Friday, 14 June 2013
The Worst Novel of 2013: Stephen King's Joyland
Every Stephen King fan has a wonderful memory of reading one of his books, the experience making you oblivious of all else as you become enveloped in the story, completely consumed with the characters, the plot, the sheer brilliance of the storytelling. For me those memories are clustered around my early teens when I first read King, reading Misery, The Shining, IT, Pet Sematary, Different Seasons, in a massive reading jag – I fell hard for King and there was nothing better than picking up one of his novels to pass the time. Movies, games, everything in fact, paled in comparison to the vivid chills and unforgettable characters King conjured up in his novels.
But the years passed and I discovered new writers who made me as excited as King did the first time I read him – Palahniuk, Bukowski, Coupland, the list goes on and on. I still read King every now and then but I found I liked him less and less the more I read, the older I got. Things came to a nadir when I read 2006’s “Lisey’s Story” a book so shockingly bad I couldn’t believe it was written by the same author of “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”. That put me off King for 5 years.
Since then the only things King wrote that I could finish were his short stories, some of which were decent, and, if they weren’t, at least they were over soon. The only King novel I’ve completed since “Lisey’s Story” was “Dolores Claiborne” and only then in the form of an audiobook accompanied by a long car ride. But, man, I hated "Dolores Claiborne" almost as much as "Lisey's Story" for having the same, irritating authorial voice that was for too in love with its own voice more than anything else.
I even thought the cause might be modern King versus classic King, so, after getting bored with and abandoning 11/22/63, I went back and read the only major King novel I hadn’t read back when I first discovered him – The Stand. But that too failed to entrance me! It took too long to get going, there didn’t seem to be a plot, and after 200 pages, I stopped and haven’t gotten back to finishing the remaining 1000 pages! So I think it’s a case of my reading tastes now and what they were back when I was much younger, nearly 20 years ago.
“Joyride” has suffered the same fate as every other King novel I’ve attempted reading in the last 7 years – I’ve abandoned it. Except this time, the experience was so terrible, so infuriating, that I officially will never again read, or pick up, a Stephen King novel.
“Joyride” is laughably published by Hard Case Crime, a line of books that publishes, yes, hard boiled noir. If “Joyride” is hard boiled noir, then I’m Cthulu the God of Madness. I heard awful things about his last HCC publication, “The Colorado Kid”, and it seemed that that too wasn’t really a crime novel, or if it was then it was a pitiful attempt at one. “Joyride” isn’t even an attempt at a crime novel, hard boiled noir or otherwise. It simply isn’t.
I was expecting a crime novel though from a few things I noticed before even reading it - the dedication is to Donald Westlake who wrote under the pseudonym Richard Stark. Richard Stark wrote the Parker novel "Slayground", a crime thriller that takes place in an amusement park. "Joyland" is edited by Charles Ardai who wrote the introduction to my edition of "Slayground". It's just a coincidence that the last book I read was "Slayground" (review here) that made me think this - but that's all it turned out to be, a series of coincidences as Richard Stark/Donald Westlake would never write something so absolutely boring.
It’s a coming-of-age story which isn’t something I’m against but after reading King’s treatment of it, I’m completely turned off of reading in the future. Devin Jones is our dull protagonist, telling his tale (from the present where he is a 60-something novelist) about his time in the early 70s when he was in his early 20s working a summer job in a fairground called Joyland.
Before I go any further, allow me to vent against this character, and all characters who’re similarly created by King. King is today a 60-something novelist from the American North-East – like Devin Jones. In the early 1970s, King was also in his early 20s – like Devin Jones. How many times is King going to make his main characters exactly like him? How many times have you read a Stephen King novel where the hero is a novelist? Off the top of my head: The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot, Misery, IT, Bag of Bones, Secret Window, Lisey’s Story, The Dark Half, and now Joyland. There’s probably more – I haven’t read them all, and I’m not going to go look up what other novels/short stories have a writer for a main character, but looking at that list, it’s a lot.
It’s shockingly lazy characterisation from King – fans of his often cite his ability to create meaningful and involving characters and yet so often he doesn’t even try creating original ones. The novel’s being written in the first person? Why not make “I”, myself? That’ll save me trying to create an original voice, it’ll save me having make an effort to create something new! If King had a shred of originality he’d take more chances – fine, write in the first person, but how about making the main character a 12 year old black kid in Brazil? Capturing that voice would be a challenge! Or how about a wheelchair-bound 20-something in a Siberian mining town? Or if you insist on setting all of your stories in mainland America – not a problem – how about picking someone from a completely different socio-economic background? America is the great melting pot, after all. Instead King just picks someone who is exactly like him in every way as his main character. It’s lazy, it’s egotistical, and, at this point, it’s beyond a joke.
So yeah back to Stephen King’s summer job – sorry, Devin Jones’ summer job in Joyland, a Southern amusement park. But WAIT! Before that, we have to read about his boring life as a student in a North-Eastern university. He’s seeing a girl he hasn’t had sex with; he works in the university cafeteria; his mum’s dead; why do we need to know any of this? No idea – why King just doesn’t start the novel with Devin starting work at Joyland, I don’t know. His entire backstory could be told in a page or two, but 30 pages? Where was the editor?
So now we’re in Joyland. But WAIT! We have to read more about Devin and his boring life. We have to read about his trip down South, his job interview, and his boring landlady whom he rents a room from. Through the landlady’s gosh-darnit-down-home blather, King attempts a half-assed ghost story angle by implying the park is haunted by a dead girl’s spirit (which, this being a King novel, I’m sure is real and the ghost shows up later on). Still no sign of that hard boiled noir this series is supposed to espouse. Oh well, at least we have King parodying his former glories – if only in passing.
Because NOW we’re in Joyland – and holy fuck, is it a boring place! Yes, after 50 pages or so of NOTHING, we’re now getting into the story proper. But not really because we see Devin learning how to operate the various rides and meet the carny folk who run it. After 30 pages (I almost typed years – my subconscious isn’t far off, it certainly felt that long) and passing the 80 page mark, I left the book on my table in the coffee shop and walked out.
I read the acknowledgments before abandoning the book entirely and King makes a point of remarking on the carny dialogue of the book, which ties into what made me hate this book so much. King’s writing style these days shows that he has abandoned the qualities that made his writing so interesting in the first place – character, story, pacing – in favour of the worst, most annoying dialogue you’ll ever read.
His characters are constantly spouting down-home, country sayings and gibberish. Factor in King’s new found love for carny-speech and, ugh, I couldn’t bear it anymore. While “Joyland”’s dialogue never sank to the depths of “Lisey’s Story”’s skull-crushingly stupid lexicon ("big sissa" "manda bunny" "bool" "blood bool" "bad bool" "great bool" "boo'ya moon" "bad-gunky" "yum-yum tree" "mothersmucker" "smucker" "babyluv" "Good Ma" "SOWISA" "Strap On Whenever It Seems Appropriate" "ah so" "numbah" – never, ever read “Lisey’s Story”!), it was certainly the most noticeable part of the story for its cheesiness. In fact, I’d guess the only reason King wrote this novel is so he could use the kind of dumb shit carny dialogue that peppers this garbage.
“Joyland” is as hard boiled noir as a Pink Panther cartoon. If it’s a horror novel, I’d compare it to Scooby Doo’s gentlest offering. It’s a pathetic coming of age disasterpiece where dreariness meets plodding, leaden storytelling. In the 80 pages I read I didn’t encounter a single character I cared to know about, a single scene I felt was even remotely interesting, and above all felt like I was reading the ramblings of an old man in love with the sound of his authorial voice – which is exactly what I was reading.
King is such a successful writer that no editor will touch his books and so the pages drone on and on relentlessly, telling you nothing of any interest. If a first-time writer were to submit this crap, it’d never get published, and if an editor did look at it, all of it would be cut. And yet people seem to love this stuff! I can’t believe the overwhelmingly positive amount of reviews this shite is garnering! What book was everyone else reading? Was hearing about Devin Jones’ dull summer job so fascinating?
The Stephen King of today is unrecognisable from the writer whose work I fell for when I was 12/13 years old – now at age 29, I cannot stand him. He’s boring. He can’t tell a good story – he doesn’t seem able to, nor does he seem much interested in telling one, even if he had one! He’s overly focused on corny dialogue to the exclusion of all else and his main characters are thoughtless facsimiles of himself.
The only crime I saw in “Joyland” was that such drek was published in the first place and the only joy I received was giving up on it. This is the last thing I read by Stephen King ever, I just can’t do it anymore, it’s too demoralising.
Fuck “Joyland” and fuck Stephen King.