Long days and pleasant nights

Recently when I checked my stats on Goodreads, I was amazed to discover that Stephen King topped my list of most-read authors. At the end of Doctor Sleep, King wishes his Constant Readers (who are legion), “long days and pleasant nights”. And then I read an article in the Guardian recently where the journalist commented that King has become a Grand Old Man of Letters; many of the people who first encountered him in their teens are now editors, publishers and writers themselves.

I, too, first encountered King in my teens, buying Christine at CNA, where it topped the bestseller list, for R8.95 (in those halcyon days of cheap books). I also bought The Stand at the same time. And so it began. Thereafter I either bought every single book that King published, cadged it from the school or town library, or much later bought hardcovers, or even later than that, Kindle files. I grew up with King; he showed me the power of good writing, and awakened a fire for genre fiction that has not dampened over these (many) years.

Which is why Doctor Sleep is such a special book. The Woman From Room 217 has to be the scariest thing I have ever read; King wisely notes in the Afterword to his sequel that first scares are always the best. What made that scene so memorable was not only the physical horror of the dead woman reaching out to Danny from her empty bath, but the fact she was naked, and all the confused emotions about aberrant sexuality that this evoked.

So when I first heard that King was contemplating a sequel to one of the most iconic horror novels ever written, my initial reaction was one of sceptical wariness. Why? Had King finally succumbed to the particular literary disease exemplified by writers like Robert Heinlein, who (unsuccessfully) attempted a Grand Unified Theory of His Own Fiction? King had already embarked upon such a course of self-deification with his Dark Tower magnum opus; maybe Doctor Sleep was a first tentative step in corralling all the loose ends remaining from his earlier fiction.

Having said all that, Doctor Sleep is easily one of the best books that King has ever written. It contains some of his most memorable villains ever, the True Knot (or the RV People, as they are disparagingly referred to). And Dan Torrance’s story of sacrifice and redemption echoes King’s own extraordinary journey: of writing those earlier iconic novels in an alcohol and drug haze, how his family intervened to save him, and the later near-death experience when he got ridden over while taking an afternoon amble. It is a story of the power of love and the miracle of faith — faith in oneself, and faith that the world itself has meaning and purpose.

Science fiction is to blame

When the scything debris cloud from the exploding Russian satellite kick-starts the plot of Gravity, I was reminded of an even bigger explosion in an earlier Alfonso Cuaron movie: that scene on the beach, appropriately entitled Heaven’s Mouth, that concludes Y Tu Mama Tambien. How far Cuaron has come, from the raw sensuality of Y Tu Mama Tambien to the hermetic claustrophobia of Gravity.

Surreptitious observation of an audience reveals much about the impact of a particular movie. With Gravity, I discerned initial restlessness at the gorgeous opening pan of a lambent earth shining in the void like God’s own Christmas ornament. As the shot went on … and on, one could hear random chatter begin to break out. We have become so jaded due to the frenetic jump-cut editing of modern superhero blockbusters.

Even when the camera eventually gets to focus on Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the cinematography still seems untethered from, ahem, gravity, due to a soaring, constantly shifting POV. The fact that the earth is hanging below you at some unfathomable distance, with the relentless dark of the void lurking all around, is subtly underscored by the 3D, which keeps the audience constantly unbalanced and gripping the sides of their seats. (It is for this reason you have to see Gravity on the biggest, loudest cinema screen that your nerves can stand.)

The cinema gradually quietened down to the point where you could hear a pin drop. The tension was palpable as the audience became totally immersed in the life-and-death struggle playing out so far above the shining earth. There was the occasional gasp or indrawn breath; also groans at those moments when serendipity failed our intrepid cast.

And these are not superheroes whose death or injury is never in doubt. These are flesh-and-blood people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. It is a movie that subtly invites you to partake of the spectacle of their agony and ecstasy; then it grabs you by the scruff of the neck and rubs your face in the messy, sweaty, fear-drenched account of their survival.

Star Trek glosses over the particularity of space travel with its concept of the warp drive, which reduces the impossibility of space travel to something as mundane as accelerating a sports car. The universe is so big, space opera tells us, that the leap from planet-side to interstellar vacuum is beneath consideration. At the end of the day, science fiction is to blame for turning this miracle of our technological development into such a banal non-event. Gravity does to space what Jaws did for the ocean: it takes a perfectly ordinary element, and transforms it into one of terror and wonder and infinite possibility.

The audience’s imagination has atrophied due to the over-use of CGI. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the horror genre, where the traditional elements of suspense and terror have been largely replaced by gore-drenched implausibility. Gravity is that peculiar animal: a cross-genre movie that invigorates the essence of cinema itself. It is both a horror movie and a science fiction one; it is also a meditation on meaning and the miracle of life.

While the technology deployed by Cuaron and his team has been likened to the paradigm shift introduced into the industry by Terminator 2 and Avatar, what is particularly interesting with Gravity is that these breakthroughs have been developed in service of a story as elemental as story-telling itself. And such are the performances delivered by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and such is the spectacle that surrounds them, that we totally believe, for a heart-stopping 90-odd minutes, that these are two astronauts fighting for their lives. The SFX and CGI never lose sight of the heart of the story and the spectacle, which is precisely why it is so believable and terrifying.

Research, research, research

Veteran writer Michael Thomas Ford is as adept at writing about gay adult characters as he is at writing about conflicted gay teen characters, as in his novel Suicide Notes, which I read some time after The Road Home, my first encounter with this particular writer’s oeuvre.

Suicide Notes focuses on the personal odyssey undertaken by a teenager called Jeff when he is admitted to a 45-day programme at a psychiatric ward following an unsuccessful suicide attempt by dual wrist-cutting (he is found by his parents when they return home after a party, and it is the father who effectively saves his son’s life).

The book contains 45 chapters, each reflecting a day in the programme, which makes for a quick and episodic read. While there are many home truths in Ford’s exemplary novel about adolescent angst, I could not help but balk at some of the sloppy detailing.

There is one point in the story where a nurse gives Jeff the small plastic container with his pills … and then she walks out of the room. In any psychiatric ward, the attending nurse will not only watch such a person take his or medication, but ask them to open their mouth to ensure the pills have not been secreted under the tongue for later disposal. Also, a failed suicide like Jeff will be deemed a high-risk patient, at least for the first few days of admission, and will therefore be monitored even more closely.

Ford is rather vague about Jeff’s wrist-cutting itself, mentioning only that he has bandages across both wrists. The reader assumes that Jeff made the cuts parallel to his wrists; it is virtually impossible to bleed out in this fashion, as one has to cut vertically along the arm, and deep enough to open up either the ulnar or radial artery. This may seem pedantic, but in their search for the truth, writers should never forgo the details – especially with a book like Suicide Notes, which Ford must know will be read by both professionals, teenagers and perhaps even suicide survivors.

Jeff, of course, is in a state of total denial when he is admitted, not even acknowledging that he attempted suicide, and Ford generates narrative tension by gradually unveiling the reasons behind this. I am unsure if the big reveal at the end works; there is enough sign-posting early on for astute readers to ferret out the big reveal well before this.

The big problem with using Jeff as the main viewpoint character is that all the adults come across as unflattering cardboard cutouts. It would have given the novel much more gravitas and poignancy if other viewpoints had been accommodated. Jeff is particularly cruel and, er, cutting towards his parents and psychiatrist; one has the sly feeling that Ford found it liberating to give vent to such protracted world-weary sarcasm, which is the prerogative of teenagers the world over.

Still, this is a beautifully rendered and heartbreaking novel that admirably does not shy away from the darker undertones of its themes.