Friday, September 12, 2014

Stephen King, Insomnia (1994)

Signet, 1995
King, Stephen, Insomnia, NY: Viking, 15 September 1994
___________, Insomnia, NY: Signet, September 1995 (my copy)

Insomnia at Goodreads
Insomnia at ISFdb
Insomnia at IBList

Rating: 4/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

Preparing for a trip to India, one offering plenty of reading time due to extended commutes, I was searching for a lengthy yet quick read, something I don't need to think about and simply doze through. During my last trip to India I was pleasantly accompanied by Peter Straub's 1982 novel Floating Dragon, and decided that this time around I would carry something similar. I hemmed and hawed over stuff I had in a box of horror novels, and considered Straub's Mr. X (1999), Robert McCammon's Stinger (1988) and a couple of others I can't now recall. Settling on Insomnia was due partly on the fact that I hadn't read a King novel in a long time, and partly on the fact that my edition, found in a book sale reject pile, is completely battered, and I knew whatever I lugged around with me would receive a bit of a beating. Mr. X, also found in a reject pile, is quite pristine, and I am anal about my books. Even the cheapo paperbacks.

Insomnia is a lesser-known, little read and mostly neglected Stephen King novel. And for good reason. The novel is a plodding, generally uninteresting and often silly, over-sentimental fantasy. I often like a slow, plodding tale, but this one is padded with details that do little to serve the whole of the novel and nothing to build suspense.

Hodder & Stoughton, 1995
We are served up tension with the idea that our senior citizen heroes, Ralph Roberts and Lois Chasse, must save the world (or at least the Derry Civic Centre) within a matter of hours! (This urgency after a few hundred pages.) Pressed for time, at their wits' end, our swift heroes decide quickly to take a lovely meandering stroll through Derry toward their destination while thoughts are leisurely focused on their new abilities, like floating and becoming semi-visible, and their local haunts, like the neighbouring park where old friends play chess and argue about social matters which are related in so much detail that we forget what our purpose is and all tension is sucked dry.

(Yes, our elderly heroes develop powers as a trade-off to their sleeplessness. I won't discuss plot points so if you wish to for more story-line info, please see the myriad reviews on Goodreads.)

Characters abound by the thousands, and many are needless, barely mentioned, while some are arbitrarily done away with. One seemingly major character (I will avoid a direct spoiler here) is done away almost as an aside fairly early on, in such a way that I'm left with the impression the author just didn't know what to do with him and couldn't be bothered to re-write the first few hundred pages. Maybe he was also too bored with the work to invest in a re-read. (King has, since the book's publication, claimed not to have plotted the novel, and has also stated that a novel that is not properly plotted ends up lacking. Insomnia is in need not only of proper plotting, but some severe editing.)

The lengthy conversations between characters and the genuinely uninteresting reflections of protagonist Ralph Roberts are among the easily expendable portions, and a pared down version of Insomnia might actually have been an above average read. There are some interesting elements that could have contributed to a half-decent novel, such as the idea that the elaborate emphasis on abortion is merely a ploy for something entirely different, and though his prose falters with alarming frequency, King manages nonetheless to create a mostly vivid geography.

Speaking of abortion, the subject is approached via many points of view, and in no way objectively. It is clear who the bad guys are on the abortion issue (though personally I have no qualms for this and I doubt King cares if he's potentially alienating any anti-abortionists). He does attempt late in the novel to present us with a semi-sympathetic anti-abortionist in the form of a diner waitress, in another needless scene. It is, however, too little and too late to generate any equality among the figures on either side of the debate. Besides, she quickly falters to become a less than likable caricature. If anything, however, King is genuinely sympathetic with the plight of battered women, and I think it is important for that reality to be presented in mainstream fiction.

Hodder, 2008
There is a cautionary lesson less than subtly embedded into King's arguments on spousal abuse and its consequences. Throughout the novel women ill-treated by men have an instinctive trust of other women and an instinctive distrust of all men. Our male hero Roberts reflects on this several times, again slowing the work, and is disapproving of this trust/mistrust issue. Roberts comes across here as naive, since of course battered women would instinctively mistrust all men they do not know, just as a battered animal would mistrust all humans as a result of being battered by one, just as all men would instinctively distrust women (or relationships with women) if in any severely way wronged by one. Any major traumatic event leads to fear, regardless of gender, race or one's role in the animal kingdom. Despite this logic King pursues his argument, and the women's shelter is infiltrated by a women as a result of the natural trust they share with all women. This character is mentioned shortly before the infiltration scene as a danger to Roberts, and then brings about the downfall of the shelter; she is clearly mentioned only to bring about this scene and only to bring about the argument that battered women should not have instinctive responses to strangers as a result of their gender. Perhaps that is so, but King is being punitive, less interested in exploring the nature of the mistrust, that the base human survival instinct is to protect oneself in areas where one has experienced danger, particularly when that danger is life-threatening.

Tossed into this mish-mash of a novel are some glaring errors. In 1992 Ed Deepnau is thirty-two years old while his wife Helen is thirty (p. 169), yet they kept all the vinyl records they purchased back in the 1960s (p. 84). What a thing for toddlers to do with their allowance. Later, Roberts receives a visual of May Locher's death, and there is a "companion" stabbed to death beside the old lady's death. What of this? Are we deliberately being misled to believe the culprits are cold-blooded killers by the visual aid of a bloodied corpse, a corpse that does not actually exist? Or is this part of King's lack of plotting, and he forgot about this moment entirely as he continued winging the novel on a whim. Shame on you Mr. King!

Luitingh-Sijthoff, 1994
Insomnia does appear to serve a minor purpose: to thread the ties of King's fictional universe. References to both the Dark Tower series and his far better lengthy novel It are splattered throughout. I haven't read any of the Dark Tower books but I get the gist of some of what it going on. On the other hand I have read and enjoyed It. I do not believe Insomnia is in any way improved by these references, nor do I believe these references improve the other works. It has been argued that some of King's obviously weaker works are artificially inseminated with references to his superior works, and I would not be surprised to learn that this is the case, at least with Insomnia . I haven't read enough of his novels to have a full understanding of his mythos, and (because life is short) I have stuck to those works that have received general praise, such as It, Misery, 'Salem's Lot, The Stand and The Shining. Reading Insomnia was a fluke travel decision, as was the unbearably awful Dean R. Koontz novel, Twilight Eyes.

For covers, that first Viking edition at the bottom is mirrored by two opposing coloured prints. I'm not sure if the two flip-coloured prints were released simultaneously, the way those for Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell were ten years later in 2004. I also don't see a significance to the two versions the way I assume there is one for the black and white of Clarke's work. I do like the first paperback edition, that of Signet (1995) at the top; with more detail and colour, this one evokes more mystery. There have been many covers and reprints, a surprising amount (but I guess it is Stephen King), and many of them quite good. The ghostly and full of implication Hodder & Stoughton pillow corpse and the simplistic death referential Hodder reprint from 2008 are both vastly different and quite good, though the second having a different significance to one who has read it, and is hence exclusive of the non-reader. But I'm partial to the cartoonish Dutch version on the left, from Luitingh-Sijthoff, translated by Eny van Gelder (1994).

Viking, 1994 (?)
Viking, 1994

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