Experiencing the body: a transdisciplinary approach to Stephen King’s Thinner (1984)

Posted by Jessica Folio on May 29, 2014 in Dr Jessica Folio, Guest Blog tagged with

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As I was listening thoroughly to the three artists Amanda Couch, Mindy Lee and Andrew Hladky circumvoluting over their personal corporeal experience in their group presentation suggestively untitled “On Entrails and Performances” delivered on the occasion of the “Body Horror/ Shapeshifters” conference held in Athens in November 2013, as I was integrating their critical perception of the digestion process through food and language and as I was pondering over the “spatter platter” (fig.1) quality of their puzzling works of art, a connexion with Stephen King’s Thinner emerged into my mind; a conglomeration of dots erupted, impatiently waiting to be connected just as Amanda Couch melodiously unravelled the progress of food from the plate to the tongue and to the digestive system as well as the symbiotic connection between food and the body.

The patchwork quality of the artists’ work echoes the kaleidoscopic quality of King’s narratives which reveal a variety of literary influences (the Gothic movement, romanticism, the fantastic, epic, science-fiction) and an awareness of critical theories (such as reader-response criticism, narrative process analysis, psychoanalytical spheres of influence or postmodern analysis). King’s work is an accumulation of layers of references, reminiscent of Andrew Hladky’s successive additions of pure oil paint used for his three-dimensional paintings. King may appear worlds apart from the previous artists’ performances, paintings, collages or drawings but is that really the case when the reader is conscious of King’s exploration of the body and the metamorphosis of the latter into a figure of the unknown throughout his texts? In his introduction to Night Shift (1978), King exemplifies this vision by claiming our universal fear of “the body under the sheet,”[1] transforming the body into an expression of the enticing ungraspable, a vehicle of any fantasies.

Thethinner novel Thinner, written under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman (the use of a pseudonym is interpretable as a play by the writer on his own body but also as the writer’s awareness of a “consciousness of out and in slipping”[2] from his body) stages the fate of the protagonist, Billy Halleck. This successful obese lawyer is cursed by Taduz Lemke, a centenary gypsy and head of a clan, to lose weight until he dies after driving over the gypsy’s daughter. Two other characters undergo the gypsy’s wrath: the judge Cary Rossington and the policeman Duncan Hopley. Both representative figures of the law play a role in the eviction of what they consider as “nothing but a bunch of filthy Gypsies” (King 1984, 8) from the city of Fairview. The gypsies are expressively depicted as bad seeds, malignant germs that have to be eradicated, expelled from the body of the WASP population of the town so the latter can remain a safe locus.

This necessary and normalized rejection is likened to the severing of a rotten branch to ensure the well being of a whole organism. It is not so distant from Amanda Couch’s analysis of her Irritable Bowel Syndrome in “Reflection on Digestion: Embodiment and the Professional.” Amanda expresses the vital expulsion of the contents of her stomach and the urgency of the act to prevent the falling apart of her whole body: “the urgency with which the expulsion occurs is enough to make me feel slightly shocked.”

In King’s text, the gypsies are relegated to waste, “dirt” (King 1984, 54), excrements, whose expulsion is adamantly wanted and expected by the white community, as this is clearly seen in a scene relating the presence of the gypsy clan at the Fairview town common. They have a hypnotizing force on Fairview children and their mothers are in a hurry to “ recapture their fascinated children” (King 1984, 48) from those Gypsies perceived as « somehow dangerous” (King 1984, 45), yet fascinating because of their very otherness. Billy’s daughter is equally drawn “as if in a dream” (King 1984, 46) to their obliterating, obsessive force. Nevertheless, she is stopped by her nervous mother who immediately asks her to keep her distances. Duncan Hopley’s intervention to lead the Gypsies away is described as “the Rousting of the Undesirables ” (King 1984, 48) and the indifference their appeal is met with by the policeman is emphasized. Amanda Couch highlights the cyclical pattern of her symptoms and the ephemeral feeling of unity with her body, stressing the fact that after a while “[her] belly starts to turn malignant” again. This return of the undesirable is reminiscent of the fact that Billy compares the Gypsies to a “wandering breed [that] never die[d] out” (King 1984, 53), that keeps on surviving no matter what the circumstances are.images

The gypsy’s curse causes the characters’ bodies to be submitted to multiple modifications before turning into an unnamable, incomprehensible, traumatic Thing.[3] The multifarious metamorphoses are linked to food consumption and to the depiction of the body as an auxiliary of abjection.

The beacon of irony sheds light on Billy’s fate as the latter is sealed by the very element he adores, food: “he liked to eat” (King 1984, 23). His obesity and his relish in the ingestion of junk food signal King’s critical view of the deviancies of the American consumerist society as a whole. More importantly, it questions the relation between food and the body. Both are equally depicted as abject elements in the Kristevan sense of an intermingling of attraction and repulsion. In Kristeva’s theory, the child has to abject the mother to establish the boundary between the self and the other, to leave the semiotic stage and enter the symbolic stage. The feminine is perceived as Other.In Thinner, King has the paternal body carry out the seeds of abjection, not through blood or lactation, but through the very transformation of this body into waste, a non-body.

At the beginning of the story, Billy appears to be stuck in the oral stage in which the ingestion of food is equalled to carnal pleasure.[4] King lays the stress on the relish of carrying the food to the mouth and on the pleasure of ingesting greasy food. The fact of killing the gypsy woman has no incidence on his appetite: “angst or no angst, he had laid waste to the scrambled eggs, and of the bacon there was now no sign” (King 1984, 9). His imposing corpulence, the gargantuesque breakfasts he swallows up -“she put breakfast in front of him : a steaming mound of scrambled eggs, an English muffin with raisins, five strips of crisp country style bacon. Good eats” (King 1984, 7)- highlight his ogresque nature, hammered out by the overuse of adjectives in the narrative.

Billy’s compulsive eating behaviour in the early stage of the novel would parallel what Amanda Couch experiences following the necessary expulsion of the contents of her stomach to have her pain ebb away; indeed, the lightness she feels then changes into “a hole of darkness that is demanding” and eating becomes an obsession. King’s fictional character’s behaviour rightly echoes Amanda’s craving for food. It even goes further in Billy’s case for the act of eating is mechanical as though his body experienced a split while eating: “he was deep in the box scores when Heidi brought him another half of English muffin, golden with melting butter. Halleck ate it almost without being aware he was doing so” (King 1984, 13). This case of dissociative identity linked to bulimia[5] echoes Billy’s loss of bodily landmarks as the narrative unfolds.

When the claws of the curse get tighter and Billy’s skininess turns him into a carny freak, no matter the amount of food he eats, food turns from an element of pleasure to an element of repulsion for the reader and the character himself; he sees himself as:

a thirty-six-year-old overweight American male Caucasian, sitting behind the wheel of a 1981 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, scarfing a huge hamburger while mayonnaise and shredded bits of lettuce dripped onto his charcoal-gray vest. You could laugh until you cried. Or screamed. He […] looked at the mixed slime of juices and sauce on his hand with a desperate kind of horror (King 1984, 38).

The scattered shredded bits of lettuce are at the image of Billy’s shattered identity associated with the process of skeletonisation. He looks at the food on his hand with the same revulsion he will look at himself in the mirror when realizing his freakishness: “every rib stood out clearly. […] His cheekbones bulged. His sternum was a congested knot, his belly a hollow, his pelvis a gruesome hinged wishbone; […] Above the waist, he really was turning into a carny freak -the Human Skelton” (King 1984, 160). Both visions of his body and of the food engender the same violent reaction in Billy who eventually has to struggle against his own body to keep the least calories he gulps down inside it.

Nonetheless, it is to be noted that King does not insist so much on the digestive process as on the prior and final elements of digestion: the ingestion of food and the changes in the body appearance. The curse has the body eat away its own calories, devour its own fat and flesh until only a living skeleton remains. Thinner epitomizes the remnants of the body after it has evaporated all of the digested food and after the body itself has been digested by the gypsy curse. The passage from pleasure-food and obesity to un-pleasure food and skinniness parallels the reader’s oscillation into Mindy Lee’s world of collage, more precisely her series of acrylic on recycled paper plate untitled “have your cake and eat it.” The cakes Billy eats are English muffins with raisins or English muffins golden with melting butter. They are only perceived as an increasing factor to his obesity and to an awaiting heart attack, to the sure severing of his thread of life by the figure of Agatha (fig. 3) who can be assimilated in Mindy Lee’s work to the mythological Atropos. On the artist’s plate, which renews the notion of “mise en abyme” (since a plate is used to highlight a critical view on food), the pink element is rapidly linked to a flowing of blood on an ominous pair of scissors. It can be considethinred as an artistic echo of Billy’s death in connection to food, the impossibility for his body to fix up the vital calories.

Both Saturn plates (fig.4) are equally a perfect imagery of the curse devouring Billy’s body and the teeth inserted within the plate are a perfect rendering of the character’s skeletonisation. The curse is described as a living element, eventually transferred from Billy to a strawberry pie in a process assimilated to a child delivery. Through this viewpoint of presenting the curse as a child, feeding from the paternal body, King would reverse the vision of Saturn engulfing his offspring. There is a progressive erasure of Billy’s body which is reduced to a mere shadow of himself as he attempts to cast off the spell before becoming a complete blank in the text. He changes into a blur like on the Celia plate (fig.5).

The Gypsy curse also affects the judge Cary Rossington and the policeman Duncan Hopley in a completely different manner. The judge changes into a scaly creature: “his skin is turning into scales. He has become a case of reverse evolution, a sideshow freak. He’s turning into a fish or a reptile” (King 1984, 90). Hopley is plagued with deforming acne which recalls the skin disease the elephant man, Joseph Merrick, suffered from in the early stage of his transformation.[6] Hopley confines himself in his stinking house. The emphasis laid on the rotting body and the falling apart of Hopley’s face perfectly echo Mindy Lee’s painting untitled “Overfaced.” (fig.6) This could actually prefigure the final stage of Hopley’s bodily decay. On the artist’s plate, the surrender of the faces and the awareness of the upcoming oblivion of the body seem total. The Medusa’s Overfaced (Caravaggio) painting captures the fascination exerted by the Gorgon figure and parallels the petrifying, horrifying hypnotic force of Hopley over Billy: “[he] looked at Billy Halleck for what seemed an endless length of time, reading his revulsion and dumbstruck horror” (King 1984, 126). Mindy Lee’s acrylic would actually magnify Hopley’s grotesquified medusean description.

Rossington’s and Hopley’s bodies, devoured and regurgitated by the curse represent the degradation of the human into the un-human, a conglomeration of body elements submitted to the process of monstrosisation. King manipulates the theme of the body making it a reminder of the dominion of the Grim Reaper, of the inexorable deterioration of the body which opens the door for the characters to a new life as monstrous creatures.

Andrew Hladky’s painting “just remember death is not the end” (fig.7) shares converging points with King’s narrative. One perceives the Piranesian quality of the artist’s work although the wheels, cables and staircases characterizing Piranesi’s imaginary prisons have been replaced by a maze-like scenery permeated by a paradoxical intertwining of despair (the dark arachnean figure) and possible redemption (the blazing lights). In King’s doomed world, the characters are entrapped in the labyrinthine city, in their houses and in their own bodies.

As the characters turn into living rotting figures, their bodies become a landscape of metamorphosis and abjection. King is not only concerned with the rejection of the maternal body but the body itself appears as being rejected. The characters and the readers are confronted with oozing orifices, putrescent bodily fluids or repulsive food. The readers seem to reject the characters’ bodies and, in a process of both empathy and sympathy,[7] project and abject their repressed fear of seeing their own body monstrosised.

In King’s text, the final disheartening image is that of a strawberry pie -a parodic Poe’s Mask of the Red Death- used as a bearer for the curse then digested by Billy’s own wife and daughter and finally, in an endless circle, by Billy himself. The final stage of the transformation -the self-erasure of the body- turns the latter into a gap, an utter fissure the readers have to complete by themselves. Being a blur in language, a figure of indeterminacy, the body is a traumatic locus on which our darkest desires can be projected. King depicts a plural body which turns into the Thing, “an Id-machine.”[8] No definite answer can ever be brought forward and this may account for the author’s abiding success. King exemplifies the Lacanian insatiable nature of the drive by leaving irresolvable blanks, by establishing the body as a spiralling void, consequently setting the readers on an endless quest for significance, inserting them henceforth in the postmodern condition.[9]

Even medicine proves meaningless when facing the effects of the Gypsy curse on the body. This would be enhanced in Mindy Lee’s drawing of the dislocated outer and inner bodies on her “repeat prescriptions.” (fig.8) The overflow of the inner organs, their serpentine and labyrinthine ramifications, parallel a loss in meaning, the void left by the body in the signifying chain. The body is also an emptiness and an otherness that is ourselves. “It reveals a fissure in our symbolic universe in its very Otherness.”[10] It is not so far away from Lyotard’s notion of the differend defined as “the unstable state and instant of language wherein something which must be able to be put into phrases cannot yet be.”[11] The body is disclosed as a consumed rupture between signifier and signified.

The addition of skin and flesh characterizing Rossington’s and Hopley’s monstrosisation recalls Andrew Hladky’s paintings built up from successive additions of pure oil paint as well as Mindy Lee’s collages. The body both appears as an extension of itself and as a gaping wound. If the expression “gaping wound” usually applies to the female body in horror films, the transdisciplinary approach put forward in this article shows that the body itself is left as an undefinable, incomplete locus. It is the reason why it echoes Zizek’s analysis of the Thing as “the Space in which the gap between the Symbolic and the Real is closed, i.e. in which to put it somewhat bluntly, our desires are directly materialized.”[12] Un-gendered, un-proportionate, it is an affirmation of the negation of our stability in knowledge.

 

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Figure 1. Lee, Mindy. Spatter Platter: detail 1. 2009.

 

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Figure 2. Lee, Mindy. Consciousness Of Out And In Slipping. 2009.

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Figure 3. Lee, Mindy. Have Your Cake And Eat It, Agatha. 2010.

 

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Figure 4. Lee, Mindy. Have Your Cake And Eat It, Saturn. 2010.

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Figure 5. Lee, Mindy. Have Your Cake And Eat It, Celia. 2010.

 

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Figure 6. Lee, Mindy. Medusa’s Overfaced (Caravaggio). 2011.

 

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Figure 7. Andrew Hladky. Just remember death is not the end. 2012.

 

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Figure 8. Lee, Mindy. Repeat Prescriptions. 2013.

 

NOTES

[1] Stephen King, Night Shift (N.Y. : Doubleday, 1978), 12.

[2] It is one of the titles chosen by Mindy Lee for her collages. See figure 2.

[3] I refer to Slavoj Zizek’s article “The Thing from Inner Space.” The term “Thing” is a psychoanalytical concept linked to the unconscious system for Freud. Lacan associates the term with the order of the Real as an element remaining outside language. Zizek’s view focuses on cinematic narrative. The intrusion of the Thing is perceived as traumatic because it is an ejection of a part of ourselves and it is connected to the abolition of frontiers between the Real and the Symbolic.

[4] In Freud’s theory, the mouth is conceived as the primary erogenous zone and the mother’s breast appears as the first object of the libido. In Thinner, Billy is primarily concerned with the gratification of his food desires which constitute for him a pleasure principle.

[5] The connection between bulimia and dissociation disorder has been developed by Eric Cowan and Rebecca Heselmeyer in ‘Bulimia and Dissociation: a Developmental Perspective’, The Journal of Mental Health Counseling (2011).

[6]The elephant man was born on August 5th 1862 in a poor neighborhood in Leicester. At the age of 2, a swelling appears on his inferior lip, then gain the right cheek, and provoke a protuberance on the superior lip, taking a shape of a trunk. He had different types of lesions, some creating voluminous masses deforming the limp tissues, large hanging skin pouches. Jean Goens, Loups-garous, vampires et autres monstres (Paris : CNRS Editions, 1993).

[7] In Empathy and the Novel, Susan Keen equals “sympathy” with the phrase “I feel what you feel” and “sympathy” with the phrase “I feel a supportive emotion about your feelings” (Keen 5).

[8] Zizek, “The Thing from Inner Space.”

[9] Jacques Derrida and Jean François Lyotard showed the instability omnipresent at the core of postmodern narratives. The descriptive or narrative elements open the path to a wide range of interpretations for the texts.

[10] Zizek, “The Thing from Inner Space.”

[11]J.F. Lyotard. The Differend : Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 13.

[12] Ibid.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Couch, Amanda. ‘Reflection on Digestion: Embodiment and the Professional’. Storyville: Exploring narratives of learning and teaching. The 2nd annual HEA Arts and Humanities conference. May 2013.

Cowan, Eric and Heselmeyer Rebecca. ‘Bulimia and dissociation: a developmental perspective’. Journal of Mental Health Counseling. American Mental Health Counselors Association 33.2 (April 2011) : 128-143.

Goens, Jean. Loups-garous, vampires et autres monstres. Paris : CNRS Editions, 1993.

Hladky, Andrew. Just remember death is not the end. Flickr. 2012. Web. Viewed 4 January 2014. https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhladky/3739509592/.

Keen, Susan. Empathy and the Novel. New York : Oxford University Press, 2007.

King, Stephen. Night Shift. New York : Doubleday, 1978.

King, Stephen. Thinner. New York: Signet, 1984.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Lee, Mindy. Spatter Platter: detail 1. 2009. Viewed 3 January 2014. http://mindylee.me/collage-2/.

___. Consciousness Of Out And In Slipping. 2009. Web. Viewed 3 January 2014. http://mindylee.me/2009-2/.

___. Have Your Cake And Eat It. 2010. Web. Viewed 3 Jan. 2014. http://mindylee.me/2010-2/.

___. Medusa’s Overfaced (Caravaggio). 2011. Web. Viewed 3 Jan. 2014. http://mindylee.me/2011-2/.

___. Repeat Prescriptions. 2013. Web. Viewed 3 Jan. 2014. http://mindylee.me/drawing.

Lyotard, Jean François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Zizek, Slavoj. ‘The Thing from Inner Space’. Mainview, September 1999. Web. Viewed 10 February 2014. http://www.lacan.com/zizekthing.htm.

 

 

 

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