The war on women becomes a war of women as Sleeping Beauties, an oddly bloated collaboration between Stephen King and his son Owen King nears its climax. Odd because King senior is no stranger to expansive narratives and customarily keeps a firm grip on their pace, but this 700-page effort seems to buckle under the dual – perhaps competing – energies of its creators, who undermine an intriguing premise with an inexcusable amount of repetition: what is happening to the female residents of the town of Dooling is bizarre enough to need no belabouring.
In one (blunt, nuance-free) reading, Sleeping Beauties is an allegory for the plight of women in the age of Trump. The current American president is never mentioned by name, but he seems to stalk the pages much as he did his female rival on the debate stage, and the Blowtorch Brigades who track down and dispatch the novel’s slumbering women aren’t a million miles away from the tiki torch-bearing marchers in Charlottesville.
In a more literal reading, it is an epic fantasy novel based on the premise that nearly all the female population of the town of Dooling, including the inmates of a women’s prison, succumbs to a mysterious sickness. When they fall asleep, they become cocooned in a gossamer web that emerges from their skin, and they remain alive and still indefinitely, with no need for food or water. If disturbed – if, say, a concerned husband tries to brush the sticky film from the face of his unresponsive wife – the woman awakens as a violent zombie who can only be stopped with savage force.
Stephen King’s worlds have always been thoughtfully and thoroughly conceived, and he tends, in crafting new worlds, to proffer a Source – some kind of guide or Christ-like figure who represents Man, whether fallen or still upright, if teetering. In Sleeping Beauties, that figure is unsubtly named Eve, who watches over the alternate universe occupied by the women and advises them that it’s theirs forever, as long as they give up their men; only they can decide.
In this other world, the gender politics follow the girls-can-do-anything vibe of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman while the imagery is straight out of the King James Bible, and there are good reasons to relinquish a grip on reality, one woman concludes: “This world was ever so much better than the old man-driven one . . . No one treated them like second-class citizens.”
In case the point passes you by, the Kings make women’s bodies and minds the sites of battle: a hapless clinical psychologist goes on TV and floats the idea of “female hysteria” as the cause of the epidemic; burning at the stake is a feasible extension of the fiery brigades, and fake news takes over.
Sleeping Beauties is neither a bad novel nor a great one, but it suffers from a kind of grandiosity that swells the text to a much greater length than the story can support. It’s as though the writers each produced a book and the two were merged: you can’t see the stitches and the elder King’s sterling wordcraft and coal-black humour is omnipresent, but it’s a bumpy ride.
Spielberg once said, “All great movies are the product of one person’s obsession,” and it’s a reasonable supposition that the same is true of books: how much might IT or 11/22/63 have been diminished had Stephen King let someone else have at the keyboard while he was on his lunch break? Perhaps not everything should be a family affair.
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