NEW YORKER Stories
Because the story is written in the third-person singular, from the point of view of Ray, a janitor, "Premium Harmony" reads rather well. One doesn't pause to ask why Stephen King does not write better prose, because it's clear that Ray would be put off by whatever he could actually understand. Loosely told but tightly constructed, the story may remind older readers of O Henry: the moment of pat fake-outery at the end is a model of ironic release.
For that reason — "Premium Harmony" is something between a joke and a display of sleight-of-hand — I won't even suggest a plot summary. I'm concerned rather, with the residue that is left over when Mr King has had his bit of fun. "Premium Harmony" is vividly naturalistic. A blinkered working man, eking out a living in Maine — "What Ray calls 'the economy' has disappeared from this part of Maine" — drives through a failing commercial strip on a hot summer day, arguing with his wife about nothing while he is watched balefully from the back seat by the wife's Jack Russell terrier. What happens then is both out of the ordinary and completely ordinary. I found myself wondering why I had been asked to read about this man. It is depressing to get to know Ray, particularly on the page. His stream of thought is a torrent of unconscious self-absorption, bearing a flotsam of wretched clichés. Nothing in Ray's head is worth knowing. Why on earth should we hear it?
The appearance of a supporting character called Mr Ghosh brought me up short: would I feel just as snobbily disdainful of Ray if he were, say, Bangladeshi? If the story were set in some poor village in Orissa, say? Surely I'd find the story compelling in that case. I'd fancy that I was learning something about the faraway Subcontinent, even if it turned out to be something that I knew all too well from human examples closer to hand. With an exotic frame, would Stephen King's story become worthwhile?
I couldn't really answer that, because what caught my attention was another prejudice: when I read about poor people in India or thereabouts, I impute a certain quality to them: they are people who have not yet had a chance at modern life. Reading about people like Ray, in contrast, is intolerably exasperating precisely because I ask how many more chances at modern life such a dolt could waste, and the answer is always "an infinity." I've given up on people like Ray; it's painful to imagine that such smallness of character could sprout and — yes! — flourish in this land of plenty.
People like Ray are an affront to my optimism and my generally sunny view of human nature. If I must know about them, let it be in expository articles about actual people; let me be spared the chalkscratch of their mentality. Their appearance in the spotlight of literary fiction is nothing less than a denial of the value of literary fiction. Hors d'ici!
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