Reading The Tommyknockers Again as an Adult

I’m 37 and gravity works on me. I don’t run marathons or have talent for the feminine arts. I haven’t brought forth life, but I’m thickening through the middle and losing elasticity anyway. I’ve experienced the dizzying fall from being fresh-faced, coltish, and treated like a minor celebrity in a crowded bar just for being a pretty girl. Now I’m tromping around in the shallow end of the dating pool, faded and invisible. It’s only going to get worse from here, but that’s ok. I was prepared for this decades ago by Stephen King’s novel, The Tommyknockers.

 Part One:  Bobbi Anderson’s Last Fuckable Day

Before I re-read The Tommyknockers earlier this month, all I could remember was the sex scene between Jim Gardener and Bobbi Anderson. Jim remembered her body from before, but now she was actually turning into an alien. She was shorter, stumpier, with see-through skin, no teeth, and her breasts turning into a sort of uniboob slab lying on her torso. He could recognize her from before, but just barely. It was literally her last fuckable day (thank you Amy Schumer for this term), because her vagina was turning into a mass of tentacles.

I read this the first time I was eleven or twelve, mind you. The Tommyknockers was published in 1988 when I was ten. My brother was three years older. My mom worked at a bookstore. She would have used her discount to buy him a copy when it came out in paperback. He would have wolfed it down and left it lying around. That’s when I would have got my hands on it.

It was just one of many things I read that I was too young to read. I don’t know how carefully I read it, because I mostly just remembered that sex scene. Back then, any kind of sex was a grotesque to me. Vanilla sex was a little stomach-turning. So sex in the woods, with one of the participants well on her way to becoming an alien—that stuck with me. And then after getting breasts, starting my period, gaining weight, losing weight, gaining weight, thinking about eggs, and starting to feel old, I remembered—Tommyknockers, Tommyknockers, knocking at the door.

Part Two:  Hey, that Sex Scene Was Gratuitous!

I picked up The Tommyknockers again on a lark. I planned to just skim through it and find that sex scene again, but I was shellacked by the first couple pages. Bobbi was 37, exactly my age! The book starts with her as a normal human woman, looking in the mirror and reflecting on how she’s not 25 anymore, and assessing how her body has changed and how she holding up. We’re in her head, she’s smart and mirthful, a bit of an over-thinker. She has her period and Stephen King casual and unflinching about it. It’s funny. Well, I’ll be damned, Stephen King. Spot on.

Our time in Bobbi’s head ends on page 67; that’s 9.3% of the way through the book. By the time the sex scene with Jim Gardener rolls around on page 502, we’re long accustomed to seeing Bobbi from the outside. She’s an inscrutable object. She’s as much a machine as the contraptions she makes now that she’s juiced on alien energy and turning into an alien herself. Jim watches her for signs of the old Bobbi and we see recurring flickers of her humanity, but it’s only ever from the outside. When they have sex, it’s only from Jim’s perspective, marveling at how her body has changed.

The sex scene itself, I see now, is dumb. It’s totally uneccessary. It’s just a sensational little fillip tossed into the narrative. Jim and Bobbi were only ever good friends (and ex-lovers) in the rest of the book. They never needed to actually have sex in order for Bobbi’s changes or their unraveling connection to be illustrated.

Still, I love realizing that the book starts out from Bobbi’s point of view and then takes her voice away from her for the entire rest of the story. In a way that’s the most subversively feminist thing Stephen King could have done, intentionally or not.

 Part Three:  Ruth McCausland, the Real McCoy

I forgot all about Ruth McCausland until I re-read the book, but she might be the more interesting female character to dwell on. We saw Bobbi’s physical changes through Jim’s eyes. We see Ruth watch her own mind change, from the inside. The part of The Tommyknockers that jumps inside Ruth is a long set piece in the middle of the book. She’s fifty, she’s the town constable, she’s a bit of an eccentric loner but she is loved and respected by the town. She’s had to deal with childlessness and solitude and aging. I really like this portrayal of her, and I think it’s empathetic. One of my favorite parts is when King writes, “She was not as calmly happy about her work as she seemed to the people she was working for. It would have taken a child to completely fulfill her. There was nothing surprising or demeaning in this. She was, after all, a child of her own time, and even the very intelligent are not immune to a steady barrage of propaganda.” That’s good. I laughed out loud. It’s a little mean, but so is life. I think King gets away with writing with intimate sarcasm without seeming dismissive. He’s a mimic, and it feels like he’s taking a break from channeling a folksy male novelist in order to tongue-in-cheek channel a white 1980s female novelist like Anne Tyler. I’ve read a lot of those books too, and the strength of King’s parody is a form of respect in my eyes. I know I might be giving him too much credit. I don’t care.

 Part Four:  A Tale of Two Writers

The book starts with Bobbi Anderson and veers to other people like Ruth McCausland, but the continuous main character is Jim Gardener. Threaded throughout the book in Jim’s mind, in our minds, is this theme: Jim is just such a fucking loser. Jim almost killed himself and then he didn’t. Jim maybe should have just killed himself already. So everything else that happens is just extra. It’s gravy. He’s on borrowed time, he’s a drunk, who cares if he dies. This builds even as we get to know and love Jim more and more.

I think this is a tale of two writers. Bobbi Anderson was the workmanlike, sane writer who batted out one Western after another and made a decent living. I think Stephen King thinks of Bobbi as the same sort of writer he is. Probably capable of literary writing, but mostly a craftsman who knocks out crowd-pleasers.

Jim Gardener is like the short story writer and poet, Raymond Carver. Completely literary. Like Jim Gardener, Carver was brilliant and at times a wreck. He was earthy but lived impractically. His writing was understated and lethal. He was a drunk and he died too young, just like Jim Gardener. I know that Stephen King admires Raymond Carver, because I went to a lecture of King’s when I was 20 and he told us that. Then he read us a story he wrote purposely in the style of Raymond Carver. It was called “L.T.’s Theory of Pets” and got a bit ghoulish near the end.

I love Raymond Carver too, ever since 8th grade. I was in Southeast Alaska and his coastal poems and stories were my first experience with great writing that was regional in a way I could feel. It was a slowness and the way the words sounded together as much as the imagery. I heard traces of Raymond Carver throughout The Tommyknockers, reading it again. I think Stephen King’s horror works because he imbues his stories with enough real life, earthy horror and real life humor that it matters to us—who lives, who dies, who falls to pieces mentally.

It’s Bobbi Anderson (the genre writer) who knocks out a literary tour de force with alien help. The typescript amazes Jim (the poet) almost more than anything else that happens. It’s by far her best work. Jim, on the other hand, just does manual labor, drinks, and her mopes nervously until the end. But then, it’s largely Jim’s own thoughts and actions that telegraph the story to the reader.

Conclusion                                                                                                                      

I went back to The Tommyknockers because I was dogged by the body horror. I went back because it sounded like an entertaining way to do due diligence on an essay I wanted to write for annoyed-at-life, feminist reasons. But I came away with a bushel of other stuff. As an ex-lover once said to me in a relationship post-op, all that really matters in the end is the writing. All pain is fodder for storytelling. All writers are cameras. Maybe I used to play the visible ingénue, but even then I was an observer first. And I can keep that game up until I’m a gnarled crone.

Jughead #1: A Ballet of Ground Beef

Was there ever a more promising set-up than the blithe, goofy team of Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson let loose on teenaged oddball, Jughead Jones? The hype for Jughead #1 may have been mostly in my head, but it was a strong and rising drumbeat. It was fueled by the winningness of Mark Waid and Fiona Staples on the all-new Archie comics. It was stoked by the charming tagline “More than just burgers. But mostly burgers.” And then I got it, the comic itself, a floppy full of color and pop-pop-pop playfulness. But whether this Jughead run will live up to its own promise is another question, as Zdarsky and Henderson monkey with basic Jughead physics.

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The Mark Waid and Fiona Staples Jughead whetted our appetite

Zdarsky and Henderson are at their gleaming best on the two pages when Jughead discovers that you can make food, and that there are classes in his high school where useful things can be learned, such as making food. This is funny both for commitment to a gag, and for Henderson’s visual storytelling. In one panel, Jughead has his back turned to Betty and the home economics teacher (and us)—his hands are up, he’s casting a dramatic shadow on the wall, and he says “—SO, if this a class… can you teach me to make…” and then the next panel zooms in ridiculously close to his face as he looks over his shoulder slyly, cocks an eyebrow, and says “…Hamburgers?” It’s laugh out loud funny and probably makes the whole issue. Jughead turns out to be a prodigy in the kitchen, prompting the line “It was a ballet of ground beef” by a stunned onlooker, but when he’s done he just doffs his apron mic-drop style and leaves. Jughead doesn’t give a damn. He has his own agenda.

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“You can MAKE food?”

The problems of the new run are also inherent in this nicely executed moment. Betty Cooper seems like a total dud. Jughead is more excitable and wide-eyed than we’re used to seeing him. The storytelling is dancy and flirty, but the story flirts with being flimsy and tinny.

The other denizens of Riverdale High have always been straighter than Jughead. All of Riverdale is Jughead’s straight man, so the other characters and their concerns have to have a little weight to them for it to work. With the focus wrested off normal high school drama and placed on Jughead hijinks, Jughead is in danger of sucking all the air out of the room. The other kids seem pale, vapid, pointless. Waid and Staples preserved the old formula more easily, because their series is called Archie, not Jughead. In Archie, Jughead strolls through the mundane halls flinging one-liners over his shoulder like casual hand grenades. Jughead is on the edge of things and part of his magic is that he is also at the center of things.  But there has to be this pass at earnestness that the reader buys into—in order to set a Jughead-worthy stage for the contrast that Jughead provides. Jughead doesn’t shine when all is Jughead. This is the problem in giving Jughead his own series, and maybe Zdarsky and Peterson will mellow their way into a solution in future issues.

Odd Man Out
“Jug is a weirdo!”

Another problem is that Zdarsky’s Jughead immediately betrays his Jughead nature by getting worked up about something. He’s theatrically upset about the food in the cafeteria changing because there’s a new principal. That’s the whole plot line of the issue, and it’s both more mature and less mature than the Waid and Staples All-new Archie run. It’s less mature because it’s more bright and kiddish, without the teenage concerns of love, money, and saving face taking center stage. But it’s more mature because it streaks through thumbing its nose at that banal stuff, saying “We’re too smart to be anything but dazzlingly child-like! This is what it looks like when something is deceptively simple but actually quite sophisticated!!” Just like Jughead, but with more oomph.

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Erica Henderson’s excitable Jughead

And oomph is a lot of this. Zdarsky’s writing is energy-packed, funny, and full of verbal Easter eggs. Erica Henderson’s art is very much in line with the chipper, wide-eyed enthusiasm of her Squirrel Girl. But Squirrel Girl is a wide-eyed character, and Henderson’s stylistic tendency to draw people with tons of white showing in their eyes (and pin-prick pupils) doesn’t fit as well with Jughead. Jughead is famous for barely keeping his eyes open. That’s part of his running gag. We see it in the Jughead strip by Samm Schwartz in 1949 (included in the back of this issue), which is full of physical humor. Schwartz keeps Jughead heavy-lidded and bored-looking even as Jughead flails and pinwheels through emergency situations. It makes everything funnier.

Jughead's excitable cousin, Squirrel Girl
Jughead’s excitable cousin, Squirrel Girl
Classic Jughead half-mast eyes (Samm Schwartz)
Classic Jughead half-mast eyes (Samm Schwartz)

Other ways that Schwartz showcases slapsticky comedy in the historical strip is that he holds the panels steady in size, shape, and organization. He holds the size of the figures steady within the panels (no panning in and out, camera-style), and the background colors are muted and held steady in the scenes. This lets the funniness flicker along like a flip book. The old strip is wordy and clever too (like Zdarsky’s writing), but the restraint shown both in Jughead’s facial expressions and in the visual story-telling of the panels lets the right things pop. I realize that comics storytelling has evolved since then, but there is still a need to manage energy, detail, and attention for maximum effect.

I didn’t find a good image of the strip in the back of Jughead #1, but here’s another Samm Schwartz slapsticky page

If it seems lame to pick at this frothy confection of a comic book, well—yeah, I can see that. Zdarsky and Henderson do have chemistry, and they have come up with something fun. Zdarsky’s cozy letter to readers in the back does make it tempting to just be like “Oh Chip! Everything you do is amazing!” But I think most of the real fun of re-booting Riverdale (whether by Waid/Staples or Zdarsky/Henderson) is that it is a big experiment. And we should be allowed to get in on that by taking Riverdale apart and figuring out how it works, and how it works best.

LIKE A VIRGIN: The all new Archie series!

archie 1

After 75 years and a zombie spin-off, Archie Comics has started again back at Riverdale High, on issues 1, 2, and 3 (so far). With the fresh eyes and star power of Mark Waid and Fiona “Faces I Crush On” Staples, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the series reboot was clever and fun, but not a very Archie new Archie. But Waid and Staples have created the Archiest of Archie comics, making it a sheer pleasure to meet everyone again, this time all the way back at the beginning of the story.

Archie Comics were my comics when I was a little kid, but when I came back to comics as an adult, I didn’t feel like I could admit that to anyone. In a way, I was surprised that Archie Comics even still existed. I glanced over recent (triple-digit) issues of the legacy Archie comics, and the new Afterlife with Archie for zombie lovers, and I found them both off-putting. In one version of reality the old neighborhood had changed beyond recognition. In another, things were too eerily unchanged.

I bought Archie comics at the grocery store when I was a kid, and maybe that gave them the lasting sense of being a commodity, under-valued even though I loved them. Maybe I thought they were a little lame even then, like I knew it was part of some childhood yen for bright objects and plastic toys. My older brother systematically reinforced my feeling that I had bad taste in pop culture, and I transitioned from Archie straight to Seventeen magazine with a sort of normcore acquiescence.

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But when I came back to comics over twenty years later, I still wanted to feel what I felt reading Archie. I looked elsewhere for the Archie spirit and found it in She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel, Gotham Academy, and Rumble. It’s physical comedy, goofy wordplay, bright colors and youthfulness. It’s smart enough to slide down easy, smart without seeming to want that label.

In ways I wouldn’t have even thought possible, Waid and Staples bring Archie into today while preserving the wacky high school hijinks of the original. The hyuk hyuk jokes, the pratfalls, the aw-shucks body language, the cartoonish vocabulary of sounds and symbols are all there. There are little updates—some relief from relentless whiteness, the jalopy is of a 1980s vintage, people text—but these updates merge seamlessly with the old-timey silliness.

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Archie still has cross-hatched orange hair, and Jughead still has a crown, but the characters have more expressive, detailed faces than they did back in the day. Especially with Betty and Veronica, Staples makes a good compromise between the scooped-out tweety-bird faces of the old Archie comics and the chiseled nuance of the faces she draws in her Image series, Saga.

Maybe the best thing is the dry-witted Jughead. Seeing him with that little injection of Staples sexiness makes me realize maybe he was sexy and central all along. Maybe I was just too young to appreciate him. Maybe I just forgot about him? Now I have a crush on Jughead and think he would be played by a young John Cusack or Joseph Gordon Levitt. Someone tired-looking and acerbic, yet somehow jaunty.

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I don’t know if the all new Archie was written for actual tweens, or just for people like me who are nostalgic and may have peaked in high school (ahem!). I don’t care. They aged my childhood forward, floated over all the hurdles of hokiness and shabbiness, and gave me something bright and beautiful to enjoy all over again.

More Jughead excitement: Keep your eyes peeled for my forthcoming review of Chip Zdarsky’s new Jughead #1!!

I’m So Not Freezing My Eggs

When I was a student at Princeton in the 90s, people advertised in the school paper for eggs. They were willing to pay as much as $80,000 for the eggs of Princeton students. More specifically, that was the price for eggs from young women with “blonde or light brown hair and blue eyes.” Women fitting my description (“brown hair, brown eyes, Jewish-looking”) could only get about $30,000 for their eggs. I never saw any ads for non-white eggs.

We girls talked about it around the dinner table. Nobody wanted to do it. It seemed shady. “It’s invasive,” said one girl. Another one said, “It could mess up your fertility later—it’s not as simple as they make it sound.” Back then I was idealistic and not motivated by money. That was also a place of privilege, because I had a lot of help with tuition and school costs. I thought about what it would be like to have a biological son or daughter out there, being raised in a New Jersey Jewish or Italian household, going to private school probably. I didn’t want to do it. I saw everything ahead of me—enough money, enough eggs, enough opportunity.

Years later, when a 401k was finally a thing that mattered to me, I thought about that long lost theoretical $30,000. I thought, “If I had invested that $30,000 back then and allowed it to compound, what sort of nest egg might I be on my way to having?” I also began to think, “What if I never have kids, and so it never mattered about keeping my own reproductive system in good shape?” The answers didn’t matter, because I would never have changed my thinking as a kid. It was all hardwired in to my youthful sense of self and integrity.

Now that I’m 37, I’ve spent years churning and cycling through different thoughts and mindsets about having kids. I’ve been single for several years, so I had to call my own bluff about wanting to have kids badly enough to want to be a single parent. I don’t think I do. Mostly, I’ve concluded that I can’t bear to be on the fence. That never having kids is better than this agony of waiting out your last child-bearing years in indecision, with the over-thinking and jealousy and fear and the feeling of being empty. At the end of the day, I am still more afraid of being a parent than of never being a parent. I mean, yeah – I hear there is great love involved, and also that you shouldn’t be ruled by your fears. That doesn’t mean I have the hubris to summon new life into the world.

My wandering back and forth across the line of wanting and not wanting kids has been milder lately, but I still flip flop several times a day. I think about pregnancy. I think about foster-to-adopt. I think about money and fatigue and danger and oceans of regret. Every day I build a case, watch it crumble, build an opposite case. I feel rattled, I feel bad about myself, and I retreat from the subject again. I’m alone with it, and it always seems to come down to the meaning of life and how we’re all hurtling toward death.

Today I heard a radio story about women my age and younger freezing their eggs. How much it costs. What it entails. What the big plan is. Without any dithering or doubt, I thought “I am NEVER doing that.” Twelve hours later, I feel the same way. I think I’m still going to feel this way when I wake up tomorrow.

After the radio made me realize I am unmotivated to see my DNA running around, I thought of all the times something on the radio has motivated me. I’ll hear something and want to rush to produce some answering expression of my own. But I don’t want to reproduce. I know I’m not supposed to freeze my eggs and that any resulting sadness will be livable. I might just bloom too late for things, but I know I’m interested in all of us who are here now. In a few years, maybe I’ll see how much room is in my personal life boat—and whether it seems like I should try to fish someone else out of the muddy water and towel them dry.