Tuesday, November 5, 2013

A Review of "Small World" (by Tabitha King)

By now, it is fairly common knowledge that Stephen is not the only member of the King family who has an aptitude for writing fiction.  His oldest son, Joe King, has become a bestselling author in his own right (under the name Joe Hill); Joe's younger brother, Owen, published his first novel in 2013, and received strong reviews for it.  And if we open things up to in-laws, we can also add Owen's wife, Kelly Braffet, to the list; she, too, published a well-reviewed novel this year.

Receiving a bit less attention of late is Tabitha King, mother of Joe and Owen, wife of Stephen.  Since 1981, she has published eight novels, beginning with the novel I'm reviewing today, Small World.

Sorry this scan looks so smudgy, but the used hardcover I bought has obviously not been well-kept the past few decades.

I'd been aware of Small World for years, and had always been curious about it.  If I'd been able to locate a copy, I'd've read it in high school, during the dawn of my Stephen King fandom; but none of the stores I shopped in ever had a copy, nor a copy of any of King's other books.  (Tabitha's, that is; henceforward, when I mention "King" in this review, know that it is she to whom I am referring.)
I had no specific knowledge of those other books, but Small World, I knew a bit about: it was the tale of a tiny woman living out a life in the normal world, somewhat in the style of a reverse Gulliver.  It was an intriguing premise, and I remembered it for years.
And so now, finally, I've gotten around to reading it.  This gives me at least some vague hope that I might , someday soon, do one of the many other things I've been failing to do for decades now: visit a foreign country; discover that I am the inheritor of a vast fortune; "save money" (whatever THAT means); spontaneously develop a craving for vegetables; read a novel by Isaac Asimov; et cetera.  Some of those are achievable goals; others are likely to remain tantalizingly out of reach.
In any case, "read a novel by Tabitha King" can now be removed from the list, and it may not be much as far as achievements go, but hey, I'll take it.
So, the question: was it worth the doing?
I would answer that with a "yes, mostly."  It is not a great novel, by any means.  I have certainly read worse first novels, though, and overall I feel as if it was time well-spent.
Going into the novel, I had only a vague notion (see above) of what it was about.  I knew a bit, thanks to reading Patrick McAleer's book The Writing Family of Stephen King; but while reading that excellent work of criticism, I only skimmed the Tabitha King sections, lest I be spoiled.  For the most part, I was able to glean McAleer's opinion of King's work without reading the plot summary elements, but picking up a few bits of plot-specific knowledge was unavoidable.  Most of what I did read pertained to later King books, though; on the subject of Small World itself, I mostly remained fresh and unspoiled.
Here is a brief, and almost certainly inadequate, setup of the story: a former President's daughter, Dorothy Hardesty Douglas (a.k.a. "Dolly,," much to her chagrin and anger -- and in case you are wondering, no, she is not a teeny-tiny woman; she is normal-sized).  Dolly is the novel's central figure, and most of its various subordinate characters bear a relation of some sort to her.  There is Lucy Douglas, Dorothy's daughter-in-law, whose husband died in an airplane crash; there is Nick Weiler, a museum curator who is currently involved with Lucy, but who once had a romantic relationship with Dorothy; there is Leighton Sartoris, Nick's biological father, an elderly recluse who, as one of the world's leading artists, once painted a famous portrait of Dorothy when she was a teenager.  Also central to the story: Roger Tinker, a socially awkward scientist who has spent years working on a government project designed to discover a means of miniaturizing matter.  Roger has been laid off as a result of government cutbacks, but he saw this latest bout of non-employment coming, and stole enough equipment so as to be able to continue his project from home.
Roger has, in fact, already completed the device -- a camera-sized object he calls the "minimizer" -- at the beginning of the novel, and when we meet him, he is in the process of shrinking and stealing the Sartoris portrait of young Dorothy.
You will, perhaps, notice that I have not made reference to the teeny-tiny woman who is the subject of the novel's fantastical conceit.  That is Leyna Shaw, a political-scene reporter who has a fling with Nick, and who also gets on Dorothy's shit-list by referring to her as "Dolly" while doing a piece on the former First Daughter.  Dorothy, you see, was once given a gift by a White House staffer: he made her an elaborate dollhouse that was a near-perfect replica of the White House itself.  Dorothy showed no interest in it, but later in life, when her daughter-in-law turned out -- rather conveniently -- to be a prominent miniaturist designer, she commissioned Lucy to fully restore and renovate it.
What happens is this: Roger meets Dorothy, and the two become involved both romantically and in a series of increasingly daring uses of the minimizer, which they use to shrink all sorts of things.  Eventually, Roger uses it to shrink Leyna, and the reporter is imprisoned inside the replica White House.
That doesn't happen until nearly halfway into the novel.  Prior to that plot development, a great deal of Small World consists of Dorothy's various battles with the people whom she dislikes, and with Lucy and Nick's strained relationship.  We also spend quite a bit of time on Dorothy and Roger's burgeoning relationship.  The problem with all of this is that none of the characters are particularly compelling or interesting.  As much as anything else, what these chapters of Small World remind me of is Marriages, Peter Straub's first novel, which is a boring novel about boring people.  Not without occasional merit; but, for my money, boring.
Small World is better than that -- Dorothy is an unpleasant woman, and there are at least a few sparks that fly off of the various ways in which she is unpleasant -- but does not manage to offer much intrigue in its first half.  Once Roger minimizes Leyna, things improve; the concept of a teeny-tiny woman trapped inside an exactingly-detailed dollhouse is a cool idea, and King gets a good bit of mileage out of it.
Not as much as she could have done, though.  A big part of the problem is that right up until Roger hits her with his minimizer, Leyna is barely in the novel.  It feels to me as if she needed to be much more present in the first half, so that all of the material with her inside the dollhouse meant more; what's there is very good, but it doesn't have the resonance it might have had otherwise.
The novel's first chapter is particularly problematic.  It introduces too many characters, most of whom are relatively unimportant to the novel as a whole.  It also introduces an odd element: when we first meet Roger, he is dressed as a woman, ostensibly so as to facilitate his theft of the painting, although we also get the hint that there may be more to it than that.  But apart from establishing that Roger is a momma's boy, the cross-dressing doesn't end up being of any importance to the novel; its prominence during the opening is misleading and counterproductive.
King's prose is efficient and solid; her pacing is weak, however, and her sense of structure sloppy.  Both seemed, to me, to improve over the course of the novel, although not to a significant degree; I occasionally found myself struggling to remember certain elements from earlier on, and also found myself uncertain of when some events took place relative to one another.
Small World is a science-fiction novel, so much so that it bears Clarke's Second and Third Laws as epigraphs.  What I am unsure of is whether this indicates an active interest in the field on King's part, or whether the Third Law -- "Any sufficiently advanced technology is" (to a less-advanced culture) "indistinguishable from magic" -- is instead meant to serve as a bit of an apology for the implausibility of the concept.  To be blunt, Roger's minimizer is ludicrous.  Now, let me be clear: in theory, I don't mind that.  Here, it is basically just a MacGuffin that permits the rest of the plot to take place.  I tend toward being perfectly okay with a MacGuffin, no matter how ludicrous.
Where I begin to struggle with it a MacGuffin is when it is used inconsistently.  If you want to merely have me buy into a concept, okay; just tell me that it works, and don't worry about justifying it.  Roger is a brilliant scientist; he's invented a machine that uses mirrors to zap an object from one dimension into another and back, with the result being a severe reduction in size.  Okay!  Works for me.  Zap a person, and have her live inside an elaborate dollhouse?  Great!  Let's do it.
King, however, becomes a bit bogged down in the psychological and biological ramifications of Leyna's newly decreased stature.  Leyna initially assumes she has merely gone insane, and that the giants she is supposedly seeing are nothing more than externalizations of whatever has snapped inside her mind.  She has trouble eating the food that is minimized for her; she worries about having no tampons; she cannot make herself be heard by the probably-not-even-real giants, because her voice is not loud enough.  And so forth.
To be clear, all of this is strong stuff.  However, the realism of it causes us to look at Roger's device in a similarly realistic light, and in that light, it cannot help but seem woefully inadequate.  I don't believe anyone would be capable of inventing such a device, and I certainly don't believe that Roger would be able to do it; even if he could, I don't believe he would be able to do so without being noticed by the government that had backed him; and even if he could manage that, I don't believe his device could function without a massive power source.  Instead, it seemingly doesn't even have a power source.  
Sure enough, it may as well be magic; but I have a difficult time buying the idea of Roger as a magician.  If you want to tell me aliens created it and Roger found it, I could live with that; if you want to tell me that some schmoe who literally lives in his mother's basement created it, you're going to need to keep things on a level of comic-book logic.  Small World is not that; King is interested in the psychology of her characters, and so the logic becomes one of emotional realism.
Emotional realism and science fiction can exist side by side, but only if the science is at least vaguely plausible.  Here, it isn't, and between that and the structural problems, I think I am forced to conlcude that Small World is an unsuccessful novel.  That said, I did enjoy parts of it quite a lot, and I suspect it will stick with me for a while.
I'm also looking forward to reading King's second novel, Caretakers, and seeing what sort of strides she made between her first book and the next one.  That won't be for a while; if I've done my mental inventory correctly, I've got about seven blogging projects between now and then (one of which -- Four Past Midnight -- will require a minimum of seven posts to complete), so we're looking at an undefined date in 2014, most likely.  But still, I'm happy to finally be in the Tabitha King business; it's been too long a delay.
And if the rest of her books offer only as much enjoyment as this one, it'll still be worth the doing; intellectually, I have to admit to finding Small World to be a bit of a dud, but in the end I did enjoy the actual reading of it.  And that's what it's all about, really.
Speaking of my blogging projects, the next thing on the agenda will be taking place at my James Bond blog, where I'll be reviewing two Ian Fleming biopics: 1989's Goldeneye and 1990's Spymaker.  After that, I'll be back to The Truth Inside The Lie for the aforementioned reread of Four Past Midnight.
See you then!
And I almost forgot to mention a mild crossover element: Leyna, while trapped inside the dollhouse, walks past an elevator and mentions being made nervous by it on account of how she read a novel about a haunted hotel called the Overlook, in which the elevators sometimes run at night all by themselves.
Alright, now I'm done.


  1. Congratulations on breaking the seal on your Tabitha King readthrough. Something I too have always meant to do. I remember once picking up one of her books from the library shelves back in North Smithfield, RI, circa 1988 (it might even have been Small World, I can't recall) but didn't take the plunge. I'd like to, though.

    It sounds similar to The Incredible Shrinking Woman with Lily Tomlin . Perhaps that film is to Small World what The Simpsons Movie is to Under the Dome (the novel.) Although it's been so long since I've seen that, I could be wrong. (I might be thinking of Inner Space, actually, at least plot-wise.)

    A shrunken Dolly imprisoned in the White House... I wonder if we can read this as some kind of War of 1812 parable. (Dolly Madison, saving the Washington portrait from the Brits burning down the White House, etc.) Just where my brain went. I think I'll start insisting on King forums that Small World is secretly about the War of 1812.

    Looking fwd to these upcoming posts, though. I read a lackluster review of Four Past Midnight somewhere recently and was reminded (by contrast) of how much I enjoyed reading Sun Dog.

    1. I'm looking forward to those, myself. It's been a looong time since I read "Four Past Midnight," and I really don't remember much about it generally, or about "The Sun Dog" in particular. So it'll be like rediscovering the book, for me, and that will be fun.

      I fully endorse your War of 1812 reading. I'm all for trolling that place.

  2. From what I'm reading here, this book has all the hallmarks of a first novel from promising talent.

    It took me awhile to realize that Tabitha King sort of shares some of the same qualities as Robert Mccammon's early novels, good ideas with maybe some weak spots and a little padding here and there.

    This sort of makes me wonder what kind of writer Tabitha King may have become if she'd kept at it. The last I heard of her career King said he was "trying to coax her out of the garden" or something like that; indicating she seems more content as a homemaker.

    It will be interesting to see if her other work details a parallel to Mccammon in terms of growth and improvement.

    1. The McCammon comparison is a pretty good one, actually . . . at least as far as "Small World" goes. Like "Baal," it's got some great ideas but lacks in the execution department. In a head-to-head bout, I'd give the edge to "Baal," but not by much.

  3. I read this novel in 1982 at its initial publication and found it to be GREAT!!!!! Tabitha King writes about an element of Science Fiction that has been around for most of the 20th Century and presents it in a Realistic Manner that give an indicative insight into the Duality of Technology and the instability of the Human Race.
    GREAT JOB TABITHA!!!!! This would make a FANTASTIC MOVIE!!!!!