A lot comes to mind when the name Stephen King is mentioned: his astonishing success and appeal as a writer; the longevity of his career; his imperviousness to the criticisms of anything that smacks of literary elitism; his boundless, inexhaustible narrative imagination; his stamina; his willingness to creep and crawl around inside the nastiest parts of human nature and treat each of his characters with integrity; the mind-boggling length of many of his novels (sigh); his profound decency; and, more recently, his no holds barred Twitter battle (I don’t subscribe to Twitter but this epic confrontation is reported everywhere online) with Donald Trump.
For all of these reasons, his recent book, Elevation, is an inspired choice and, I’m sure, a surprise to his readers. It’s as though, after weeks and months of responding to the disjointed, irrational and mean-spirited ravings of Mr. Trump’s tweets, and despairing at the state of things at home and abroad, King decided that the world could use some inspiration (and maybe he needed some too).
Thus, he came up with Elevation, published in 2018, which I consider a novella. After all, in King’s writing universe, 145 pages is a post-it note. It’s one of my sons who lent me a copy he received as a Christmas gift. He read it in a day; I made it last a couple.
I think that rather than take on the weighty problems of a country, a continent or the whole planet (which cause him so much concern). King decided to focus once again on Castle Rock, Maine, the locus of so many of his novels. Elevation is an intimate story with a limited cast of characters, the most important of whom is Scott Carey, a big, tall, slightly overweight, successful web designer in his early forties, who is “amicably” divorced from his wife Nora, who now lives in Arizona.
From the first pages of the novel, we sense that Scott is a kind and decent person. We also find out, almost immediately, that he’s afflicted with a condition that baffles even his good friend and retired M.D., Doctor Bob Ellis. It seems that Scott has been losing weight for a while, at a rate that’s increasing. His, and now Dr. Ellis’ bewilderment is due to the fact that though so far, he has lost more than 40 pounds (and counting), he doesn’t appear to have lost an ounce. In fact, the bulge of flesh that sits over the belt of his trousers is still there, as displeasing as ever.
Scott’s weight, which is dropping every day, has come untethered from his mass. Put simply, if the trend continues, while his appearance will likely remain unchanged, Scott will eventually weigh nothing—and no longer respond to the forces of gravity the way all humans do. What’s more, anything he carries, say, in his pockets—even something as dense as gold— or that he stays in physical contact with, becomes subject to the same phenomenon, and temporarily takes on the properties of Scott’s body, thus leaving his weight unchanged.
It’s a rather terrifying conclusion that he and Ellis arrive at, but Scott makes his old friend promise to reveal nothing about his condition to anyone, his thinking being that it’s beyond anything science and the medical community can possibly grapple with. Besides, Scott has no intention of living the next part of his life as a glorified science experiment.
His old friend agrees, perhaps convinced by Scott’s logic, but more likely because Scott is clearly at peace with what’s happening to him, and, against all reason, appears rather happy.
But Scott’s equanimity is put to the test almost immediately when, for the umpteenth time, he watches his new neighbours, a married lesbian couple, Deirdre McComb and Missy Donaldson, who own Holy Frijole, the newest restaurant in town, turn a blind eye as their dogs “do their business” on Scott’s lawn. When he goes out to speak to them about it, he gets a sour face, snarky reaction and cold shoulder from Deirdre.
But Scott lets none of this phase him, and so, when the subject of the two “lesbeans” (and much more vulgar terms) comes up not long after at Patsy’s Diner, the favourite spot of the men of CRPW (Castle Rock Public Works), he takes it upon himself to defend the married couple, ready to brawl with one of the city workers if need be.
As reviewer Ron Charles explains in his critique of Elevation:
“Most of Castle Rock — a solidly Republican town — is willing to tolerate lesbians, but married lesbians?
“That’s a deal-breaker for lots of folks,” an acquaintance tells Scott. “The county went for Trump three-to-one in ’16 and they think our stonebrain governor walks on water. If those women had kept it on the down-low they would have been fine, but they didn’t. Now there are people who think they’re trying to make some kind of statement.”
Given that embedded bigotry, Scott’s modest crusade for social enlightenment may be naive, but it couldn’t be more relevant. “
In fact, a large segment of the town’s population is boycotting Holy Frijole, and if nothing changes, Deirdre and Missy’s restaurant will soon fail.
This is the only direct reference to the Trump presidency in the novel, but King’s message is clear: keeping one’s identity “on the down-low’ in order to live in peace is anathema, and unacceptable to him as an American.
As Scott’s body becomes lighter and lighter, so does his spirit. He decides that he will make peace with Deirdre by entering the Castle Rock Turkey Trot, a 10k run and annual fall event in Castle Rock that Deirdre, an elite runner, is favoured to win.
And it’s here that I have to be careful, lest I tell you too much. The effects of Scott’s lightness and strength during the race are: “[…] Not a wind, not even a high, but an elevation. A sense that you had gone beyond yourself and could go farther still.”
Later that day, after the race, Scott ruminates: “If there were rules to what was going on, he didn’t understand and didn’t care to. His outlook remained optimistic, and he slept through the night. Those were the things he cared about.”
The metaphor of elevation is explored throughout the novel in beautiful ways and touched me deeply at this moment of my life. King’s novella is not only good reading, it’s good for the heart and soul, which is why I think it belongs in this blog’s Bibliotherapy category as well. Enjoy Elevation. I think it’s a work of literature that will give in relation to what you bring to it.
“The night was cold, chilling the sweat on his face, but the air was as sweet and crisp as the first bite of an apple. Above him was a half-moon and what seemed a trillion stars.
To match the trillion pebbles, just as mysterious, that we walk over every day, he thought. Mystery above, mystery below. Weight, mass, reality: mystery all around.”
– Stephen King, from Elevation