Monday, September 17, 2012

Thoughts on "The Stand"

I finished reading The Stand a couple days ago, which along with Lucifer's Hammer was part of my crash course in apocalyptic literature.  I linked to the TV Tropes pages for those books because I'm going to be discussing The Stand primarily in terms of storytelling mechanics, so really, that's what's most useful here.  Also, beware that I'll be linking to the pages for a lot of the tropes I mention (because that makes it easier on you, Dear Reader, if you don't already know the lingo), but that means you'll have to be vigilant against wiki-walks (because TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life).

OK, that paragraph up there, it took me over an hour to write.  Not because I was trying to decide on word choice or whatever, but because I fuckin' clicked on my own damn links and then got sucked into mini-wiki-walks of my own ("Bellisario's Maxim?  What's that?  'Contrast to Moff's Law'... what's that?").  So I'm being serious here:  there will be a lot of links, so you should only click on something if you don't know what it means.  (Really, everything should be fairly apparent through context - but if it's not, here's a link.)  And even then, you should make sure to read only until you understand the trope I'm talking about, then close that tab.  Capisce?

As a "final starting note," I feel I should point out that this is not a review of The Stand, it's criticism.  I liked The Stand, even if it took me about 700 pages to "really" get into it (I read the monster 1,141-page uncut edition).  I also recognize that it's one of King's earlier works, and that it's over 35 years old.  None of these exempts it from criticism, of course; but please realize that none of this is done in anger.  The fact is, though, that I casually mentioned one day that I prefer King's later works - The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon remains one of my favorite books of any kind to this day - and someone said The Stand would change my mind.  It most definitely did not.  This post is about why.  THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.

The main criticism I have for the book is that King tries to mix Black and White Morality with Mysterious Ways in a setting that is Like Reality Unless Noted.  This does not work.  Even in Good Omens, a work of explicit comedy, this is poorly managed:  the Almighty is smugly self-satisfied with helping a few people avert the apocalypse, but the implication is that the senseless suffering of "people who aren't main characters" (especially throughout all of history) is a trivial side-effect.  That's blithe ignorance at best and goddamned racism at worst.  The defense for this sort of thing typically boils down to "You can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs," but an all-powerful deity most assuredly can.  The idea that the suffering of countless innocents is an acceptable consequence to make the world more "interesting" for the King of the Sandbox is a bullshit cop-out.  OK, maybe I lied before - this does make me angry.  But this is the only part, I promise.

The thing is, Mysterious Ways opens up the door to all sorts of things, like God is Evil, God is Inept, God is Flawed, and so on.  And if you deal with those questions, then that's well and truly fine - but King doesn't.  In fact, when the questions come up - such as Nick Andros' explicit atheism, or Frannie Goldsmith's raging against the heavens - they're dealt with by way of the flimsiest in-world justifications.  "Doesn't matter if you don't believe in God, He believes in you," Nick is admonished by Mother Abagail (I'm paraphrasing) - his atheism, and his reasons for it, don't matter; God is in charge and knows what's what, so you'd better trust him.  When Frannie questions why several of the main characters - who have plenty to do where they are - must march to certain death, her wounds are miraculously cured.  Mind you, her questions are not answered; God just shows some power to shut her up.

Now, if this God was portrayed as some sort of morally ambiguous figure, this would all be fine - in fact, in any sliding scale of morality, this would be fine.  But this is Black and White morality, where there is a Side of Good and a Side of Evil.  Stephen King does play with this a little, to his credit, but only with the mundane humans:  when people from the Side of Good travel to the the territory of the Side of Evil, they are repeatedly struck by how normal and well-adjusted and generally decent the rank-and-file people are.  And on the other side, the Side of Good has some decidedly not-so-very-good persons as well (and that's discounting the outright traitors).  The point here is not that a "Good God" needs to be unquestionably good, but that the questions need to have satisfying answers - and they don't.  That makes me angry at Stephen King's god - not because he's mysterious, not because I don't understand him, but because he's an asshole.  Yet it is repeatedly asserted, through both various characters and the plot itself, that this asshole is The Man In Charge and he is good.  I don't buy it - I don't think that word means what you think it means.  A just ruler is accountable to his or her subjects, and King's God refuses to labor under the yoke of accountability.  That's something you do when you're both In Charge and also Just (as in Justice) at the same time.  I wrestled a little with this in The Quantum Mechanic - Douglas is accountable to his subjects, but also is imperfect in his personal life.  He is an asshole at his own wedding and dehumanizes his wife during her apotheosis to make it easier on himself - these were meant to make him "only human," but I have nagging doubts to this day that I made his mistakes a bit too glaring, or glaring in stupid and unartful ways.  "But then," I assure myself, "Perhaps glaring flaws ought not to be artful."  Yeah, says you, Devil's Advocate.

Anyway.  My other complaint is that Mother Abagail is basically a Magical Negro.  There is racism in the book, and I don't blame King for depicting racism in a realistic fashion - it helps make the bad guys more clearly bad, and the fact that he explicitly calls attention to it shows that he is aware of it and that it is bad.  Fair play, there.  But that's not what this is.  Additionally, there's a part where a group of black men take over a TV studio and do some Very Bad Things, and even this isn't racism because there are also many cases of groups of white men doing Very Bad Things themselves.  Well, OK, maybe it's still racism; my point is that it's not clearly and obviously racism, since it's an isolated incident of a group of black men going and doing some bad things amid many instances of various groups going and doing some bad things.  Is that clearer?  I don't know.  Look, I thought about it for a while, and the conclusion I came to is that "the group of black men doing bad things" happen to be black, and they're not doing bad things because they're black.  Maybe it is racism, after all... it's hard for me to say.  At any rate, the point is that Mother Abagail's role as the Magical Negro is racist, because - OK, fine, there's an in-universe justification because she's 108 years old, but - she pretty much exists only to further the plot for the white people by providing sage advice and being physically present at critical junctures.

This needs unpacking.  I definitely understand that King did an interesting thing by making the Force of Evil be a young and happy white man while making the Force of Good be an old and tired black woman - there's legitimately good juxtaposition there, I'm totally aware of it and I acknowledge it freely.  However, what's problematic is Mother Abagail's complete lack of efficacy except as a proxy for God's intervention in the world.  There is exactly one thing that Abagail Freemantle accomplishes under her own steam, and that is to prepare a home-cooked meal for the other main characters when they come to her.  At other points in the story, such as her prominence in dreams or her return from the wilderness, her efficacy is a degraded and dependent efficacy:  in the former case, that's just God making people dream shit, and not Abagail doing anything of her own accord; in the latter case, her return provokes a response that saves the main characters from Harold's bomb.  Even her curing of Frannie's afflictions at a touch, aside from merely "shutting Frannie up" instead of actually answering her questions, is God acting through her and not Abagail acting herself. Even the character "development" we're given through her memories boils down to her being A Credit To Her Race.

OK, that's enough of my problems with the book.  There are others, but compared to these issues, they're minor quibbles.  There are some really good points about The Stand, too, so I'd like to make them here.  It's still criticism, I'm just saying that the book should have had more of this kind of writing than the kind I've spent the last several hundred words complaining about.

First off, the character of Nick Andros is extraordinarily well-portrayed.  King has a habit, borne through to Dreamcatcher as far as I know, of elevating and empowering disabled persons.  Sometimes it comes off as a little cheesy, with Tom Cullen in The Stand and also also with Duddits in Dreamcatcher, but even in those cases, he tries to write from inside their heads and he makes that a worthwhile place to be.  That's awesome - it really is.  But with Nick Andros, he pulls it off almost flawlessly, and I want to take a moment to say why that's so awesome.

To explain why the characterization of Nick Andros is so truly masterful, I have to digress a moment in the direction of Man Pain.  Be warned that that link also contains many links to TV Tropes; at the same time, this is probably the link most worth reading in its own right, since it's some really good thoughts on Man Pain with a video that drives the point home in a way that only videos can.  Seriously, if you clicked on any of these links, then you should click on that one also - if you didn't click on any links so far, then that is the one you should click.  The point is that it's further reading, not a mere side-track.

At any rate, "Man Pain" is the peculiar tendency of storytellers to portray harm done "to" a male lead by way of other people.  Usually, these other people are females who are important to the male lead.  The reason the word "to" is in scare-quotes is that the other people are the ones who suffer.  The man's Man Pain is, itself, derived; yet it's portrayed as what truly matters.  The male lead's Man Pain is only experienced by proxy, by having people he cares about suffer.  The reason this is, if not explicitly misogynist, then at least androcentrist, is that the man cannot be permanently damaged for the sake of indefinite canon, yet simultaneously there must be some permanent damage done or else the stoic and stalwart man ought to be able to shrug it off.  Therefore, the permanent damage must be done to someone the man cares about.  Since men are totally legitimate targets of violence (Men Are the Expendable Gender, after all), this almost unfailingly results in violence against women.  How does this relate to Nick Andros?

Stunningly, amazingly, Nick Andros pretty much completely averts this trope.  Remember:  Man Pain is a trope.  It is a storytelling mechanic:  when you have what must be an indefinite series, when a main character happens to be male, gravitas demands permanent harm but Status Quo is God so you can't do it directly to that male character; thus, permanent harm must be done to side characters.  This is part of the game.  It's only misogynistic when it happens exclusively or predominantly to women, and it's only androcentrist when the Man Pain is experienced by a man (a female lead could experience Man Pain by having a husband, father, son, mother, girlfriend, or daughter Stuffed Into a Fridge - this is rarely done, but it's possible, is my point).  For further reading, and this is tied for the most important link in this article, see the Women In Refrigerators page (it's a site in its own right, but the TV Tropes page explicitly lays out the context in terms of storytelling mechanics and culture at large in a rather succinct way).

That digression aside, this is not an indefinite series, and this frees King to give Andros legit pain that he experiences himself and adds to his character.  Nick Andros is a deaf-mute, and he's given retrospective character development that explains how he became the person he is "today" (read:  in the story).  Retrospective character development isn't cheap; it's a perfectly legitimate tactic when character development happens to someone before the story begins, and so fair play to King for that.  The book is big enough, he doesn't have to cover Andros' development in real-time to explain why he's such a badass now.  But what makes Nick's character arc so awesome, so touching, so exquisitely painful, is that it doesn't stop there.  Through the course of the story, Nick shoots himself in the leg and develops an infection which he is forced to treat himself; and in the same event, he also loses an eye (for all practical purposes) and carries that injury for the rest of his natural life.  He is still portrayed as a badass (he Took a Level in Badass, after all), but his wounds are not healed and his character arc in the timeline of the story is primarily downward.  Bad things happen directly to him and he remains stalwart in the face of adversity (as opposed to "brutality by proxy"), and that makes him all the cooler in my book.

Also, some of the villains are portrayed sympathetically.  The aforementioned blanket portrayal aside, the character of Lloyd Henreid is treated very artfully:  he's a sort of average guy who is taken in by the Big Bad (you don't need that link) and treated well by him.  Sure, the Big Bad lords it over him at points, but Lloyd has legitimate reasons for loyalty, not bullshit ones.  He was saved from starvation.  He was given a magical gift.  He was made smarter.  Randall Flagg improved him.  And for that, Lloyd really does owe him loyalty; the fact that he does not betray Flagg shows that he hasn't truly changed, hasn't really learned anything, and is still a simpering second in command and not a real Dragon.  But that's part of his tragedy.  He's a weak person, and though he's able to recognize the forces at work around him, he never quite develops the confidence and strength of character to direct those forces in a manner of his own choosing, and remains a degraded and dependent being.  I feel sorry for the guy.  I don't like him, but I identify with him, and that sympathy makes him a well-written character.

Trashcan Man, similarly, is given a sympathetic treatment.  He ends up doing, not exactly a Heel-Face Turn, but... actually, I'm not sure what.  He's a guy who's been picked on his whole life, and while he doesn't become good per se, he does turn on the bad guys when they also start picking on him.  To me, it conveys the idea that he was only going along with the bad guys because he felt he fit in; they accepted him, so he worked with them.  When they turn out to be not so great after all, he strikes back at them.  He realizes that he's made a "mistake," though, when he sees that sabotaging Flagg's war machines has all but doomed him.  In his quest for a dark sort of redemption, he brings a nuke to Flagg which ends up being the undoing of the Big Bad (through a bullshit machination on the part of God, detonating the nuke by redirecting Flagg's show of power in silencing the cook).  Still, I end up feeling sorry for Trashcan Man, because the poor shit can't seem to catch a break.  He's still a bad guy, he's just one of those kinds who doesn't know any better.  Doesn't make him good, it just inflames my sympathy gland, and I credit King with good writing on that count.

OK, so those are my thoughts on the book as it is.  However, there's an alternate interpretation which saves it from the first criticisms I laid out - about the problematic blending of Mysterious Ways with Black and White Morality in a Like Reality Unless Noted setting (the problems of Mother Abagail being a Magical Negro persist).  The alternate interpretation is that there is no God.  If that's so, then the "power" is actually within the "good guys" (instead of outside them, which makes them into powerless puppets).  This makes the "final unsettling" of Randall Flagg all the cooler, since it's mortals doing it all by themselves instead of puppets doing it at the hands of an orchestrating deity.  It also makes Larry Underwood's character development much more meaningful, since he's becoming a better person all on his own instead of being groomed by God.  While Abagail still labors under the illusions of the dominant (Christian) culture, her power is within her instead of derived from her god (so all her god-talk, instead of being correct, is simply a case of mistaken paradigm).  This makes her a white mage with a minor in clairvoyance who happens to be wrong about whether someone's at the helm of the Universe at large.  The only problem, then, is:  who or what redirected the ball lightning into the nuke at the end?  That's kind of what ties it all together:  divine intervention saves the day at the very end, making it clearly Black and White Morality with the Mysterious Ways license in a world that is Like Reality Unless Noted.  Which brings us back to my original problem.

Anyway.  I'm studying all this shit not to feel smugly superior, but because tropes are tools and understanding them will help me to use them in artful ways (instead of clumsy and stupid ways).  The goal is not to write to a "meta-audience," but really to do something that's interesting and satisfying whether you see the twists coming or not.  And sure, maybe it will be lost on some people (who think that someone, simply for having a lot of "camera time", ought to be awesome and perfect and victorious all the time always), but I can write to an educated audience without writing to a meta-audience.  Right?  Right.  I think so.

Enough of this.  I gotta work on my character arcs.  :)

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