The Twilight Zone, The X-Files, The Prisoner, even creator JJ Abrams’s earlier Alias spring immediately to mind when placing Lost alongside its televisual kith and kin. But there are times where I’m convinced the show’s true heart lies not in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but in soap opera, with many of its conspiratorial elements serving as mere set dressing for stories of longing, domestic discord, parental abandonment, and tests of faith.
The soap opera comparison is more than just thematically apt: Here we have a serial involving a large and ever-expanding ensemble of pulpy archetypes (the con-man, the doctor, the fugitive, etc…), its narrative progressing at a near-glacial pace and deriving much of its drama from “shocking revelations” buried deep within its characters’ pasts. It likewise demands that its viewers posses either a fanatical appreciation for and knowledge of backstory from seasons’ past or, at the very least, quick access to Lost’s many Internet fan sites. Factor in the sexual tension that has percolated amongst many of the characters over the past two years and the soap opera parallel feels more obvious still.
These opening passages have great promise. Even now, few writers have King’s ability to capture the inviting and misleading mirage of pop nostalgia, which the author equally adores and distrusts. King’s also quite critical of the religious prudishness and hypocrisy that emanates from his characters like heat waves, though he evinces empathy for people who derive great comfort from traditions that are simultaneously understood to ostracize and subjugate those who don’t buy into the program. The 1960s-set chapters are magnificently creepy, following Jamie as he sets himself up as a willing acolyte to a preacher who will be revealed, of course, to have dark interests. King’s pleasure in setting his initial narrative trap is refreshingly palpable after the quick-buck tastelessness of Mr. Mercedes. Jacobs has a penchant for experimenting with what he calls “secret electricity,” which he initially uses to charge a variety of harmless toys for his Bible lessons. But his interests and his powers grow, especially after Charlie renounces religion in a sermon that builds to an expression of self-righteous anger that crystallizes the premise’s canny literalizing of the conflict between faith and science:
“Christ taught us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies. We pay the concept lip service, but when most of us are struck, we try to pay back double. Christ drove the moneychargers from the temple, but we all know those quick-buck artists never stay away for long; if you’ve ever sat yourself down to a rousing game of church bingo or heard a radio preacher begging for money, you know exactly what I mean. Isaiah prophesied that the day would come when we’d beat our swords into ploughshares, but all they’ve been beaten into our current dark age is atomic bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles.”
The kick of this scene springs from King’s undisguised kinship with Charlie—in the charge he gets from releasing the anger that’s hinted at in the earlier chapters that dutifully outline dinners and gossip and prim-and-proper fealties to dress, curfews, and ways of speaking. The author appears to share his character’s rage at the hypocrisy of the business end of religion, which provides salve in times of instability and need that’s potentially comforting, but given to destructive manipulations that offer compliance-nurturing fantasy in the face of untenable reality. King portrays organized religion as another escapist tendril of pop culture, though one cloaked in a greater degree of dangerous reverence than comic books or rock-n’-roll or drive-in movies. Charlie Jacobs is King’s best creation since Under the Dome’s Big Jim Rennie; he represents a fusion of the great and awful of Americana, a man capable of considerable kindness who goes sour, descending into levels of fanatical self-absorption. The joke, a good one, is that Charlie renounces religion, contemptuously fleecing the devoted “rubes” by turning their beliefs against them, only to plunge into so-called “scientific” method with a degree of warped obsession that ultimately and ironically aligns him with the religious zealots he despises.
But Charlie is a supporting character, at least until the chilling, admirably hopeless climax. Most of the time we’re stuck with humble old bumbling Jamie, an uncomplicated fuddy-duddy, as he offers us a variety of trite homilies about aging and the importance of discerning the good things in life. Jamie, particularly as rendered in that first-person that invites us to accept him as King’s surrogate with little differentiation, plays to the author’s worst impulses. There’s the promiscuous italicizing that assures you get every single dramatic beat, the reliably tone-deaf dialogue (especially as uttered by African-Americans, women, and anyone under the age of 50), as well as the tendency to rush through sequences with descriptions of characters and places that rely on saying that so-and-so and this-and-that look like X meets Y. When King borrows from Dan Brown, he has Jamie say that what happened to him is just like something out of a Dan Brown novel; when he borrows from H.P Lovecraft, King, well, you get it.
The pleasure of writing, of pairing words with another to create a distinct or lingeringly atmospheric or poetic effect, seems beyond King’s concern these days. All of that might have been forgivable if Jamie had the slightest bit of stature as a hero—if his conflict with Jacobs was streamlined, less ramblingly episodic, and explicitly related to his addictions and demons. But Jamie’s never challenged, he’s a good ’ol boy, smugly humble, a thinly veiled excuse for King to directly converse with his readers, providing outlines for incidents, rather than dramatizing them. Revival represents a vast improvement over Mr. Mercedes, but the premise is so good, and the initial chapters so suggestive, that one comes to resent King’s speed-freak stylizing, which appears to be born less from inspiration than mechanical compulsion.
Stephen King’s Revival will be available on November 11 from Scribner; to purchase it, click here.
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