Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Brevity is the soul of my weekend

Over the Christmas holiday, due to my insatiable nephew, most of my reading consisted cards from Star Wars Monopoly (You win second place in a beauty contest on Kashyyyk. Collect $10.) and from the game Stacey and I made him, Special Delivery: Penguins!

But because even the newfangled children of today have to sleep sometimes, I did get to read some short books. Having been thinking about Tolstoy (due to the central role a copy of War and Peace plays in Special Delivery: Penguins!), I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich. After the full meals that are Anna Karenina and War and Peace, it’s a slightly unsatisfying snack. Though Tolstoy delivers interesting brief impressions of a few peripheral characters, his sympathy and understanding—the characteristics that perpetually animate the two masterpieces—is restricted to Ivan. Ivan’s despair at his death is palpable and convincing, but I couldn’t help but want to peep around the door and see what his somewhat caricatured wife was really thinking, why she acted the way she did, and how she would explain her actions to herself. That’s what Anna Karenina and War and Peace deliver: you get to peep around every door, and everyone is, if not explained, at least given the chance to appear in their full humanity.

I followed Tolstoy with, of all people, Stephen King, whose The Colorado Kid appeared in the new Hard Case Crime series this fall as a pulp paperback, complete with newly commissioned lurid cover art, poor-quality paper, and a $6.99 price. It’s the tale of an unidentified dead body (If you want to avoid plot revelations, you should skip the rest of this post.), retailed by two too-crusty-to-be-true aged newspapermen, proprietors of a Maine island weekly, to their attentive young female intern. Throughout, the narrators telegraph the author's intention to provide no solution to the mystery, but it’s still jarring when the last page arrives without any answers. King’s unapologetic afterword attempts to explain his thinking: most of what we know in life is unexplained, and often the answers we give to questions are answers of convenience, designed to let us rest easy rather than be troubled by uncertainty. He’s right, but he’s attempting to defeat a genre that has demonstrated, time and again, that what we want as readers is a sense of order wrested from the chaos of the universe, the convincing lie that elements are not picked at random, but are chosen and patterned and explicable. It’s not just mysteries that do that for us, of course—everything from the Arabian Nights to A Dance to the Music of Time is built around the value of explanation, the sense that in time, the truth will out. King’s defiance is a stunt, solitary and self-destroying: if all mystery stories were like The Colorado Kid, there would soon be no mystery stories.

He's also disingenuously mixing our responses to true stories and our responses to fiction. If we read fiction, in large part, to think about what things might happen to people and how they might behave in response, we read nonfiction to find out what did happen to people and how they did respond. I'm certainly not at the point of fully understanding the ways that the knowledge of reality underlying a story changes our relationship to that story, but it clearly does, and King's trying, at least in part, to pretend otherwise.

And that leads me to the final place King has gone wrong in his thinking: he's ignored a major reason that unsolved mysteries are interesting: they might be soluble. More facts might come to light. We might someday learn for sure what happened to D. B. Cooper. We might learn how Ed Delahanty died. The disappearance of the Roanoke settlers might be explained. Anything is possible, because these are real mysteries.

The mystery of the Colorado Kid, on the other hand, will forever be unsolved, because the one person who might know the answer refuses to solve it. No new facts will come to light, because there are no facts, only fictions, and their creator has declared that we get no more of them. Thus the unsolved mystery becomes, instead, an unfinished mystery, which is a far, far less interesting creature.

This is all not to say that The Colorado Kid is entirely not worth reading. It's a short, fast read. King—perhaps because extreme brevity was part of his remit—doesn’t overwrite, doesn’t splatter gore, doesn’t get sidetracked. He spools out the thread of a good story, doling out details at the right pace and in the right order. He just runs out too soon. And the Hard Case Crime series bears watching: it appears to be, aside from King’s attention-getting volume, a reprint series, to which one can subscribe for $8.99 per month for two volumes. That gimmick in and of itself has hooked me; I'll let you know when I get the first shipment.

Tomorrow, the other books I read over the weekend. I hope you all had a good holiday.


  1. The way you describe the essential quality of Tolstoy's art - peeping around the corner for a sympathetic look at everyone's life - makes me wonder if War and Peace wouldn't make a great immersive-environment video game.

    Knowing that you will be reading lately the Hard Case Crime series reminds me of what you SHOULD have been reading lately: William Lindsey Gresham's Nightmare Alley. Shall I start a new blog, heshouldhavebeenreadinglately, where I list the books you should have been reading?

  2. Wikipedia has WAY too much information on Kashyyyk.

  3. Bob--
    I think the movie Russian Ark might be pretty similar to an immersive-environment Tolstoy game, though I haven't seen it. I'm just extrapolating from reading about it.

    Which is how I understand most things, come to think about it. Scary.

  4. ao-
    Does the amount of information on Kashyyk remind you of Tlon?

  5. Funny, that link should have been this:

  6. When I read the Colorado Kid it seemed like an homage to Have His Carcase. This is what a mystery would be like without the genius detective - unsolved. Little things like the body being found at the shore, the Russian coin in his pocket, reminded me of the Sayers book. One thing that baffled me was why no one found it odd that someone would be standing by the ocean eating piece of steak after having had a fish dinner not too long before. And holding the piece of steak in his hand.