Sunday, April 24, 2011

Time to Defuse: "The Tommyknockers" Revisited, Part 2

Jim Gardener, erstwhile friend and lover of Bobbi Anderson, has been on a reading tour with several other poets, and in the course of it, he has fallen off the wagon -- viciously -- and created a very ugly scene at the home of a sponsor.  Coming to -- not waking up, precisely, but coming back to consciousness -- several days later on a beach in New Hampshire, Gardener considers flinging himself into the ocean and allowing his cramping legs to finish his life:

"He swayed forward, very close to doing it.  The part of him that still wanted to live seemed to have no arguments left, no delaying tactics.  It could have said that he had stayed sober -- more or less -- for the last three years, there had been no blackouts since he and Bobbi had been arrested at Seabrook in 1985.  But that was a hollow argument.  Except for Bobbi he was now completely alone.  His mind was in turmoil almost all of the time, returning again and again -- even sober -- to the subject of the nukes.  He recognized that his original concern and anger had rotted into obsession ... but recognition and rehabilitation were not the same things at all.  His poetry had deteriorated.  His mind had deteriorated.  Worst of all, when he wasn't drinking he wished he was.  It's just that the hurting's all the time now.  I'm like a bomb walking around and looking for a place to go off.  Time to defuse."  (The Tommyknockers, p. 87)

Yes, I think it's fair to say that ole Jim Gardener is a profoundly messed-up dude.

I've been spending a decent amount of my leisure time over the course of the past few days trying to figure out exactly what in the fuck it is that I want to say about how Jim Gardener is so profoundly messed-up, but for some reason, I just haven't been able to make the words happen.  I've looked back over the notes I made, and they all make sense; I don't quite know why I'm having trouble connecting those notes into something cohesive, but trouble is exactly what I seem to be having.

So, rather than continue to sit here looking at my computer and flinging the occasional accusation of dickery at one of my cats, I'm going to employ the tried-and-true blogging technique of just spitting out random thoughts.  Hey, shit, man, I titled the blog Ramblings for a reason; may as well live up to it.  And after all, since I started doing this strictly as a means of giving myself something to do that I'd enjoy, there's not much point agonizing over it.  Put another way: it's about having fun, stupid!

So, Bryant, get to the fun-having!

One of the things I like about The Tommyknockers is its structure.  I'm particularly fond of the way King spends the first forty or so pages with Bobbi, separated from Gardener, and then transitions to about fifty pages of Gardener separated from Bobbi.  A lot of writers, I suspect, would have begun the novel with them together, and then split them apart; this would make it part of the actual plot that their separation is partially responsible for both Bobbi's finding the spaceship and Gard's falling off the wagon.  That would also have caused those events to be seen by readers through the prism of Bobbi and Gard having been together; as King wrote it, he placed more emphasis on the distance between them.  This has the effect of making the distance between them more real, more palpable: because they are introduced in isolation, the distance is established as the true way of things.  If they had begun the novel together, that would have felt like the true way of things, and in my opinion it would have weakened the novel considerably.

Gardener has been married, but we find out almost nothing about that marriage except that it ended when Jim accidentally shot his wife through the cheek while on a particularly bad drunk.  Was their marriage good apart from that?  How did they meet?  Where is she now?  Did Jim's relationship with Bobbi predate his relationship with his wife?  We don't know any of this.  It's almost a plot weakness, but not quite.  Either way, it has the effect of making his relationship with Bobbi Anderson feel like the significant relationship of his life.  It's one thing for a writer to say that that is the case; it's another to make the reader feel that it's the case, and that is exactly what King accomplishes.

While he's on stage, Gardener has the first of his several psychic visions of Bobbi being in trouble.  I don't know how I feel about this.  On the one hand, I feel like King has a tendency to play the old "psychic vision" card too often (e.g., making it a part of Leo Rockaway's character in The Stand just so Larry has a way of finding out what dark plans Harold has been making).  On the other hand, I think it almost works here. 

Not quite, though, because I don't really know whether I'm supposed to think that it's a stray psychic vision, or that it's a psychic message the alien ship has enabled Bobbi to send Gard in order to get him to come to town.  Given the trouble Bobbi has communicating telepathically with Gard further into the novel, the latter seems unlikely, even though it would make more sense. 

That said, if the other were true -- if this is a case of Bobbi having a strong enough connection to Gard apart from the ship to psychically send him an S.O.S. -- then it would make a certain event toward the end of the novel more coherent: as Gard is trying to get to the ship to board it, he is almost killed by one of the contraptions built by the townspeople; he is saved, though, by a (seemingly from-beyond-the-grave) telepathic warning from Bobbi. 

To be honest, I kinda feel like none of any of this works terribly well, but there might be implications in it that I'm just not thinking of right now.

"The last six years of his life had been bad, and the last three had been a nightmare time in which he had become inexplicable to himself and scary to almost all the people who really knew him.  When he drank, this rage, this terror, and most of all, this inability to explain whatever had happened to Jimmy Gardener, to explain even to himself -- found outlet in the subject of the nukes."  (p. 72)
Gard's obsession with nuclear energy is one of the major plot points of The Tommyknockers, and it's also a very prominent bit of subtext (I don't think those two things are contradictory, but you might disagree).  One of the interesting things about the novel is the way in which the alien menace plays out as a combination of Gardener's fears about himself (and what drink is turning him into) and his fears about what nukes and what they can turn people into.  When King writes that Gardener "had become inexplicable to himself," he's writing about what people commonly say about alcoholics and junkies: that when they're high, they're not even the same person, not really. 

From a thematic standpoint, you'd expect King to have had Gardener be the one slowly changing into a creature with tentacles and translucent skin and mind-reading powers; it would make sense for that to be the source of the horror.  Instead, he did something that for my money is way more interesting: he keeps Gardener on the outside of that process.  However, I can't help but think that when he looks at Bobbi as she becomes increasingly less human, he's thinking that the way she looks and seems to him must be something similar to the way he looks and seems to other people when he's drinking; she's turning into a literal monster whereas he has turned into a figurative one, but the difference between the literal and the figurative didn't keep him from accidentally putting a hole in his wife's head, so perhaps it's not as meaningful a distinction as it might have been under other circumstances. 

That association between their monstrosity, in turn, makes Bobbi's transformation feel like something that is a result of Gardener's addictions and obsessions and weaknesses in some way; it makes the story way more tragic than it would have been if Gardener himself had been the recipient of the literal transformations.

You also have to look at the transmogrification -- fuck, I love that word -- of the Haven townspeople in terms of how it reflects the theme of nuclear energy.  A lot of the changes the Havenites go through -- losing teeth, bleeding uncontrollably, developing very pale skin -- are rather similar to symptoms of radiation sickness.  That's a real-world fear; there's also the less realistic sci-fi fear of mutation, which is seen in Bobbi's growing tentacles in the place of her lady parts.

You'd think this might all be painted in the starkest hues of black-and-white, but it isn't; King uses grayer tones, and makes the transformations intermittently seem as if they might, just possibly, have their upsides, too.  Visitors to Haven tend to suddenly get spectacularly bright ideas, and it seems to me as if some of them, if followed through on and implemented, might result in very positive social advancements ... if they could be used properly.  Thematically speaking, this is sorta like the equivalent of saying "Well, yeah, if we could make it safe, nuclear energy would be great."  Even in the town, some of the machines that get built show great potential: the giant projection of the clock tower, for instance.

And in terms of Bobbi's character, the changes seem to give her a few things she has longed for but never been able to have: a sense of community with her fellow citizens, and power over her domineering sister.  Since I really quite like Bobbi in the early pages of the novel and therefore have an inherent sympathy for (and with) her, that helps make what happens to her a more complex thing than it might otherwise have been: there is at least some good, misapplied and perverted though it may be, in what has happened to her.

It's a good achievement King makes in adding these layers of complexity, and it keeps The Tommyknockers intriguing in terms of its implications.

One thing that's worth pointing out is that at that time The Tommyknockers was published (November 1987), the Chernobyl disaster was still a relatively recent event.  That must have lent this novel's subtext some power for new-release readers that it might not have had at certain other points in history.  Today, in the wake of the Japan earthquake and tsunami and the as-yet-unresolved nuclear crisis that nation is experiencing, the theme is definitely relevant again.  That catastrophe occurred during my reread of The Tommyknockers, as did the crisis in Libya (that nation -- as well as troubles in the Middle East in general -- is also explicitly mentioned in the novel); this made for an odd feeling of timeliness from a novel approaching twenty-five years in age.  King has rarely been a topical writer, and while it remains to be seen whether or not his books will be able to survive from one generation to another, I think there is enough to many of the books (The Tommyknockers included) that is of cultural significance to make them well worth studying for readers twenty, thirty, forty years down the line.

Assuming there are any readers forty years down the line, of course...

What do you suppose happened to ole Arglebargle?  The last time we saw him, he was on the floor struggling for air after Gardener had walloped him one and made his heart start doing the jitterbug.  Did he live?  Did he die?  We don't know.  It almost seems as if somewhere further into the novel, some nosy parker of a cop should have showed up in Haven looking for Gardener so he run him in for murder, but that never happens.  It's a minor point as far as unresolved plot points go, but I do kinda wonder about it.

"It was a flying saucer.  They had been debunked by the Air Force, by thinking scientists, by psychologists.  No self-respecting science-fiction writer would put one in his story, and if he did, no self-respecting editor would touch it with a ten-foot pole."  (p. 144)
So, what does it say that King has put one in his story?  This would be easy to just chuckle at and accept as a vaguely lame in-joke, but I think it's a more useful comment than that.  In that little passage, King is furthering the sense of realism which has been a major part of the novel up to this point, and laying the groundwork to make some of the more outlandish plot elements that will come later seem realistic.  By having the notion of a flying saucer be both laughable and utterly real to Jim, he's also drawing us that much closer to Gardener, who, in this regard, is our proxy.

How much older than Bobbi should we assume Gard is?  We never find out.  The only solid piece of evidence one way or another is that when he has her in his freshman comp class in college, he is working on a PhD thesis.  At a minimum, I'd say that makes him five years older; it's not a terribly important plot point, but, again, I do wonder.

One of the more prevalent recurring themes in the novel has to do with what Bobbi and Gard refer to as the "Dallas Police."  This is a sort of verbal shorthand indicating nefarious governmental organizations in general, but it has its roots in something very specific: Bobbi's horror at seeing the police force in Dallas be utterly incapable of preventing the murder of the man who murder President Kennedy.  The "Dallas Police," for Bobbi and Gard, are any organization that really shouldn't be trusted, and one of the big ideas which moves the novel is Gard's ill-conceived plan to use the alien ship as a means of serving (with Bobbi) as a sort of two-person World Police force, cruising the world's skies and somehow using it to dismantle all the nuclear power plants, to calm the unrest in the Middle East, and so forth.  The attraction of this idea is what keeps Gard working with Bobbi, even when part of him knows that it's a fool's crusade.

It's interesting to consider that the idea of using the ship in this way is incredibly similar to what a lot of people must have (and probably still do) think about the notion of nuclear power: that it is, in and of itself, a deterrent and a stabilizer.  Gard eventually makes this connection, of course, also realizing that he is in danger of becoming the Dallas Police.  It's another nice bit of moral and emotional complexity in the novel.  (It also puts me in mind a bit of Watchmen, an even better tale borne out of angst over nuclear issues; Gardener's plans essentially put him in the Adrian Veidt role, which is a fun connection.)

I particularly like the scene in which Gardener realizes how foolish his plans have been.  When Ruth causes the top of the Town Hall to take off like a rocket, it jars something in him:

"There was Bobbi Anderson's power; there was what they were going to use to stop the nukes, the arms race, the bloody tide of worldwide madness; there it was, rising into the sky on a pillar of flame: one of the crazies in town had somehow laid a fuse under the town hall and struck a match to it and had just sent the Haven clock-tower into the sky like a fucking Roman candle."  (p. 259-60) 
Gardener has no way of knowing that this has in fact been a deliberate act by Ruth, designed to bring attention from the outside world; and Ruth would have had no way of knowing that even though her plan failed in that regard, it ultimately succeeded in an even greater way by waking Gard up to his own foolishness, and setting in motion the mental processes which will eventually bring the Haven crisis to its close.

That's good stuff.

Gardener and Anderson get into the ship finally, and Jim finds himself feeling an odd sort of disappointment at how unimpressive it all is; he's especially nonplussed by the evidence he finds which suggests the ship crashed because the crew was too busy murdering one another to avoid splatting into the planet ahead of them:

"It wasn't disappointment he felt so much as stupid correctness.  Not rightness -- God knew there was nothing right about this -- but correctness, as if part of him had always known it would be this way when and if they got in.  No Disneyland razzmatazz; only a dreary species of blankness.  He found himself remembering W.H. Auden's poem about running away: sooner or later you always ended up in one room, under a naked light bulb, playing solitaire at three in the morning.  Tomorrowland, it seemed, ended up being an empty place where people smart enough to capture the stars got mad and tore each other to shreds with the claws on their feet."  (460)
That's downbeat to an almost oppressive degree, but it's also an oddly beautiful passage, one of my favorite in the novel.

The ultimate revelation about the aliens is that they are, as Bobbi puts it, builders rather than understanders; they modify rather than create outright.  In a science-fiction context, this is perhaps only marginally believable, but I think it works beautifully in a horror context, where pessimism and degradation are (pardon me) king.  I can image that the original alien race that created the ship and its technologies might have had a very different purpose in mind for it, something more innocuous; but the technology was co-opted by less scrupulous members of that race, who perverted it into the sort of atrocity that it is when Bobbi digs it up.  You know, when I put it that way, it sounds fairly solid as science-fiction, too. 

Certainly, it works as a sci-fi-tinged parable, and it again returns us to the theme of nuclear power.  The justification for the scientific development of nuclear power has been made that, in and of itself, knowledge cannot be a weapon, or even a danger; that it is only through the application misapplication of that knowledge that danger arises.  Either way, as regards nuclear power, we are the Tommyknockers; we are the beings clawing ourselves apart, headed for a cataclysmic crash.  How much more satisfactory it is, then, from a storytelling standpoint that King opted to have the people of Haven begin to actually start changing into something alien and horrible; in a way, that is just what has happened to humanity as a result of the atom.

Whether there is a Jim Gardener waiting to pull our bacon out of the frying pan before it's burnt all up remains to be seen.  Even if there is, will he be sober enough to do it...?

Well, I guess I'm about out of thoughts as regards our drunken poet and his various bugaboos.  I'm not sure there's much coherence in this post, but maybe that's okay.

Next up will be a similar post to this one, one which will just sorta round up various issues from the novel -- such as its others major characters, and its ties to other King novels -- and give me another opportunity to ramble on.  After that, I think I might make a final Tommyknockers post about the television movie adaptation; it ain't much of a movie, but that don't mean there's nothing to say about it.  Hopefully, I'll be able to get all that out in a few days.

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