and place/ context, sure.) He researches alchemical mysticism and taps into "secret electricity," all the while proclaiming religion is a fraud but that God - the true God - exists in lightning. God is an impersonal force to be channeled to his own purposes. (Shades of The Mosquito Coast's Allie Fox.) We learn his ultimate objective is the same as Isaac Newton's: to penetrate the deepest mystery of all, that of eternal death. Healing the rubes is just a means to that end.
And where does it all lead? There's some stuff about Patient Omega and Jamie Is the Chosen One (so to speak) that is all fine and good - that kind of window dressing I don't mind whatsoever in a supernatural work, so long as effort is made for it to make "sense," which it does here - but the real payoff comes when, at last, the Rev succeeds in breaking through to the other side:
"The room didn't fade; it was still there, but I saw it was an illusion. (...) The whole living world was an illusion (...) as flimsy as an old nylon stocking. The true world was behind it.
"Basalt blocks rose to a black sky punched with howling stars. I think those blocks were all that remained of a vast ruined city. (...) Barren, yes, but not empty. A wide and seemingly endless column of naked human being trudged through it, heads down, feet stumbling. (...) Driving the humans were antlike creatures, most black, some the dark red of venous blood.
"(...) The foolish mirage of earthly life had been torn away and instead of the heaven preachers of all persuasions promised, what awaited them was a dead city of cyclopean stone blocks below a sky that was itself a scrim. The howling stars weren't stars at all. They were holes, and the holes emerging from them came from the true potestas magnum universum. Beyond the sky were entities. They were alive, and all-powerful, and totally insane."
"Somewhere in it was Claire * who deserved heaven and had gotten this instead: a charnel kingdom where guardian ant-things (were) waiting not just for the evil ones but for us all."
* Jamie's sister, whose offscreen death and abusive marriage was also a thread I thought might be in danger of not tying in properly. But, as we see, it certainly does.
For me, this was a pretty bad-ass moment that I was not expecting. King is a big fan of the movie The Changeling with George C. Scott, and that has a rather similarly bleak ending. (Maybe this is why I think it "reads" as a movie, because I'm channeling The Changeling? Another work, for what it's worth, where a protagonist becomes enmeshed in the shady afterworld as triggered by his wife and son's death.)
In a lot of King's works, the afterlife is counter-balanced by some benevolent force. (Or in the case of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon or It, a nonetheless benevolent indifference.) Not here. I was impressed with King's "going there," as well as tying it all together so sensibly (if tragically) in the epilogue.
I'd also like to note three things:
1) I mean, this is a supernatural, sci-fi sort of situation. Some of the reviews I've read (mostly, again, at the official site - what is it with that site?) focus too much on its theological implications, whether good or bad. I don't really see the need. Let me indulge my inner Supreme Court Justice here and decline to review that case. (If I did, though, I'd treat it only as solemnly as I would the same sort of implications in Evil Dead 2 or Army of Darkness, though things take an admittedly more comically heroic turn for our man Ash.)
2) I was similarly puzzled by reports of the "extreme horror" of it all. It's certainly a damn bleak world of affairs for Jamie and the gang. But it makes sense - the novel holds together very well when seen through his character's lens/ arc.
3) And really, if what waits for us after death is a life of toil, "gone to serve the Great Ones, in the Null. No death, no light, no rest," then hey, be happy to be alive, folks. As King often says when asked about his own religious beliefs, "I'm an optimist, okay?"
3.5) Is this really so different a scenario than Greek mythology? The shades of the Underworld don't have it too well. I only bring it up because it made me think of Rose Madder. Civilizationally, we seem well-adjusted to the idea. Maybe it's just me.
- The Rev's stroke-speech goes away awfully conveniently, eh? All that "yessh" stuff doesn't appear anywhere in the last experiment. A line saying "Oh, I jolted myself - it'll last for a few days" or something would've gone a long way.
- "My fifth business" is this novel's repetitive phrase. As always, I want King's editor's job.
- At one point, Jamie refers to the movie Heathers as a "nodder for sure." i.e. a boring movie. I'd like to point out that in the afterword to Doctor Sleep, King also referred to the Mick Garris Psycho sequel as arguably the best of the series. As a film critic, King's acumen seems to have peaked with Danse Macabre.
Well, that's my two cents. What did you folks think?