Tuesday, August 7, 2012

From the Corner of His Eye, by Dean Koontz


On one momentous day, a woman loses her husband and gains a child. Another woman loses a sister and gains a daughter.  A man murders his wife and is almost immediately--and inexplicably--haunted by a name without a face: Bartholomew.  But just who is Bartholomew?  And what is his connection to the other families?  How are all these disparate lives connected to one another?  Could there be some purpose behind the tragedy and violence and injustice and pain that has plagued them?

This is an incredibly difficult book to describe.  There is no single story arc that can be summed up in a few words ("A man is unjustly accused of his wife's murder and must clear his name before it's too late"; "The prince must rescue the princess from the dragon before the witch's spell turns them both to frogs"; etc.)  Instead of a single plot arc, it is a story about people--about families, whether bound by blood or merely shared experience and love.

There are bushels of interesting theological and philosophical concepts lurking in the background of this story: life born of death, love growing in the shadow of violence, the possibility of alternate realities and parallel dimensions, the power of fate, sowing and reaping, life after death, and even some vague understanding of a benevolent and sovereign being working through all life's twists and turns.

Not that it's all deep thoughts and important questions.  Koontz is a horror/suspense writer, and although this book doesn't really belong in either genre, it boasts a body count that would do Stephen King proud (though Koontz doesn't dwell on the gorier aspects of his kills).  As usual, Koontz relies on an antagonist who is not merely evil but eeeeeeeviiil. Though, since it is his quest to identify and eliminate the mysterious Bartholomew that drives the plot forward, I suppose he is technically a protagonist.  But he's a bad guy, no doubt about that.  An over-the-top, soulless abomination incapable of any sort of human compassion or higher sensibility.  In that sense, he reminded me of the villain in The Face--a complete and total psychopath, albeit with less grandiose and more self-focused goals.  Where the villain in The Face was an anarchist who thrived on chaos, confusion, and widespread suffering, this villain is motivated by his own hedonistic desires and an instinct for self-preservation.  And, unlike the villain in The Face, this villain is prone to bouts of self-pity and amusingly narcissistic revelations.  For example, after shoving his wife off an observation tower, he is shocked and appalled to discover how rickety the tower is--why, he could have died!  These snatches of absurdity (which further demonstrate the villain's corrupted reasoning and tenuous grasp of reality) help offset the dark depravity of his psychosis. 

Interestingly, the root of villainy here is unbridled ego-centrism and entitlement.  He is not trying to accomplish any particular goal beyond living what he would define as a 'good' life.  He is not plotting world domination.  He is not motivated by a thirst for power or insatiable greed (except to the extent that increased income will facilitate his quest for happiness and contentment).  Instead, the villain is willing to do anything and everything to benefit or protect himself, and anyone who interferes with his quest for self-improvement, self-preservation, and self-fulfillment must be unceremoniously eliminated.  This is James 4 in action--anyone who gets between him and his desires will be mercilessly and violently destroyed. 

In contrast, the heroes of the story (of whom there are many) are motivated by love for others.  One character steadfastly serves her neighbors by baking them pies and bringing groceries to those in need.  Another child is adopted, despite the tragic circumstances surrounding her birth.  A man selflessly cares for his invalid wife for years and considers it a privilege.  The heroes here are heroes not (just) because of any special abilities they possess, but because of their character.  Koontz clearly has a very high opinion of daily faithfulness, of heroism on a small scale.  It is not just superheroes who deserve acclaim, but those who steadfastly love and serve their families and friends, those who are defined by their love for their neighbors.

This leads, however, to another Koontzian trope.  The good guys are 100% good, through and through.  Just as the bad guy is all bad, without a single redeeming quality or sympathetic fiber in his being, so too the good guys are totally unmarred by character failings.  They never struggle with jealousy or impatience or any of a thousand other sins common to the rest of humanity.  They have quirks, to be sure, but all are benign and many are downright endearing.  The end result is a lack of nuance in the characters themselves.  This is not a story about 'real' people, but a battle between 'good' and 'evil' portrayed through likable--if implausible--characters.  There is no room for moral complexity in Koontz's writing.

Still, at the end of the day, it was an interesting read, even if the plot was a bit long and meandering at times.  I listened to the audiobook version, which was well-narrated and quite enjoyable, though it meant I couldn't skim the more distressing scenes.

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