Don’t you just hate it when you buy a well-reviewed novel with an intriguing plot description, only to slog through the whole thing and realize it’s not very good? It’s not a great feeling to realize around page 220 of 400 that you might have wasted your time. But because you read such good reviews, you persist through dragging plot development, characters you don’t care about, and a whole lot of extra detail that lacks emotional depth and makes you want to start editing the book as you read it.
I have to admit I felt this way about Stephen King’s recent novel Revival.
I wanted to enjoy this novel. I tried to like it. Really, I promise. A bunch of people loved it and declared it one of King’s best novels in recent years. Yet when I was finished, all I felt was indifference instead of a sense of disquiet, which is what I had hoped for. I was almost relieved to finish just so I could start reading something else. It took a few days for me to truly grasp how disappointed I was, since I was preoccupied with rooting out exactly what went wrong.
In my humble, unpublished opinion, I would have to say that, for all the potential of the plot and all the nice creepy details, King made a fundamental and fatal error by deciding to ground Revival in the point of view of the tiresome Jamie Morton, rather than the tortured and mad Reverend Charles Jacobs. Sure, there are good parts of this novel despite Jamie Morton, but it’s my opinion that the novel would have been so much stronger had Rev. Jacobs narrated it.
First things first, in case you haven’t read it: Revival was published in 2014; King’s second novel published that year. The novel follows the life of Jamie Morton as he grows from an innocent, curious child to a haggard, mediocre musician with a history of substance abuse. Despite the twists and turns of his life, one figure remains a constant—Charles Jacobs. Jamie first meets Jacobs when the latter moves with his charming family to Jamie’s hometown. Jacobs is the new minister, whose youth and enthusiasm rejuvenate the town. Jamie and Jacobs form an instant, deep friendship, as kindred souls are wont to do. Jacobs even tells Jamie about his pet projects, involving peculiar experiments with electricity. It’s not long after the Jacobs family has settled that tragedy strikes. Rev. Jacobs, overwhelmed by despair and anger, delivers his Terrible Sermon, renouncing God in front of the whole town. Then he leaves and the town, irrevocably shaken by the whole terrible ordeal, tries to move on.
In the intervening years, Jamie grows up into a middling (if that) rhythm guitarist, bouncing around the country after gigs and heroin. Whenever he least expects it, Jacobs crosses his path, but he is a very different man than the kind young Reverend Jamie knew. Jacobs’ pet project has blossomed into life’s work, the kind of life’s work that becomes a dangerous, violent obsession. As these two men become more and more intertwined the other’s fate, Jamie struggles with the implications of assisting Jacobs with his quest for what he calls “The secret electricity. The force that powers the universe.”
Doesn’t that sound intriguing? It sure did to me. I’m not a huge King devotee, but I really enjoyed Carrie and I was depressed for days after reading The Green Mile. Add in reviews that raved about how Revival was obviously influenced by both Frankenstein (one of my all-time favorite novels) and H.P. Lovecraft (a titan of weird/horror fiction), and I was hooked. So I don’t think it was a stretch for me to think this would be an excellent summer read.
But it wasn’t.
As an aspiring author myself, I try to read a wide variety of things; books that are “classics,” books that are “beach reads,” books that are well-written, books that are not as well-written, and so on, magazines, short stories, poems. Anything and everything I have time to read. All of this is done in service of studying what works and what doesn’t in a story so I can apply my observations to my own writing.
Why was Revival such a let down? Like I mentioned, the narrative is anchored in the point of view of a wholly un-engaging narrator, Jamie Morton. Mad respect to Stephen King (he’s enormously successful for a reason), but I don’t understand why King chose to do this, especially because Rev. Charles Jacobs is infinitely more interesting. The payoff is too small compared to what he sacrificed.
Now, what I think was part of King’s motivation in choosing Jamie over Jacobs was to retell a classic narrative from a new vantage point, in a new voice. Revival borrows not just from the novel Frankenstein but also from the numerous film adaptions, especially as it concerns Igor, Dr. Frankenstein’s lab assistant (who is not in the original novel). It’s no surprise that the dynamic between Jacobs and Jamie is that of mad scientist and reluctant-but-ultimately-willing assistant. And it’s no surprise that a writer would be interested in the voice of Jamie’s Igor when recounting just how unhinged Jacobs’ Dr. Frankenstein became.
I understand the appeal of retelling a classic story through the eyes of a secondary character. Wide Sargasso Sea is probably the most famous novel to accomplish this (it’s not horror though), retelling Jane Eyre through the voice of Mr. Rochester and his doomed first wife Bertha. Shifting the point of view like this allows a beloved story to gain new dimension and depth, creating a rich literary experience. It is obvious to me that King was trying to achieve this, but unfortunately, the character he chose to tell it through is really boring, or rather, Jamie is rendered in such a way that I found him boring and not relatable.
Why is he boring and not relatable? Well, because even though the story is told through his voice, it is not his story. He doesn’t really have an emotional arc, no real character progression. Jamie is not the character who is on a mission to rail against God and prove himself more powerful than the Lord Almighty, and he’s not meant to be. But he also isn’t the loser who struggles with several moral dilemmas before growing a pair and attempting to stop the maniacal Rev. Jacobs. He isn’t the hero who had to overcome his personal demons but could not rip himself away from his own obsession with Jacobs. No, Jamie is on the periphery even in his own story.
The real action happens only when he crosses paths with Jacobs, and even then it feels like he never learns anything. He has a few mildly creepy experiences and gathers a few more clues about what Jacobs is after before Jamie flits away to drone on endlessly about being a mediocre musician, or about his family, or about how dull his life is. He bounces away from addiction and broken relationships without really being affected, without really taking anything from it. At least, that’s how it came across to me, as a reader.
One could argue that Jamie does have something of an emotional breakthrough at the very end, and I agree, except that it was too little too late. Especially when King made me sit through 400 pages of this guy telling me way too many details about his boring life, including choice tidbits, like his job at a recording studio, or that time he hit rock bottom in a sleazy motel, or that time where he slept with his co-worker’s much-younger daughter after she declared that she needed to “work out her daddy issues.”
Whenever this happened, I thought to myself, “Whaa…what? Why? WHY are you spending time on this? I don’t care about this, I care about the secret electricity!”
There’s a point about halfway through, when another character is recounting to Jamie his own encounter with Rev. Jacobs. He’s dragging it out, and Jamie, out of frustration, tells him to “Cut to the chase.” This is how I felt about Jamie. Cut to the chase. I don’t need all of these details because this story clearly isn’t about you. It’s about Jacobs, so get to him already!
It’s perfectly fine for King to tell the story of Jacob’s through Jamie, but why chose a novel to tell it in? Why not a short story? Maybe we would have been spared all the filler with a short story.
Or even better, if the story has to be about Jacobs, why not tell that character’s story in a more direct voice, instead of giving us a narrative that feels muffled and extraneous?
That’s the whole problem—the interesting stuff, the compelling spiral into the darkest part of the human condition, happens on the sidelines. It’s distractingly good stuff—a once-devout preacher turns his back on God after suffering a great loss, and then he decides to devote his life to beating God at his own game? This is the stuff of myth! An existential crisis if there ever was one. It’s such a sin, but we are transfixed by that kind of anger and rebellion.
I wanted to know how Jacobs felt. I wanted to know what he thought about his progression from humble minister to bitter old man. How did he learn about the secret history? How did he experiment with his inventions? Did he always feel like religious people were stupid, even when he preached the gospel? How did he feel about becoming a “Reverend” again so that he could do his experiments on the unsuspecting faithful during a revival show? Was he aware that he was becoming a monster? Did he care?
So much good stuff here. So much material to unpack and untangle.
Kurt Vonnegut had a great piece of advice for writers: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” It’s an essential component of plot, since there can’t be a story without conflict. An unsatisfied want is conflict, no matter how small. This element of characterization is also vital because that’s how readers connect to characters. A little spark of compassion bonds the reader to the character and, consequently, the story.
Rev. Jacobs was a relatable character because his motivations were fully realized and intriguing, even filtered through Jamie. Rev. Jacobs wants to weaponries the secret electricity against God. Open and shut. But with Jamie, I never really got a sense of what he wanted from the life he was given.
Does he want to be a better musician? Doesn’t seem like it. In fact, he’s very accepting about how poor his skill is, so I guess it doesn’t bother him much. Cool.
Does he want a family? Ehhhhh, not really. All the people who come in and out of his life move on and do well, and Jamie is just kind of blasé about it. He initially distances himself from his family (so busy with drugs, etc.), and ends up missing them. When he finally comes back home, Jamie has a lovely time and realizes how much he missed them, but this falls flat. It felt like there should have been some kind of catharsis, but it doesn’t have the necessary emotional resonance. Well, fine then.
Does he finally get fed up with his ennui and realize that he is the only one who can stop Rev. Jacobs from doing some messed up shit? No, because Jamie assists him with his diabolical experiment even though he really doesn’t have to. Even now I’m still questioning why Jamie felt like he was obligated to help Jacobs with his experiment. Sure, Jacobs cured Jamie of his drug addiction, but Jacobs is asking for too much and has ruined countless lives—why does Jamie feel like he owes him anything after all? That point is never fully addressed.
At the end of this book, I felt like I had been tricked, like this novel was a bad joke. It had a great deal of potential, and maybe with a bit of reworking, it could have been something special. In any event, I learned that a killer concept does not a good novel make, and that good writing isn’t afraid to expose characters to the reader. It’s not enough to show Jamie in his lowest, most drug-addled moment. I needed to see his heart, to understand that he was a real flesh-and-blood person. Without that, there is no spark between the story and myself. It’s dead on arrival. Do not resuscitate.