BOOKS: Expect the unexpected

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King Hodder pounds 12.99
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One of the most impressive things about Stephen King (and the clearest indication of his superiority to supermarket novelists) is his willingness to experiment with form. His last novel, Bag of Bones, lamented the plight of the writer forced to deliver a book a year to his greedy publishers, and throughout his career King has done much to subvert that expectation. Recent experiments have included a return to the serial-novel with The Green Mile, a story told twice in two different styles (Desperation and The Regulators) and, in the US only, a novel in the form of a screenplay, Storm of the Century. His latest book, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, is unexpected in two ways: his publishers had no idea he was going to deliver it, and it is another of his occasional exercises in making things difficult for himself, having only one character stuck in an isolated situation. In this respect it resembles another of his late novels, Gerald's Game, which explores the plight of a woman chained to a bed.

Although most critics now acknowledge King's right to be taken seriously, the focus tends to be on either his early work, or the stories that have inspired acclaimed films (Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, Dolores Claiborne). His Bachman novels are also respected, mainly because (on the whole) they are straight thrillers rather than horror. But, for me, the fascination with King is that, unlike someone like John Grisham, he refuses to offer the same read every time, and pushes genre fiction to its limit. The latest development in his oeuvre is a new precision to the prose, as well as an increased awareness of his predecessors in American fiction. If his earlier work tended to be haunted mainly by Edgar Allan Poe, his last two books have wrestled with new shadows. In Bag of Bones, the guiding light seemed to come from Melville; with The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, the influence is Hawthorne.

King's alter-ego in Bag of Bones, a romantic novelist called Michael Noonan whose books only just scrape the top ten instead of reaching number one, insures against later years of falling productivity by squirrelling away early novels in a bank vault. It's tempting to imagine that The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon has come from a secret store of vintage King. It definitely seems a novel written by someone with something to prove, and the quality of the prose is consistently impressive. It's a very different reading experience from something like It or Insomnia, both less comforting and more exhilarating. The heroine, Trish McFarland, is a nine-year-old girl with squabbling parents and an annoying brother, Pete. Much has already been made of King's skill at depicting dysfunctional families, and once again he provides the right telling details to keep the characters unique. Trish soon loses her parents, however, and for the rest of the novel we follow her alone in the forest. The book is structured as a baseball game, with Trish listening to a Red Sox fixture while she's trying to find her way home. The narrative is split into sections echoing the structure of a game ("Pregame", "Top of the Fourth" etc), a device that increases the sense that this is a formalist exercise. Baseball is a recurring trope in postmodernist fiction, most notably in the novels of Paul Auster, Don DeLillo and Robert Coover's The Universal Baseball Association, Inc. J. Henry Waugh, Prop, and usually used to symbolise isolation. These associations add a density to the simple narrative. King has previously been dismissive of the excesses of experimental fiction, but I think this novel (like much of King's work) often enters this territory. It's just that this side of King is borne out of a storyteller's natural inclination to try something new rather than a postmodernist's sense of the bankruptcy of conventional narrative form. King's trump card this time round is his ability to arouse empathy for the plight of his young heroine, allowing him to balance narrative play with an emotional hook.

Although the novel begins like a fairy-tale, any potential whimsy is tempered by King's usual awareness of the graphic reality of bodily functions, and some of the more unsettling passages in the novel deal with Trish's toilet troubles. As with Bag of Bones, the horror element is introduced subtly, and, for readers who have trouble with the supernatural, King ensures that any fantasy in the book can be explained away as hunger-induced delusion. As such, it is probably a good introduction for anyone who has shied away from the writer before now, but, for my money, the book works best as a playful interlude between the magnificent Bag of Bones and the forthcoming set of novellas, already rumoured to include some of his best writing.