More on Full Dark, No Stars

I have been thinking over a couple of ideas that cropped up while reading the book.  I propose to discuss two here: why, exactly, I found "Fair Extension" as disturbing as I did and Stephen King's disingenuous distinctions.

Let's start with disingenuous distinctions.  Mr. King states in the afterward something to the effect that literary fiction is ultimately about extraordinary people in ordinary events and that he has ever fashioned his fiction from ordinary people facing extraordinary events.  Neither half of this generalization is true although one understands the underlying distinction he is trying to make.  Let's start with the first half--extraordinary people in ordinary times.  In the course of a blog entry, it isn't possible to consider every case of literary fiction; however, let's just take a few.  Let us consider for a moment Leopold Bloom.  In what way can we say that Mr. Bloom is an extraordinary person--what attributes does he have that make him stand out from the crowd?  I would say that he is, in fact, the apotheosis of ordinary--and perhaps in that alone extraordinary.  Mr. Bloom does not start out extraordinary, but he becomes so through the reader's investment in him.  He is an ordinary working, walking through an ordinary day in Dublin and he has not set out to accomplish the extraordinary.  Does the claim Mr. King makes aimed at saying that he does not want to create extraordinary characters who stand out in memory--characters who through their personification of all that we share allow us to stake some part of our being in their own--characters from whom we can learn important essentials of life?  I don't think that is his desire.  Surely he does not want to be consigned to the oblivion of yesterday's best-sellers?  And if we continue--we can ask the same question of any number of characters in literature.  Let's just look at Henry James--in what way is Daisy Miller extraordinary?  Isabel Archer?  Memorable, yes, extraordinary--well their lives and their ends exhibit the myriad ways in which they are terribly and terrifyingly ordinary.

Let us consider, just for a moment, the other side of that equation.  How exactly is Carrie ordinary? In her psychokinetic ability and psychological fragility?  And Randall Flagg?  And Jack Torrance--he is "ordinary" in what way.  Dolores Claiborne?  Indeed, I would argue that Mr. King got it wrong in a very big way.  Literary fiction is more often than not about ordinary people in ordinary situations who, in the course of dealing with the events of the story become extraordinary people in our minds--stand-outs from the remainder of humanity.  On the other hand, I would also say that Mr. King's people are extraordinary people in extraordinary circumstances who are sometimes overwhelmed by the circumstances, and sometimes emerge from them in some transcendent, and usually horrible way.

Enough, already I have beaten a horse that emerged from the womb dead.  But another point in the book is more worthy of consideration.  What is it that makes "Fair Extension" such a terrible, nauseous story (for me)?  And I think here, the answer is straightforward.  The attitudes undertaken by the main characters are so much in tune with the ordinary, with what any person in extremis is capable of.  From here on out, reading has become unsafe, I'll need to talk about details of the plot that will ruin the story for those who have not yet indulged in the tale.
The central premise of the story is that the main character encounters a man who is capable of helping him out of one of the most difficult and pressing situations anyone can endure--certain death in the grip of a terrible cancer.  The catch--well there's a price and there's a cost.  The price, fifteen percent of his salary for the rest of his life, Harry Streeter takes on easily.  The cost--well, you can't just get out from under with money--you need to shift the burden to someone else.  And so, Mr. Streeter does--to his best friend of many, many years.  And his best friend does not merely suffer cancer, but goes through the trials of a Job, losing wife, family, money, prestige, dignity all in a few years while Mr. Streeter's life continue to improve in an ever widening arc.

I think there are two disturbing notion in the proposition--disturbing because so many people hold to them and would be tempted to them.  The first is the idea that prosperity and happiness are a zero-sum game.  That is, in order for me to be happy someone else must be miserable.  In some dark corner of each person's mind, I suspect that this idea shed's it's dark flame.  We've seen too many examples--not every can have a promotion, so I have my promotion at the cost of someone else down the line who is also anxiously awaiting the same.  There's a limited amount of--well you name it--land, money, yachts, desirable homes, trophy wives. . . the list goes on and on.  There is some part of us that rankles a bit at the success of others because it means that we did not meet with the same good fortune. Most of us recognize this impulse as shameful and suppress it.  Some of us redirect it into the notion of good for others--sometimes redirecting in such a way as to attempt to erode it.  Think of the various financial redistribution schemes that humanity has developed--Socialism, communism, a graduated tax system.  All seem dedicated to the proposition that we must take from the wealthiest and give to the poorest to assure that everyone has a good standard of living.  The goal is laudable, but the means suggests something more (and much, much less) than altruism.  We're back to the zero-sum game.  And when it really plays out, the poor do not benefit much, the very wealthy are rarely touched, and it is up to those in the middle to shoulder the real burden--the zero sum game is turned on its head to provide a barrier to wealth for those just lacking it.

But that's a generalization in which it is easy to poke holes.  Personal experience provides the best examples.  How often have we derided the promotion of someone else, thinking that we deserved it more?  How often, as critics, do we talk down the work of others in order to allow our own to shine forth?  The question then boils down to--in similar circumstances, which one of us would not take Mr. Eldiv's offer? 

I'd like to think that I would feel some pang of remorse, some constant and abiding sense of guilt that would make those extra years more a misery that a blessing.  In the event, it is hard to say.  Certainly, it might last a few months--and perhaps as I watched the progressive disintegration of another life, the stigma of it would last.  But human beings do not weather well the storm of adversity--and when we can turn it off and turn away--too often we do.  Think about it--right now we're outraged (rightfully so) at the horrors of Darfur--but not so long ago there was Bosnia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Stalinist Russian, the Holocaust.  All of these are quickly driven from the collective memory, and some of them (I'm thinking here of the Holocaust) actually attacked outright as untruth.  This is the human reaction to horror on the large scale and even on the domestic scale. 

I recall a performance of "Antigone" I once saw in which the audience endured with King Creon as disaster piled upon disaster.  And finally when the messenger arrived to report that the Queen had died, the entire audience burst out laughing.  It wasn't funny.  But, as Shakespeare knew, if you presented unrelenting horror, the effect soon transcended what the audience was able to endure and what was meant to be tragedy becomes farce.  ( I suspect that reactions to his earliest tragedy "Titus Andronicus,"  a festival of the grand guignol if ever there was one, taught him this harsh lesson. )

Back to the point--if we made such a deal, we probably wouldn't stick around to watch the full horror of it play out.  Guilt would be involved, but so would our capacity to be circulating around such a dark star.

In sum, "Fair Extension" is a horror of a story because it cuts close to the bone and suggests that what we all think is indeed true--happiness is a zero-sum game--for me to be happy requires unhappiness on the part of another.  But of course, examined broadly and objectively, that is nonsense.  It is an incorrect intuition based on our own coarse desires and on experiences that don't really quantify the experience.  Anecdotes do not compile to become a fundamental reality.  Slices of, glimpses into, life are not sufficient to define all of life or to even give us a clear sense of rule book.  And the truth is that happiness, while certainly affected by circumstances, is more a matter of how we choose to view and react to circumstances than it is a product of conditions themselves.  When faced with a promotion at work that seems unfair, one need simply step into the shoes of the fortunate one and ask, "Do I really wish ill--has their good fortune really harmed me at all?"  In most cases, the answer will be, "No.  There's nothing to it."

But, as Mr. King is so capable of doing--it is the lingering shadow, the darkness of our own thought so brightly limned and displayed before us, that forces the question. And in my case produced unexpected and powerful results.  Kudos to Mr. King for bringing forth this sort of visceral reaction in a story that is among his least gruesome in detail.


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