I’ve just read two chunksters by two American master storytellers. In the one corner, weighing in 562 pages is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and lolling in the other is Stephen King’s Under the Dome, which comes in at a massive 880 pages. Freedom is a literary darling, feted by The Guardian as ‘the novel of the century’, by the NY Times as a ‘masterly portrait of a nuclear family in turmoil’ and by The Economist as having ‘the sweep of a modern Paradise Lost’. Under the Dome has also received glowing reviews. The Sunday Times says it is ‘a remarkable achievement’; crime novelist Lee Child says ‘Seven words; the best yet from the best ever. America’s greatest living novelist delivers his masterpiece’ while the Irish Times says it is ‘utterly compelling’.
While I think attempts to define people as ‘the greatest living novelists’ or novels as ‘the novel of the century’ are sophistic, it was an interesting experience reading the two back-to-back. Franzen’s book is intimate, focusing on a love triangle that breaks a family apart. It is nuanced, thoughtful and mines deep into the workings of its three main characters. You can open any page and find a quotable paragraph that reveals Franzen’s mind analytically at work. Here is a random example:
Katz’s susceptibility to women over thirty-five was a source of some embarrassment. It felt sad and little sick in the way it seemed to reference his own lunatic and absent mother, but there was no altering the basic wiring of his brain. The kiddies were perennially enticing and perennially unsatisfying in much the same way that coke was unsatisfying: whenever he was off it, he remembered it as fantastic and unbeatable and craved it, but as soon as he was on it again he remembered that it wasn’t fantastic at all, it was sterile and empty; neuro-mechanistic, death-flavored.
Paragraphs like these are archetypal Franzen; with long and winding sentences using multiple clauses, the fascinating mix of everyday language (‘coke’, ‘kiddies’) and academic (‘neuro-mechanistic’, ‘reference’) and the self-torture as each character flays him or herself for our reading pleasure.
The novel starts and ends with neighbours; people on the outside looking in and judging his protagonists as they muddle along in their twenty-year relationship, getting things right and getting things spectacularly wrong. He invites the reader to judge them too and it is tempting: Katz, of the above paragraph, is an aging rocker, juvenile in his predilections; his friend Walter is a goody-two-shoes who gets his comeuppance by being too innocent and trusting, and his wife Patty is emotionally scattered and needy, loving Walter, lusting Katz and playing out all these emotions dangerously in her relationship with her son Joey.
Here are two neighbours contemplating the Berglands in the early pages of the novel:
Merrie Paulsen wasn’t entertained by Patty’s storytelling. Late in the evening, loading the dinner-party dishes into the dishwasher, she remarked to Seth that it was hardly surprising that Joey should be confused about the distinction between children and adults – his own mother seemed to suffer from the same confusion about which of the two she was. Had Seth noticed how, in Patty’s stories, the discipline always came from Walter, as if Patty were just some feckless bystander whose job it was to be cute?
“I wonder if she’s actually in love with Walter, or not,” Seth mused optimistically, uncorking a final bottle. “Physically, I mean.”
“The subtext is always ‘My son is extraordinary,’” Merrie said. “She’s always complaining about the length of his attention span.”
This neighbourly bitching frames the question the novel seeks to answer: is Patty in love with Walter physically? It also points to Franzen’s great theme of sub-text; how people say one thing, mean another and do something entirely different. He is fascinated by what drives people to make their choices and we watch in agony under his microscope as Patty, Walter and Katz do just that.
King’s Under the Dome also puts people under the microscope, but in his case it is a whole town. One autumn morning, the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill is cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. Food, water and electricity run short and the rules on which a quiet, decent town is built begin to shift and mutate. The Times appropriately said it is ‘something of an American Lord of the Flies’ and the reader senses that overpowering creepy logic that things are going to go horribly and violently wrong.
Under the Dome is a page-turner of the finest order and it gallops along at a breathless pace. But King is not called a master storyteller for nothing; while chasing his plot he also builds an array of characters whom the reader either loves and roots for or loathes and hopes for their comeuppance. He constructs a world so compelling that you are obliged to keep reading, pressing the accelerator against your more civilised instincts, because you just know the end is going to be ghastly and grim.
Novice writers need to study King’s dialogue. He could write an entire book just of dialogue, just so taut and snappy it is. Here’s a brief scene:
‘Cool, Mrs McClatchey,’ Benny said. He raised one hand. ‘Give me five, mother of my soul brother.’
Smiling wanly, still holding the picture of her husband, Claire McClatchey slapped Benny five. Then she said, ‘At least the town common’s a safe place.’ She paused to consider that, frowning slightly. ‘I hope so, anyway, but who really knows.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Norrie said. ‘I’ll watch out for them.’
‘Just promise me that if you do find something, you’ll let the experts handle things,’ Claire said.
Mom, Joe thought, I think maybe we’re the experts. But he didn’t say it. He knew it would bum her out even more.
‘Word up,’ Benny said, and held his hand up again. ‘Five more, o mother of my -’
This time she kept both hands on the picture. ‘I love you, Benny, but sometimes you tire me out.’
He smiled sadly. ‘My mom says the exact same thing.’
Stephen King is more than a master craftsman; he is a world-builder. Chester Mills and its inhabitants take up residence in the reader’s mind, showing us how humankind responds when things fall apart. King takes a grand theme and miniaturises it for his readers. Franzen miniaturises his even further, down to a world of three.
As a reader and a writer, I’m fascinated by both exceptional genre fiction like King’s and by literary fiction like Franzen’s. I know there are many readers out there who would choose one over the other, calling genre fiction prescriptive and literary fiction pretentious and that is their prerogative. I don’t see it as a literary versus genre debate. There is no duking it out. The reading world is big enough for all kinds of writing and I’m never happier than when I’m observing sheer writing talent in action.