One morning, as I walked on the quiet, mostly wooded King Mountain trail above San Francisco Bay, a dog not much smaller than I and possessed of much sharper teeth made straight for me, growling. I tried to get away; it butted me roughly. When its owner came around the bend with a second dog, I said, the snot from the first still gleaming on my pants, “You need to keep your dogs under control.” “My dogs are under perfect control,” the woman replied with asperity. The point was clear: She could control them but didn’t care to. She didn’t share my belief that a person should have exclusive jurisdiction over her body.
Indignant, I strode away through the live oaks and the bay trees and the coyote brush. My mind was on its own track. Decades ago, I spent several minutes with my left thigh inside the jaws of a boxer, an episode that left me jumpy about dogs in the same way that a series of threats and assaults has left me anxious about strange men. The encounter on the trail hadn’t just alarmed me—it had offended my principles. I passed by wood ferns, maidenhair ferns, sword ferns, without seeing them. All power, I reflected, can be understood in terms of space. Physical places, as well as economies, conversations, politics—all can be conceived of as areas unequally occupied. A map of these territories would constitute a map of power and status: who has more, who has less.
Spider-Man was the perfect superhero for the child of immigrants from London in the 1990s. He understood shame and guilt like I did.
Peter Parker’s dual identity—one moment the science nerd, the other as friendly neighborhood Spider-Man—spoke to me. I empathized with the way he code-switched between shyness in one life, and cockiness in the other. He wore different masks and spoke in different languages, a duality synonymous with that of the child of immigrants. Often, while trying to do good, he was caught in lies. He led a secret life. He was unpopular at school. He could have been me.
In 2014, Horace Engdahl, judge for the Nobel Prize for Literature, decried the hollow transgressiveness of the Western novel: “Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries, and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard—but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.” Engdahl attributes the toothlessness of the Western novel to the professionalization of the writing class; through grants, university appointments, residencies, or inherited wealth, many writers are able to cobble together enough of a living to avoid the real work most Americans do.
Of course, the hard-won right to make a living from the labor of writing is elusive for most American writers. But Engdahl speaks to a larger problem in the American novel since the last half of the twentieth century: work, and the psychological impacts of work, are rarely represented in fiction. Despite this, America has a rich literary history of labor narratives, particularly in the case of female writers, dating as far back as the mid-nineteenth century.
And with age I, like everyone, have lost far, far greater things. I’ve lost people. I’ve lost people I love, who sometimes I forget I lost, and then remember, and it hurts all over again.
I told the tech at the Apple Store this time, “Just give me a new hard drive. Send it out, send me back a clean slate.” There’s nothing on there I can’t replace. They’re just words. I can write new words. Not only will I replace them, I will write them with the hope that they’ll be even better this time.
With King’s permission, NAL began circulating Thinner with a credit that read, “Stephen King writing as Richard Bachman.” The following year, they reissued the previous Bachman titles in a volume titled The Bachman Books, with sales more in line with what publishers would expect from a King title. Film producers who had optioned The Running Man were ecstatic, since they had gotten a bargain Bachman price on the rights for a King product.
The only person unhappy with the reveal was the author himself. Bachman, King felt, was on the cusp of developing his own following and his own identity, and he had fully intended to continue publishing under the pen name. (King had planned on making Misery a Bachman tome.) But Thinner* had been too much of a King book, and there is evidence King himself may been giving himself too much rope with which to hang his alias. One of the characters in Thinner muses that “You were starting to sound like a Stephen King novel for a while there.”
Much of the book takes place in dark bars or on drizzling walks with friends of a similar age who argue with his assumptions. Sometimes all this comes off as a bunch of old Scandinavian men sitting around talking about a bunch of dead Scandinavian men. Certainly, this is not the book to read for glowing paeans to generous parental leave or the hottest new foraging chef or architecturally innovative bicycle bridges or any of the other things that have made Scandinavia the darling of lifestyle magazine editors the world over.
Instead, it offers something rarer: an engaging, layered look into a culture complex enough both to produce stylish rain gear and to embrace the foul weather that necessitates it.