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Bag of Bones

by Stephen King

(Scribner, hardcover, $28.00, 544 pages, September 1998.)

Review by Claude Lalumière

Last year, Stephen King announced he was leaving his long-time publisher, Viking. cover scanSuch migrations are common in the publishing world, authors' agents forever ferreting out the most lucrative deals. With this announcement, however, Mr. King revealed an altogether different agenda. He was not seeking the most lucrative contract but, instead, the most attractive. He wanted a publisher who would act and feel like a partner in his writerly endeavours, and he was willing to sacrifice a few million dollars if need be in order to see his work reach the public in a way that would satisfy him. Of course, being the world's best-selling living author guaranteed that the big bucks would be there anyway, but it was refreshing to see such a high-profile author publicly valuing quality over money. The buzz was that Stephen King's new novel would be more literary, and that he yearned for a publisher who would give his book the attention a more up-market literary novel requires. Putting an end to many conflicting rumours, Mr. King signed with Scribner and his new novel, Bag of Bones, was scheduled.

Definitely, Bag of Bones is infused with the love Stephen King feels for fiction. Its characters read the novels of John D. MacDonald, Ed McBain, Elmore Leonard, Mary Higgins Clark, and Dorothy Sayers. The narrator and protagonist, himself an author, quotes Ray Bradbury, Thomas Hardy (from whom the title originates), Daphne DuMaurier, W. Somerset Maugham, and Herman Melville. Several motifs refer to DuMaurier's Rebecca: the bereaved male protagonist, the use of a house as a character, etc.... And from Melville's "Bartleby," Bag of Bones borrows the hero who "prefers not to."

The novel starts strong and promises much. The opening pages describe the unfortunate and untimely death of the narrator's wife Jo. The tone is just right. The protagonist Mike Noonan wears his heart on his sleeve and I was moved by his stark tenderness. Unfortunately, not long after, it all begins to fall apart.

It quickly becomes apparent that Mike Noonan is but a fictional Stephen King, and the author can't resist the cheap temptation to use his charismatic alter ego as a vehicle to mouth off about some of his pet peeves--some of which, admittedly, offer titillating glimpses behind the scenes of the publishing world. Also, the author falls in the trap of loving his character too much: Mike Noonan is just too perfect, too nice, too sympathetic, so correct all the time that it becomes quite nauseating. It feels obscenely narcissistic and, above all, it sabotages the dramatic credibility of the story.

Despite this flaw, there is a compelling story at the heart of this book: Mike Noonan's bereavement; his sad, overlong mourning; his meeting with--and subsequent love for--a three-year-old girl, Kyra, and her young widowed mother, Mattie; how he joins Mattie in a fight against her repellent super-rich father-in-law for custody of Kyra; and his eventual bid to adopt her himself. This could have been a great story, no ghosts need have applied. Unfortunately, they did.

Bag of Bones is a ghost story and not a very good one, despite the valid social issues it raises. The vengeful ghost of this story is a black woman who was gang-raped and forced to witness the murder of her young child. This could have provided an effective dark undercurrent to this story set in a closed New England community, but its messy, sensationalistic handling damaged the story's integrity. The ghosts are, on again off again, powerful or powerless, coy or direct, not obeying any inner logic but simply there to propel, extend, or save the plot. In the (long, overdrawn) final confrontation (or, rather, confrontations) so many ghosts appear that you'd think they're having a convention. It comes very close to unintentional slapstick, and the sickening sappiness of the last ghostly apparition bludgeons to death any lingering dramatic credibility.

While reading this book, I was often overcome with the impression that Stephen King was trying to perform a trick that a contemporary writer both he and I admire pulls off routinely. The writer is Jonathan Carroll. His heartbreaking novels and stories, of which the most shining example is From the Teeth of Angels, frequently feature supernatural agents interfering in the lives of sympathetic, moving characters. He artfully marries the conventions of supernatural fiction with the preoccupations of literary fiction. But where Jonathan Carroll uses subtlety and mystery, Stephen King grabs a sledgehammer and a chainsaw.

There is one character in Bag of Bones with whom I empathized, a character so minor he is not named, but only talked of in a flashback. It is Mike Noonan's creative writing teacher who, upon reading Mike's first book, recognized its commercial appeal but also noted its lack of artistic merit.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in The Gazette, Saturday, 26 Sep 1998.

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