Monday, July 8, 2013
Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: THE RUNNING MAN by Richard Bachman
...And we all know 'Richard Bachman' is actually a pseudonym of Stephen King's, don't we? Why, of course we do. After all, we don't live under a rock.
So the question is, can any novel by arguably the world's most popular author - whether it be under his own name or not - actually be considered 'forgotten' in any shape or form? It's not like any of his books has ever gone out of print (with the exception of another Bachman novel, 'Rage', which was withdrawn at King's own request), so just where do I get off putting THE RUNNING MAN in this series of posts? I mean, they even made a financially successful movie of it, for Christ's sake.
Well, I include it here precisely because it was published under a pseudonym, which automatically classifies it a 'minor' King work. Along with the other three novels collected in 'The Bachman Books', THE RUNNING MAN was a tryout novel King wrote in his early years before he found his true voice with the classic 'Carrie.' According to King in his 'Why I Was Bachman' essay, he wrote it back in 1971 during a marathon seventy-two-hour session (although in 'On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft,' he states the novel actually took him a full week to write), and considers it the best of his Bachman novels because, 'it's nothing but story... and anything which is not story is cheerfully thrown over the side.' It's also, along with the similar 'Long Walk', one of the very few times King has attempted a sci-fi novel.
The plot is fairly simple. It's 2025 and the world's gone to hell. Pollution is killing people by the legions, unemployment is the norm, and the gap between rich and poor is about as wide as it can get. In the ultra-dystopian USA, there's a Free-Vee in every apartment and deadly life-or-death game shows rule the airwaves. The most popular game show of all is 'The Running Man,' where a contestant is chased by a team of network-employed 'Hunters' whose sole purpose is to track the contestant across the country and murder him. As if that isn't enough, citizens are also paid cash bonuses if they spot him and report his location to the Hunters. The contestant earns money for every hour he remains on the loose, and if he can survive for thirty days he wins a billion dollar bonus. No contestant has ever lasted longer than eight days.
Unemployed Ben Richards and his wife and 18-month-old child live in the grim Co-Op city (not the one in New York). Unable to afford life-saving medicine for his sick daughter, Richards is forced to try for one of the game shows in order to earn the money. After a long and gruelling series of mental and physical tests, he's finally accepted for the daddy of them all: 'The Running Man' itself. Once he's introduced to the jeering nationwide audience on live TV, he's given a twelve-hour head start and a few thousand dollars 'running' money, and then the hunt is on...
So, essentially, what we have is another variation on that classic and highly influential 'man-hunts-man' story, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (see also ROLLERBALL, THE HUNGER GAMES, BATTLE ROYALE, etc, etc). But here King takes the basic theme and makes it his own by introducing the fresh concept of Reality TV to the mix (well, it was fresh back in the seventies). He also makes his version of the future an almost totally hopeless one, as by 2025 the USA is practically a police state, with a government run almost entirely by big business interests whose sole intent seems to be to kill off the population by one means or another. Either by lethal game shows or by refusing to supply the people with nose filters that might help protect them from the pollution. That atmosphere of pessimism permeates the entire novel and King makes it clear from the start that there aren't going to be any happy endings in this one (which can also be applied to every other Bachman story).
The rigged rules themselves leave little room for doubt: Survive thirty days and you win the bonus. So that's a whole month with almost the entire population out for your blood. And if that's not enough, Richards is handed a recorder and a supply of micro video tapes that can each hold a two-minute recording, and warned he must send two tapes a day of himself to the network or he forfeits the money. So, any ideas Richards has of stocking up on supplies and hiding in a cellar for the duration is thrown right out the window. He has to keep moving and keep mailing new tapes or it's all for nothing. Of course, the Network claims the packages' postmarks are kept from the Hunters, but Richards sees through that bullshit straight away. He knows he's a dead man walking. Or running. In the end, knowing he's earning money for as long as he breathes, the best Richards can hope for is to last as long as possible and hope he'll be able to take as many of them down with him when he goes.
Without beating around the bush, it has to be said that this is a very fast-moving thriller. It's like a shark - if it stops, it dies. I've reread it a number of times over the years and it rarely takes me longer than three hours to get through. In fact, when you consider how early this was in his career, it's quite remarkable how King keeps the story's pace at such a consistently high level. The 'countdown' structure of the book helps, too, of course. There are 101 short chapters, with the first listed as '...Minus 100 and COUNTING ...' while the last is simply '000.'
Added to which, the first quarter of the book, which focuses on the candidates undergoing the vetting process for the Games, is mostly made up of dialogue as Richards is forced to take one test after another. And page after page of dialogue really helps make the narrative fly by. It's also during this section that King allows us to get a good look at Richards' character as we see what sets him apart from his contemporaries. Such as when a vapid, barely-dressed female Network employee finishes explaining to him the simple rules of a written general knowledge test he has to complete:
'Then please turn to page one and begin. When I say stop, please put the pencil down. You may begin.'
He didn't begin. He eyed her body slowly, insolently.
After a moment, she flushed. 'Your hour has begun, Ben. You had better -"
'Why,' he asked, 'does everybody assume that when they are dealing with someone from south of the canal that they are dealing with a horny mental incompetent?'
She was completely flustered now. 'I... I never...'
'No, you never.' He smiled and picked up the pencil. 'My Christ, you people are dumb.'
He bent to the test while she was trying to find an answer or even a reason for his attack; she probably really didn't understand.
So it's clear from the start that Richards is that classic archetype: The Last of the Independents. The man alone. That one individual who lives within the system, but is apart from it. As King makes obvious in the very first chapter when Richards is arguing with his wife:
'He turned on her, grim and humorless, clutching something that set him apart, an invisible something for which the Network had ruthlessly calculated. He was a dinosaur in his time. Not a big one, but still a throwback, an embarrassment. Perhaps a danger. Big clouds condense around small particles.'
Admittedly, not the most subtle writing King's ever done - he's telling rather than showing - but it paints a clear enough picture of the main protagonist. And I like that last sentence, too, even though it doesn't really sound like the kind of thing his wife would be thinking (the chapter is the only one in the book from her POV). But it's some nice foreshadowing and helps the reader to picture a storm brewing, hinting that some major shit's gonna go down in the very near future and that Richards will be right in the heart of it.
It's also an extremely prescient tale in many ways. I won't talk about the climax too much as I don't want to spoil it, but once you've read it you'll know what I'm talking about. And mirroring the book's central theme, there's the increasing popularity of reality TV in our society, which is disquieting to say the least. And while it's highly unlikely that legalized murder will ever make into our reality's programming schedules, the book's game show ideas are still a little too close to reality for comfort. In fact, the film they eventually made, which bears almost no relation to the book (and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger no less), is actually guilty of being the very thing the novel is raging against.
Yet on a relatively smaller scale, King also does an impressive job of predicting modern in-flight entertainment, as at one point Richards finds himself on a commercial flight and sees Free-Vee screens built into the back of every seat with touch-screen channel selectors. Which is almost exactly the kind of thing air passengers find on most international airlines today. And remember, this was written back in 1971, where the most you could hope for on a flight was that they'd pull down an old projection screen at the front of the cabin and let you watch an out-of-sync movie that you'd already seen.
So, not bad going there, Steve. Not bad at all.
But although I love this book, I can't totally ignore the few problem areas dotted around. Especially as they're kind of hard to miss. For a start, King sometimes makes the segregation between rich and poor a little too literal. At one point, Richards is driving down a main street in public view, and King actually has the poor people lining the sidewalk on the left-hand side and the rich people on the right, while Richards passes between them. Now I like a good metaphor as much as anybody, but come on. Seriously?
Then there's the 'Running Man' game itself. Which doesn't actually make a whole lot of sense when you stop to think about it. And I'm not talking about the actual concept of the show, which follows a certain kind of logic as a 'run for your life' scenario taken to its absolute extremes. No, I mean what does the viewer actually see on the Free-Vee screen when he or she tunes in to the show? Because the only time they'd actually see the contestant is during the two-minute video snippets sent in to the network - and Richards naturally makes sure to show as little as possible when taping himself. And logic also dictates the Network can't show what the Hunters are up to either, as Richards would only need to tune in to know how close or far away they are to catching him. So it seems the most popular show on TV is one where all you see is a heavily made-up MC riling up the crowd with hyperbole for hours on end. Now I don't know about anyone else, but to me that sounds like the dullest show imaginable.
And then there's the characterization. Or, rather, lack of it. Which is not something you normally associate with King, who's always taken great care to make even the lowliest of characters come alive on the page. Unfortunately, most of the supporting cast in this one are just line drawings waiting to be coloured in. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, etc. Richards is the exception, of course, as we see the journey through his eyes and experience his thoughts and hopes. But even he's kept an enigma for the most part. Which isn't actually a criticism - there's certainly nothing wrong with a little mystery in the main character. To be honest, now that I think about, it's more likely that King simply made a conscious choice from the start to forsake characterization so as not to derail the pace. His previous book, the very similar "Long Walk,' is the exact opposite. In that one the characters are rich, but the pace suffers a little as a result. Plus, they're walking, which doesn't help.
But, to paraphrase Alan Partridge, 'I'm nitpicking.' The positives far outweigh the negatives in this one. As far as I'm concerned, THE RUNNING MAN remains a great thriller that I can read again and again without ever tiring of it. I like the main character. I like the dialogue. I like the concept. I like the themes. And I especially like the pace. King once again demonstrates, even at this early stage, that he's a master at grabbing a reader from the first page and not letting go until the last line.