Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Review of "Morality"

I wrote a review of the short story "Morality" for a different blog -- Loaded Couch Potatoes -- back in June 2009.  I felt like posting something today, and a visit into my personal vault seemed in order.  So, first of all, here is the cover to the issue of Esquire in which the story first appeared:

Hottest manuscript ever?  I don't know, but in merely pondering the question, I'm feeling my own sense of morality rapidly slipping away.  Follow the jump to find out how our favorite writer dealt with the issue of morality a couple of years ago...

Appearing in the July issue of Esquire, Stephen King's new short story "Morality" continues the legendary writer's recent hot streak when it comes to shorter-form fiction.  Some of King's most recent short stories have included "A Very Tight Place" (a gruesome trapped-in-a-portapotty tale that appeared in an issue of McSweeney's last summer) and "N.", a somewhat Lovecraftian story involving a psychiatrist who gets infected by a patient's supposed madness.  "N." made its debut in King's Stoker-Award-winning collection Just After Sunset, which also included "A Very Tight Place," amongst other mostly fine stories.

"Morality" is maybe not quite as good as those two stories, but it's close, and I've found that it's stuck with since I read it a couple of days ago; that doesn't usually happen to me with short stories, even the ones by King.

This is a deceptively simple tale, one that I'm not going to be able to discuss without giving away various plot points, so if you haven't read the story yet and want to, I'd suggest that you read this review at your own peril.

A short recap: Chad and Nora Callahan are a young couple in Brooklyn who are struggling somewhat to make ends meet.  Chad is a substitute teacher who frets over his ability to continue to pull down class assignments, and is also puttering around with a book about his subbing experiences (he'd finish it, and probably collect about $100,000 for selling it, if he only had the time).  Nora is an RN who works for a retired minister as his home-nurse.  One day, the minister, expressing regret over never having actually committed a sin, offers Nora $200,000 if she will commit a sin for him: he wants her to find a child and punch that child in the face, and to capture it all on video so that he can watch it.  With Chad's tentative support, Nora goes through with it and collects her money.  Chad finishes his book, and the couple move to Vermont, but their marriage is finished: it dissolves in a storm of recrimination and violent sex.

There are various issues to talk about with this story, but the first I'd like to touch on is the one that, for Nora and Chad, is supposedly at the heart of their decision to accept the offer from Revered Winston ("Winnie," as Nora calls him): money.  King describes, through Nora's point of view, the couple as having "almost enough to live on," once their two incomes are added up.  They've been together for ten years, and have delayed their dreams of children, and their dreams of moving away from the city to New England.  However, out of that economic turmoil and Chad's job has come a potential escape route: Chad's book, which a publishing agent with the whimsical name of Ringling has suggested might be worth as much as $100,000 ... if Chad can finish it.  Problem is, Chad can't finish it; in order to have the time to do so, he'd have to more or less quit his job, and the Chad-and-Nora Corporation (as King puts it) simply can't afford for him to do so.  Then, along comes a crazy offer from Reverend Winnie, an offer that not only promises a large cash bounty of its own, but also holds the promise of the leisure time required for Chad to be able to complete his book, which means even more moolah.

We live in troubled economic times, of course, and that turmoil adds a lot of weight to these issues.  King does a masterful job of setting up Chad and Nora's economic distress as a major motivating factor without dwelling on it too much.  It's a metaphor, and metaphors can be grossly overused if the author isn't careful; here, King is very careful indeed, realizing that for the overwhelming majority of the people who will ever read this story, the notion of a tax-free $200,000 payoff (or even of a taxed $100,000 payoff) sells itself without much effort required from the author. 

The approach works like a charm, and enables King to throw in some crafty flourishes that subtly turn this part of the plot on its head for those paying close enough attention.  King knows we'll feel sympathetic toward Nora's economic plight, not only because times are hard in 2009, but because most of us would love to get our hands on that much money, even if we didn't really need it.  And with a few brief words, King drops in enough information to let us know that Chad and Nora don't really need it, either ... not in the literal sense of the word "need."  Nora tells Winnie that she and Chad aren't "living in abject poverty or even discomfort.  It was the fear of those things" that troubles her.  Later, King drops in a bit of dialogue from Nora: "I'd have to work almost three years to make $200,000," she says.  Now, I'll grant you that I don't live in Brooklyn, where the standard of living is very much higher than it is where I'm residing ... but that sounds like nearly $70,000 a year to me, and I can say with no hesitation that there are a lot of people in this country to whom $70,000 a year would sound like incredible riches.

I'm not going to superimpose onto this story a reading in which it is all about the Recession and the bailouts and all that jazz ... you can do that yourself if you're so inclined.  But it's very plain to me that King is taking a sympathetic, but ultimately dim, view of the American relationship with money.  As Nora admits indirectly, she and Chad really don't need the money.  Instead, they seem to be operating from a typical desire to always be upwardly mobile, and a separate-but-similar need to establish a proper family for themselves.  As I've indicated, King doesn't oversell this aspect of the story; it's very much there, though, and allows the reader to make of it what he wants.  In my opinion, though, it's very closely allied to the aspect of the story that is pushed front and center: morality.

Let's start by talking a bit about the Reverend Winston.  I'm not sure I know what to make about Winston's bizarre desire to commit a sin before he dies.  He says that it's a desire which predates his stroke, but that the stroke has intensified it; however, the urge goes almost entirely unexplained.  I don't necessarily need or want King to have provided some sort of character info on Winston to clue me in as to where this urge is coming from, but I find the exclusion of that sort of detail to be interesting.  It paints sin as something that comes not from without, but from within; if we were privy to the moment in which Winston decided to sin, or had any knowledge of what it is in his character that motivates such an urge, then we would have something to focus on as the root of his problems, but without that explaining factor, the urge to sin seems to be fully integrated into Winston's character.  It is not something that afflicts him and can be purged; it is something he simply is, through and through.

Now, that interests me.  Part of this is due to my own take on faith and religion, and maybe I'm misreading slightly due to those biases, but it seems to me as if King is purposefully painting Winston as an irredeemably evil person.  The notion of expiation ought to make it possible for Winston -- and Nora -- to wipe the slate clean for themselves, but Winston describes the act of sinning purposefully, in the hopes of making it all come clean through atonement, to be a doubly bad sin.  There are probably interesting conversations to be had over what exactly it means for a man of God to have an urge to "dive in over [his] head" that deep in sin, and I'm sure King wants the reader to think about matters like that once the story is through.  He finishes off Winston's story by having the Reverend die of an apparent suicide, and that complicates --and deepens -- the matter even further.

But really, he's not as interested in Winston as he is in Nora.  Nora describes herself in non-religious terms, and it may be that it is this precise lack of faith that makes Nora incapable of dealing with the repercussions of committing Winston's sin.  I'm not sold on that reading; there is also the implication that Nora's perceived financial inability to have a child makes her feel guilty for punching a kid in the teeth (even guiltier, I mean, than she would normally have felt for having done so).

Whatever the case, Nora proves to be incapable of processing her guilt in a constructive or expiatory fashion.  She quickly becomes obsessed by watching herself punch the child on the video Chad films, and the excitement of doing so leads to rough sex between her and Chad: "He hit her harder.  Her lower lip split open.  She smeared her fingers through the blood.  While she was doing it she came."  I find it interesting that Nora wants to be hit, and not to hit Chad; she doesn't want to relive the incident as herself by punching someone else, but to relive it as the child whom she punched by being punched herself.  She wants, in other words, to be punished ... maybe even to be judged.  Is this because she feels a lack of judgement coming from on high, and feels the need to compensate for it?  Or is it because, like Winnie, she wants to go even deeper into the sin?  None of this is answered, and none of it needs to be.

The sexual element of the story is an important one.  A story like this one is bound to inspire Freudian readings, and that's something King has anticipated and worked into the story.  Winston brings up Freud at one point, while trying to forestall any concerns Nora might have that he is proposing some sort of sex act between the two of them (this is before he tells her what he wants for his $200,000): "Freud offended me," he says.  "He seemed to feel that any suggestion of depth in human nature was an illusion.  He seemed to be saying, What you think is a pool is a puddle.  I beg to differ.  Human nature has no bottom.  It is as deep and mysterious as the mind of God."

This might account for Winston's stated desire to "swim" in sin (though if so, he's maybe gotten his metaphors mixed up) ... but since we can't exactly embrace Winston as a character, then we can't put too much stock in what he has to say about Freud.  That doesn't absolutely mean he's wrong, but it does suggest it.

So does something else Winston has to say, this time about trouble in marriages: "If you continue the way you are, dear," he says, "you'll need a marriage counselor, at the very least.  In my time in the ministry, I counseled many partners, and while money worries weren't always the root cause of their problems, that's what it was in most cases.  And that's all it was."

Obviously, as the story plays out, Nora's marriage becomes highly troubled, and whereas it might be said to have begun in worry over money, it certainly doesn't end that way.  We don't get any info about the couple's sex life prior to the kid in the park getting decked, but since they've been together for ten years, it stands to reason that it must have been at least tolerable.  However, it apparently intensifies during the planning of the attack; King describes it as nervous and fumbling, but good, or at least hot.  Even earlier, while they're in bed debating whether to accept Winston's offer, Chad pops a boner, which Nora is only to happy to take advantage of (in more ways than one). 

Hmm ... maybe Freud was onto something, after all.  That seems even more likely when you consider the possibility that the couple's money problems stem directly from a desire to have children.  I'm not sure King is outright advocating Freud, but I don't think he's doing much to contradict the man, either.

The excellence of this story is King's persistent refusal to answer all the questions for us.  He's content to merely serve up a heaping helping of thorny issues for us to kick around in our heads to whatever extent we feel like doing.  But he doesn't do so at the expense of entertainment: this is a crisply written, nicely paced story.  The twists and turns -- the revelation of what sinful act Winston has commissioned from Nora, the execution of that sin (which takes place entirely off-screen, if I might borrow a word from another medium), Nora's sudden urge to be punched during sex, her gradual turn to adultery -- are engaging enough to keep readers interested in the plot even if they're uninterested in pondering the moral implications of that plot.  It's strong writing from King, and I hope there are more stories like it in the months and years to come.

That's the end of my review proper, but I've got a few more issues I'd like to touch on:

(1) For hardcore fans of Stephen King, it's hard to resist drawing connections between one story and another.  Here, I was put in mind of, amongst other things, "Quitters, Inc." and "The Cat from Hell."  In the beginning of "Morality," we learn that Chad is trying to quit smoking, and not even primarily for the health concerns; instead, it's the expense of smoking that motivates Chad's attempts to quit.  Like Dick in "Quitters, Inc.", Chad doesn't appear to be having all that much success, even if it hurts his family as a result.  I like how that fits in with the story's concerns over the couple's finances; it shows that Chad is a part of the problem.  As for "The Cat from Hell," that story also featured a sickly old man trying to get somebody to do something crazy.

Also, in terms of the story of a struggling writer not having the time he needs to ply his craft ... well, that brings up at least one connection: The Shining, in which the desire to have more free time to write leads to no damn good at all.  And the urge to relocate to New England wreaks havoc in at least two King tales: 'salem's Lot and Pet Sematary.  Now I'm stretching; let's move on before I start trying to connect this fucking thing to The Dark Tower.

(2)  King's pacing in this story includes a persistent desire to not actually dramatize certain events, or to not dramatize them in chronological order.  For example: just as Nora begins to tell Chad about Winnie's indecent proposal, King flashes back to the actual scene between Nora and the reverend.  This is a bit of a tease, and it gets worse when we cut back to Chad and Nora before we find out what it is that Winston actually wants her to do!  King plays tricks like this several more times (including the bold decision to not dramatize the actual attack in the park), and while it's a bit frustrating, it's also very tantalizing and suspenseful.  Esquire steps on King's toes a bit by including illustrative photos and large-print excerpt teasers that don't leave much mystery about what Winston has asked; the story will read even better without those unnecessary elements whenever King's next short story collection comes around.

(3)  It seems that Winston has been planning this for a good amount of time.  I wonder to what extent it grew out of knowing Nora ... or was it a plan from before, and possibly a contributing factor to Nora getting hired for the job?  Either way, Winston might not be a fan of Freud, but I think he might be fonder of Machiavelli.

(4)  If Winnie's idea is to pass his sin along from himself to Nora, it seems to work pretty quickly.  Before he's even told her what he wants her to do, it seems that ill effects are taking root in her.  King writes, "She was unsure what to do or say.  What she thought was, That desk he's sitting behind must have cost thousands.  It was the first time she had really thought of him in connection with money."  Already with the covetousness.  And once she gets home, while talking to Chad, she breaks a five-year streak of not smoking, an early indication that this ain't gonna end well.

(5)  At one point, Nora thinks about a story a teacher had told her during vacation bible school when she was a child, a story of the devil trying to corrupt Jesus: "You can have everything in those cities," the devil says to Jesus; "Every treasure.  All you have to do is fall down and worship me."  Winnie isn't asking Nora to fall down and worship him, but he's certainly playing the role of the devil in this story; perhaps that's another part of the attraction for him.  In some ways, greed itself is silently playing the devil's part in Nora and Chad's lives; and it's certainly arguable that they are falling down and worshipping at its feet.

(6)  There are a couple of references to a book called The Basis of Morality, which Winnie has in his library and which Nora purchases and reads toward the end of the story; she is disappointed to find that she already knows what is in it.  I'm not familiar with the book, but Google is my friend, and it tells me that the book in question is probably Schopenhauer's; in it, he argues that the basis of morality is compassion.  (I'm also on good speaking terms with Wikipedia.)  Since compassion is one of the supposed defining characteristics of a nurse, I find that to be an interesting connection.  I also find it to be an interesting connection that Nora appears to be unable to learn from the book; Winston exhibited this same flaw, both with Schopenhauer and with Freud, and probably also with the Bible and who knows what else. 

It's also worth considering how Chad's status as a (failed?) writer fits in with all of this.

(7)  Several amusing pop-culture references: Sarah Palin's bridge to nowhere; Jerry Maguire ("show me the money"); and Lethal Weapon 2 ("they fuck you at the drive-through").

(8)  Do we think Winston actually commits suicide?  Nora denies it on the phone with his housekeeper, but it seems likely that she is merely pretending to think so; it also seems likely to me that Winston did, in fact, off himself.  I'm curious as to whether this was prompted by Nora's comment to him about Simon Peter not having a videotape of his sin to rewatch whenever he felt like it ... or if Nora's unwillingness to continue working for Winnie might have been a contributing factor.  Obviously, there are no answers to those questions; just intriguing implications.

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