(In which we try and wrap up All The King’s Men)
Monica: This has been a difficult book to pin down, unravel, discuss and repackage. The sheer scope of its length, paired with the complexity of the characters and story, the wildness of the narrative structure and the brawny, poetic script means that we could really linger over All The King’s Men in detail, ad nauseam – and so, we started and stopped and started this blog post multiple times. The characters alone we could pick apart for years, like two old biddies on a front porch swing, sipping spiked Arnold Palmers and harping on about the gall of “that man” for being such a callous bastard. There are so many questions, so many observations, so many twisted, jeweled metaphors to be held up to the light and examined. The idea that there is a difference between fact and truth. Reflecting on how goodness is not always a virtue, and not always a fight of light and dark. How characters with personalities as distasteful as Jack Burden’s could still be sympathetic in a certain light. Same with the downfallen Willie Stark. And how the incorruptible Adam Stanton could become more foolish than perhaps those men of less iron ideals. And in the end, was it Jack Burden who truly carried the (ahem) full weight of this tragic play, or Sugar-Boy, the stutterer?
Tom: There truly is so much to say, it’s a very layered book. So I’m going to focus on what I was left with at the end: that despite Warren setting up the stages for grand political theater, it was ultimately something as petty as a love affair that killed Willie Stark and Adam Stanton, that ended two talented men who ultimately just wanted to do good or be good. And what lingers over it all is the question of what is a good man (and I say specifically man because the female characters always remain more nebulous than the male ones, their motivations simplified or simply incomprehensible to Jack Burden)? Is it Governor Stanton, who sacrificed his principles to save a friend? Is it Willie Stark, who was willing to break every rule and brutally bring down every opponent in order to help the poor? Or Hugh Miller, the attorney general who sticks to the letter of the law but at the expense of allowing the ineffective status quo to continue? Or, to return to your last comment, is is Sugar-Boy, loyal and true, but quite happy to murder at the drop of a hat? Which of these is most admirable, and which least?
Monica: All of the questions. None of the answers. I guess the moral of this story is that everyone is flawed, everyone’s actions can be justified or unjustified, and that the world is both a many-splendored and kind of shitty place. I was enraptured by this book. But no longer can I pick it apart. It is the kind of magnum opus that should be devoured and enjoyed for its sheer toothsome beauty. To look too carefully at its intricately-woven seams, it’s elaborate beading and layers of lace is to miss it as a whole and beautiful piece. Never mind that stupid chapter on the Antebellum South.
Tom: But is the point that the world is a many-splendoured thing? For all the beauty of the prose, this is a very bitter book. It’s like someone has dug a hole and screamed into it all their anger and hurt and disenchantment, then covered it over with a layer of apathy and black humour to hide the aching emotions roiling beneath. Ultimately, however, they come to the surface, as Jack Burden relates in the last few pages:
“I do not find the humor in this situation very funny. The situation is too much like the world in which we live from birth to death, and the humor of it grows stale from repetition.”
Throughout Jack appears to be telling the story with a disaffected eye, but in reality he is deeply affected; he attempted to play the onlooker, the observer of history, but could not help but become embroiled in history himself. And his experiences are not that the world is many-splendoured, but that it really, really sucks, from meaningless accidents (like Tom Stark’s paralysing football injury) to the mean-spirited machinations of those happy to keep the unequal and unfair status quo. You may have faulted me on my negativity about Alice Adams, but where’s the silver lining here? Apart from that Jack Burden ended up with his childhood sweetheart – after his boss banged her?