::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Literary Criticism: Stephen King's "Quitters, Inc."
(Summary: A chance meeting at an airport lounge changes the life of business executive Dick Morrison. Morrison meets an old colleague, Jimmy McCanns, who appears fit, trim, and successful at his new firm. McCanns slides Morrison a business card of the outfit who helped him quit smoking. A few weeks later, the card for Quitters, Inc. falls out of Morrison’s wallet and he decides to make an appointment. Morrison enrolls after a meeting with Vic Donatti, his program director. Then he learns the real story: Quitters, Inc. has a sure-fire way to help its clients give up cigarettes. Donatti explains that Morrison will be watched 24/7 and if he smokes – they will kidnap his wife and electrocute her. The more he cheats, the longer the treatments for his wife and then child will get. Slip up 10 times and they will murder him. Morrison struggles, cheats once, and gets to watch his wife tortured. Amazingly, she understands. He beats the habit and then is told he’s gained too much weight. Start losing it, Donatti says, or they’ll cut off his wife’s pinkie. Morrison’s marriage is saved, he’s fit and trim and his career on track. So he gives the card to an acquaintance who asks for his secret. Months later, Morrison bumps into McCanns at a party. While shaking McCann’s wife’s hand, he notices she only has four fingers.)

Analysis: Stephen King is much maligned by the alleged guardians of literature. When the horror writer won the National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution” in 2003, the guardians got downright frothy.

“I've described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind,” wrote Harold Bloom, the distinguished literary critic from Yale.

Ouch. Hard to dismiss Bloom, a brilliant literary scholar, but his comment is unfair. Obviously, no one is going to mistake King for D.H. Lawrence, but King has contributed a lot to the world of letters – especially in horror and supernatural fiction.

King’s talent lies in uncovering the dark underbelly of the ordinary. For example, on the surface his novels “Cujo” and “Christine” are stories about a rabid dog and a car geek obsessed with his wheels. But running below both tales – and rippling like a snake – are dark, supernatural currents.

King’s short story “Quitters, Inc.” falls into this family. In this gem of a story, King takes self-help into a nightmarish realm. The beauty of “Quitters, Inc.” is its scope – its damnation of our results driven culture. Who cares about the methodology! Look at the outcome!

Basically, he “mobs up” Weight Watchers. And what hand-wringing fun it is to watch Dick Morrison crack down under the authoritarian rule. How after his mild protests, Dick succumbs to the terrorism and torture. Why not? Once his wife gives her approval (even after being subjected to shock treatment), what’s not to like about quitting cigarettes and losing weight?

Here’s the scene right after Dick’s wife is tortured and he has to tell her why it happened:

“When he had finished he was silent a moment and then said, ‘I suppose you hate me. I wouldn’t blame you.’

He was looking at the floor, and she took his face in both hands and turned it to hers. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t hate you.’

He looked at her in mute surprise.

‘It was worth it,’ she said. ‘God bless these people. They’ve let you out of a prison.’

What an indictment on the American way of life. King is skewering our first under any circumstances mentality – and with such wit.

There’s never a dull moment in King’s stories and “Quitters, Inc.” rips along at a fast pace. The best part of the story is that King lays it all out for the reader – gives us a long, hard look at the consequences and then we get to ride along with Dick and wonder where he’s going to end up.

The reader, in fact, becomes Dick Morrison. We feel his pain – his anguish and his fear. We’re even right there with him when he hands over the business card to another patsy who wants to quit smoking.

And that’s the fascination with “Quitters Inc.” We’re all in the rat race together and we’re all keeping score. So who amongst us didn’t feel smugly superior (despite the sudden jolt in the belly) to Jimmy McCanns when we learned his wife only had four fingers?

Isn’t that the real horror here?

Read our literary criticism of Guy de Maupassant

We've got a King Thing. Read about it here

Read our picks for the five scariest Stephen King novels

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Blogger SQT said...
King's books always fall into two parts for me-- the first 3/4ths and the ending. I almost always feel let down by the ending.

That said, I love his use of language. I remember watching "Shawshank Redemption" and being able to hear King's voice in Morgan Freeman's narration. His use of metaphor is his strength IMO.

Blogger M Schmidt said...
If you havent read 10:00 people yet give it a try - its a great hook along the Quitter's Inc vein.

Blogger GFS3 said...
Thanks for the recommendation because I haven't read it yet.

SQT: I've never been a huge fan of Shawshank Redemption. I know that won't go over big...

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