Novel * Stephen King * Aging, Auras, and Abortion * 1994
Insomnia is an odd book to write about within the context of this project. It doesn’t fit neatly into a dystopia/disaster/apocalypse category because it’s not really about any of those things. That said, it shares elements with all of those things (well, maybe not the dystopia bit unless we consider the ‘90s as a whole a dystopia) and deals in themes that should be considered when thinking about the decline and fall of things. That may sound a little heavy-handed, but these are the themes that most of King’s novels deal with in one way or another. It is also important to note that the story told here is deeply intertwined with the overall Dark Tower saga, which is, of course, King’s magnum opus which deals with entropy and loss much more directly. Okay! Now that I’ve justified writing about this book to myself, let’s move on.
The story of Insomnia is about an older gentleman named Ralph Roberts who has recently lost his wife and is trying to come to terms with both the loss of his lifelong companion and his own impending mortality. We’re off to a cheery start! That said, Ralph is one of my favorite King protagonists. While I think that it’s something of a bold choice to use a man in his 70s as the hero of the story, Ralph’s age and experience make for a grounded perspective when it comes to the weirder elements of the narrative. Also he’s just a chill old man with a decent sense of humor, and I appreciate that. Most of the other principal characters are also in their sunset years, which makes for a nice change of pace (considering most protagonists I’ve read lately tend to be younger than me, which, ugh). There are a lot of places in this story which touch on what a bummer it is to get older, but do so without being obnoxious about it. King presents the old folks as actual people, and it’s a subtle, natural reminder to be nicer to your grandparents. That said, it’s still gross when old people talk about fucking.
Having such grounded, natural characters is especially important in this novel, because man, this thing goes some places. General weirdness shouldn’t come as a surprise to long-time readers of Stephen King, I mean it’s kind of his thing. However, Insomnia treads in some very metaphysical waters as opposed to the more supernatural fare readers might be more accustomed to. As the title indicates, the story begins with Ralph’s inability to get a proper night’s sleep. Each morning he wakes up a little earlier than the day before until he’s lucky to get a couple hours in before waking up at one in the morning. After a while, he starts seeing auras around people like he’s some kind of old hippie. Turns out, there’s this whole other layer of reality closely aligned to this one which most people cannot see. There’s nobody for Ralph to really talk about this with, of course, so the poor guy spends the first half of the book assuming he’s either going crazy or senile.
Meanwhile, there’s a bad business going down in Ralph’s hometown of Derry, Maine. Long-time readers of Stephen King know that anytime a story is set in Derry, bad shit is going to go down. It’s like the Hellmouth of King’s fiction. Anyway, this time the brewing storm is centered around the abortion “debate.” A local woman’s clinic (like a fake Planned Parenthood) is concerned over the city council attempting to use zoning laws in order to close the clinic (huh, sounds familiar) and in response they try to recruit a fictional feminist to come speak on their behalf. This spurs the local pro-life groups to action, and they are initially led by a friend of Ralph’s named Ed Deepneau. This man is a crazy person. Like, deeply unwell to the point where he attacks his wife and loses all sense of real life. As it happens, there are other forces at work here which basically hijack people to orchestrate plans and conflict on other planes of existence. Yes, it gets weird and the pro-life/pro-choice conflict isn’t what the story is actually about. King does a pretty good job of staying above the debate and remaining relatively neutral during these scenes.
The question remains, of course, why bring up the whole abortion thing in the first place? I mean, if anything is going to make people uncomfortable right away, it’s that, right? And while that’s kind of the point – King certainly doesn’t shy away from challenging his readers at times – the most important reason for using this particular issue as a flashpoint for the higher-level conflict is the irrationality of the debate itself. The debate surrounding abortion always comes down to a single, intransigent point: faith. And you can’t argue with faith. I mean you can, obviously, but what’s it going to get you? In an attempt at clarity, I am not referring to a particular religion, here, but any deeply held belief system. And this is where King is actually pretty deft when dealing with this issue. Like I said, he doesn’t come down on one side or the other, and both factions are shown to be driven mostly by emotion and belief to the point of violence. Most of the principal characters, whatever they think about the issue, are shown to be reasonable, rational people who refuse to get sucked into the crazy-on-crazy “arguments” and fret over the consequences of this kind of mass hysteria.
It’s the mob scene that occurs towards the end of the novel that demonstrates the late-20th-century worries over the health of civilization, and that’s the main reason King uses this particular conflict to merge into the greater tale of entropy seen in The Dark Tower. Once passions rise high enough in any society, bad things tend to happen. Submitted as evidence: any civil war in pretty much any country throughout history. Sometimes these conflicts strengthen a society and resolve serious issues. Other times they can lead to genocide and hasten the dissolution of the entire society. Either way, internal conflicts are still massively disruptive and damaging to civilization in general. As the great sage Axl Rose once said: “what’s so civil about war, anyway?” Now, the issue of abortion is unlikely to lead to this kind of wide-scale, national conflict which King himself acknowledges. However, the issue does evoke the larger and more intractable problem that continues from this point in 1994 to our current time, which is to say the divide between red and blue America. Once people start internalizing separate cultural differences based on politics, which is weird and frankly irrational, we start getting into an unhealthy place as a society. Division leads to instability leads to collapse.
Which brings us to Ralph and his old-age wisdom. One of the things I like best about old Ralph is that his character demonstrates how such stereotypes are nonsense. For most of the novel, Ralph has no idea what the fuck is going on. He’s as baffled and weirded-out by the various goings-on as anyone else would be in his positon, and that has nothing to do with “getting on in years” or “having a senior moment.” Throughout the story, Ralph is shown to be a clear thinker who is coming to terms with a strange situation the best he can. Yet at the same time, he does have the advantage of life experience to draw from, but the ways in which this experience is demonstrated perhaps subverts expectations. Ralph has a lot of memories, and they float up from time to time in more of a wistful, contemplative way rather than in an instructive manner. At no point does he reflect on a past event and then remembers how to solve a problem. Rather, Ralph’s age and experience lend a depth and a melancholy to the events of the story. When Ralph’s friends are marked for death by the tiny little psycho Atropos, Ralph’s perfectly natural visceral fear for them is tempered by a sense of losses already accrued. He’s desperate to save them not only because he’s already lost so much, but because future loss is certain without an evil little gremlin hastening the situation. Yet at the same time the inevitability of mortality that becomes more and more real with each passing day allows Ralph to enjoy the here-and-now more. It’s this duality which in the end allows Ralph to make the sacrifice he does in the end.
All Things Serve The Beam
Okay, it’s time to talk briefly about The Dark Tower and Insomnia’s place in the overall fiction, so if you don’t want to hear how that series turns out, probably don’t read this. Right. Now, if you’ve read the final Dark Tower novels, you may recall a point where Roland is speaking with various members of the Tet Corporation about the final stage of the journey. Roland is given a book, which is revealed to be none other than Insomnia, and is told that this novel is a keystone story. Eventually Roland discards the book without reading it, but King’s inclusion of the book is tantamount to telling the reader “hey, probably read this thing.” While many of King’s novels touch on the story of the Tower, he specifically calls this one out. Why? I have a couple of ideas.
The first is a general reason. Insomnia spends a lot of time ruminating about various planes of existence, starting with the auras and rising up through levels of the Tower to embrace long-time entities such as the “little bald doctors.” Everything that happens outside of immediate reality occurs within the greater context of The Dark Tower, all the way up to the introduction of the Crimson King. We eventually learn that major forces are at work in Derry, and that all that abortion biz I talked about up there is actually totally irrelevant considering the overall implications of what would happen should the Tower fall. Obviously, this is all quite beyond poor Ralph and Lois who are just trying to keep a bunch of people from dying in their town. This novel lends a depth and richness to the Dark Tower’s overall mythology while simultaneously standing on its own as a story of personal growth and loss.
The second reason is to mitigate the problem of dues ex machina, which was an issue that I kind of ignored while thinking about The Dark Tower’s ending. If you recall, Roland only manages to defeat the Crimson King and ascend the Tower by using the peculiar talents of Patrick Danville, a character that is thrust into the plot at the very end of Roland’s journey and serves only this one purpose. In a further meta move, this is clearly called out by King within the book. That’s why I gave it a pass, but felt kind of weird about it, as the deus ex business didn’t really seemed earned, but was at least acknowledged. I would have felt better about it at the time if I had remembered Insomnia. This book sets up Patrick’s appearance at the end of Roland’s journey and gives The Artist a reason to exist. After all, the entire conflict between The Random and The Purpose is over the one thing that allows Roland to succeed in his quest (kind of). In this sense, there was no real reason for Roland to read Insomnia in the context of his story and he was perhaps wise to toss it (also it weighs a lot). That said, King is also correct in suggesting people read this in tandem with the Dark Tower books as it helps the ending out a bit.