In the Kingdom of Horror
ANOTHER YEAR, another big book from Stephen King. The Stand was originally published in 1978, but its new edition comes equipped with an additional 500 pages, bringing the total to 1,153. This contemporary tale of the devastation wreaked by a plague is generally regarded by King's fans as their favorite among his bedtime stories, although personally I'm fonder of the one in which the villain's head gets run over by a lawnmower.
King knows as well as anyone the charges that can be leveled against his work. In the preface to the new book he notes that "this expanded version will be regarded by some -- perhaps many -- as an act of indulgence . . . After all, many critics of the novel regarded it as bloated and overlong to begin with."
The revised Stand was an immediate No. 1 bestseller, which makes a review somewhat irrelevant. But if King's fans are buying it, are they also liking it? Henry Gershman of Columbia can supply an answer.
"I love it," he says. "I think it's really improved on his past work. The story is so epic, so tragic. It's a lot better than the original."
How devoted is Gershman, 40, to King? He's got all the books in many editions, adding up to several hundred copies. He also has as many of the newspaper and magazine articles featuring King as he can lay his hands on; limited editions; tapes of the movies; empty bookstore display stands for King novels.
"Half our bedroom is Stephen King stuff. It's like he lives there too. I have a million posters. I feature one a month. Right now, it's 'Pet Sematary.' It's a bloody eye. It doesn't look too nice. I try to keep it covered up when the kids come up."
Is Gershman's wife, Susan, some kind of saint? "She is, she is. She understands this is my thing. My little hobby. Some guys go out and drink, some do this and that, I read Stephen King."
Every writer should have such fans. Meanwhile, coming in about three months: Yet another huge book from Stephen King. Four Past Midnight is 765 pages, which means that each of the four stories is the length of a "normal" novel.
If the reviewers decide it is another bloated book, it probably won't matter to the fans, but King will be listening. In the Midnight preface he confesses: "I obsess over the possibility of bad reviews and brood over them when they come. But they don't get me down for long. I just kill a few children and old ladies, and then I'm right as a trivet again."
Asimov, From A to V
WHILE WE'RE on the subject of writing a lot, a nod must be given to Isaac Asimov. Forty years ago, he wrote and Doubleday published Pebble in the Sky. That was his first book, and since then he's done about 440 more. As a celebration of those four decades, Doubleday has issued a limited edition facsimile of the original Pebble, which still reads rather well. The opening sentence: "Two minutes before he disappeared forever from the face of the Earth he knew, Joseph Schwartz strolled along the pleasant streets of suburban Chicago quoting Browning to himself."
Long ago, of course, Asimov reached the point where he didn't have to do anything at all to publish more books. His hundreds of previous ones could instead be reassembled. This fall, for instance, will come the first volume of The Complete Stories, which Doubleday says "will ultimately contain every short story Asimov has ever published." Few writers of our time have been offered such a deal, or thought enough of every single one of their stories to take it.
Guilt by Reading
PRAMOEDYA Ananta Toer, whose novel The Fugitive is reviewed on page 7, has spent a large part of his adult life under one form of detention or another in his native Indonesia. At the moment, it's a form of town arrest.
Those who aren't internationally known may suffer more. The human rights organization Asia Watch reports that after a recent novel by the author was banned in 1988, a young student was caught trying to sell it. When Bambang Subono's house was searched, the military found a library copy of Gorky's Mother, translated by none other than Pramoedya. It was a friend of Bambang's, Isti Nugroho, who had checked the book out, so he was picked up too.
Isti, Asia Watch says, was tortured for this. For reading Pramoedya's books and discussing such subjects as the growing power of the state and the gap between rich and poor, Isti and Bambang were sentenced, respectively, to eight and seven years for subversion.
What is it about Pramoedya's work that the government fears? His novels, Asia Watch says, are accused by the government of surreptitiously spreading Marxist-Leninist themes through such sentences as "All the big rotten fish flock together to become power-wielders."
Taking the U.N. to Task
DOES ANYONE out there care about the United Nations? Ask many people, and the only image that will occur to them is Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table. Not exactly a bountiful harvest for 40 years.
Shirley Hazzard still cares. "We have to arouse public feeling. The public is maintaining this institution. It isn't only a waste of funds and human energies, but of the potential that was invested in the whole idea of an agency of international mediation."
Hazzard is most appreciated for her fiction -- The Bay of Noon and The Evening of the Holiday are considered among the best treatments of the foreigner-in-Italy theme since Henry James -- but her association with the U.N. began earlier. She worked there for about a decade, until 1962, and later wrote Defeat of an Ideal: A Study of the Self-Destruction of the United Nations. Last month, she returned to the subject again with Countenance of Truth: The United Nations and the Waldheim Case.
This latter effort uses former secretary-general Kurt Waldheim and his attempt to conceal his disreputable World War II past as a prism for analyzing this "unwieldy, inept and often foolish" organization. Just as Sherlock Holmes once solved a case because a dog didn't bark in the night, Hazzard traces her interest this time around to something that failed to happen: a reassessment of the U.N. after Waldheim.
Instead, she says, "I saw the whole thing again being pushed under the rug, and this was too much for me. That rug has the topography of the Alps by now. I think a serious place would have instituted a commission of inquiry. How did we get him? Why was he allowed to be re-elected? But there has been no inquiry."
Does she ever get the feeling that her struggle to arouse "a little proper indignation" is an uphill battle? "That in itself seems to me curious, because we still maintain the U.N. And it's a very costly affair. I don't know any institution that we talk this way about -- 'All right, tens of billions of dollars, but I don't care about it.' We don't talk this way about the electric company . . . "
Speaking of institutions, Hazzard professes a certain professional interest in the subject of offices. "Hundreds of millions of people around the world spend most of their waking life in them," she points out, "but almost nobody is writing about this in fiction. Even when characters do work in offices, it's often a profession that touches the intellectual sphere. But 99 percent of people have no such privileges. They're there to grind it out."
Joseph Heller's Something Happened comes to mind as a minor masterpiece of office life, but there are few others. Perhaps the reason is that most office lives, when converted to prose, would be impossibly dreary. Bad enough to spend your life answering the phone, filling out forms, chasing paperwork; who wants to read about it too?
"I don't believe this," says Hazzard. "If, in the early 19th century, someone had said one could write about closed French provincial life and make a great drama out of it, it wouldn't have been the most popular idea. We need our Flaubert to break through that barrier."
A Feast of Fisher
IT'S PROBABLY not worth calling the Consumer Police, but there's currently a rare instance of two publishers going head-to-head with the same copyright material. The author is M.F.K. Fisher, who has been increasingly saluted in recent years as the best American writer on food and its related pleasures.
Fisher's most famous work is the five volumes published individually between 1937 and '54 and later collected as The Art of Eating. Over the last two years, North Point Press has separated them into individual volumes again, republishing each in paperback. Now, owing to a contractual wrinkle, Collier has republished the omnibus. The one-volume version is about a quarter the price of the individual five, even if the latter are more attractive and easier to read from. In either case, what you get is 700 pages of sentences like this one, plucked more or less at random:
"As for dining-in-love, I think of a lunch at the Lafayette in New York, in the front cafe with the glass pushed back and the May air flowing almost visibly over the marble tabletops, and a waiter named Pons, and a bottle of Louis Martini's Folle Blanche and moules-more-or-less-marinieres but delicious, and then a walk in new black-heeled shoes with white stitching on them beside a man I had just met and a week later was to marry, in spite of my obdurate resolve never to marry again and my cynical recognition of his super-salesmanship."
In the Margin
KEVIN STARR's ongoing series, Americans and the California Dream (three volumes to date, with a fourth expected shortly and a fifth eventually), is being billed by Oxford as "the definitive history of Southern California," but the author rejects that label. "I'm working in a 19th century history-as-literary-art genre," he says. "In that sense, it's idiosyncratic. But it's not idiosyncratic in the sense it defies the external world" . . .
Classics revisited: Norfolk author Frank Guida has adapted a new version of "Romeo and Juliet," which he self-published. Here's how it ends: "Romeo and Juliet and all the people of Verona, Montagues & Capulets alike, lived long and happily ever after." Guida explained to his local newspaper that "many parents discourage their children from reading about two young people committing suicide. There's too much of that going on now."