“The Incredible Lightness of Being”
Stephen King’s most recent published work, “The Turbulence Expert” in the anthology Flight or Fright (which he co-edited with yours truly), suggests the existence of people who prevent airplanes from crashing. It’s an uncharacteristically encouraging notion.
His new novella, Elevation, has an even more positive outlook, despite its setting: Castle Rock, a small town in Maine where terrible things have been happening for decades.
That’s not to say bad things aren’t happening to protagonist Scott Carey, forty-two, recently divorced and dealing with the repercussions of that life change. He’s living alone (with a cat) in a too-large house on Castle View, and he’s having problems with his new neighbors.
He’s also losing weight — although not mass — no matter how much he eats. He has the appearance of an overweight man who tips the scales something north of 240, but when the story opens on an October morning, his scale registers 212 and he’s dropping a pound a day.
Scott’s namesake in Richard Matheson’s novel The Shrinking Man started getting smaller after ingesting bug spray and subsequently being exposed to a radioactive cloud (as mentioned by a character in Elevation). The reason for this Scott’s mysterious change is unknown. He not even sure when it started because he got out of the habit of weighing himself. Unlike Matheson’s protagonist, he’s not getting smaller; he’s simply getting lighter.
His condition worries him enough to consult a doctor friend, who is at a loss for a rational explanation, especially when Scott puts weights in his pockets and the scales don’t change. Scott’s attitude toward the mystery is surprisingly cavalier. He embraces it, despite its obvious impossibility, buoyed in part by a lucrative gig designing a department store chain’s websites. He has a new spring in his step, and he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life being poked and prodded by specialists.
Weighing more heavily on his mind is the ongoing conflict with his neighbors. Deirdre McComb and Missy Donaldson are new to Castle Rock, the proprietors of Holy Frijole, a vegetarian Mexican restaurant. They’re struggling, mostly because they announced themselves as married lesbians. Any same-sex couple might experience problems in this conservative town in an ultra-conservative state, but residents particularly object to the “married” part.
None of that matters to Scott. What bothers him is that their boxers do their business on his lawn during their morning run. He has complained twice, but Ms McComb — whose default stance is defensive — thinks Scott is making things up to harass them. When he produces incriminating evidence, it only makes things worse. He doesn’t need to be friends with the women, but he doesn’t want to be on the outs with them either.
Elevation is about Scott’s awakening (in the contemporary parlance, he becomes “woke”). Every attempt he makes to smooth things over fails, but he begins to understand the challenges the women face and becomes an advocate for them and their restaurant. When he hears others in town disparaging them, he refuses to remain silent, confronting small-minded people, even though no one asked him to do so.
Scott comes up with a last-ditch scheme to break the ice with his neighbors that involves the annual Turkey Trot 12k run, a post-Thanksgiving fundraiser for the town’s Recreation Department. His affliction turns into a secret weapon in his struggle to bury the hatchet.
The main question, though, is where and how will Scott’s weight loss end? In Matheson’s story, the protagonist keeps getting smaller but never quite vanishes. What will happen to Scott when the scales — like Christine’s odometer — reach zero and gravity relinquishes its hold on him altogether?
Elevation tackles political and social issues without being overly preachy, although it’s obvious on which side King comes down on most matters. Ultimately, the novella is about accepting the inevitable and striving to do good — and encouraging others to do and be good, too. It has the euphoric sense of Pixar’s Up and Joe Hill’s “Pop Art” — uplifting, touching, charming and melancholy. Easily the most optimistic tale King has ever written.
- Elevation takes place after Gwendy’s Button Box and contains a reference to an incident from that novella.
- Stephen King has published some massive tomes in his day; this isn’t one of them. It may set the record for the smallest King hardcover publication.
- The book features illustrations at the beginning of each chapter by Mark Edward Geyer, as well as a full-page illustration at the front depicting Dum and Dee, the two boxers who are the story’s catalyst.
- Although Castle Rock was supposedly destroyed at the end of Needful Things, the small Western Maine town is doing well, especially during tourist season, and has been mentioned in several novels since Leland Gaunt departed. King’s version is faring considerably better than its counterpart on the recent Hulu series of the same name.
- The most conspicuous crossover to the SK Universe is the #19 worn by Deidre McComb, both during the New York City Marathon and the Castle Rock Turkey Trot. Of course, no one will miss the garage band that rebrands itself Pennywise and the Clowns for Halloween.
- Readers will be reminded of Thinner, in which a character suffers a similar weight loss, counted down throughout the novel like Scott Carey’s height is in The Shrinking Man. Thinner, though, was a Bachman book and those are never uplifting!
- Former Castle Rock Sheriff George Bannerman has a road named for him. In Hulu’s Castle Rock, Sheriff Alan Pangborn has a bridge dedicated to him.