Stephen King’s newest novel, Elevation, is perhaps the most uplifting of his career. It’s so short—wafer-thin, melt-in-the-mouth—that you might call it a novella, or even a story. Its protagonist is, on the face of it, not very interesting. Scott Carey is a middle-aged man. He lives with nobody except a cat, in the fictional Maine town of Castle Rock (which you may remember from other Stephen King novels). Scott is divorced and professionally successful and content. Castle Rock is a small town with only a few small, well-defined social conflicts. In the setting of Elevation, King has drawn up a novel the way that a scientist grows fungus in a petri dish: with limits.
The problems in Scott’s life start out invisible, then flourish fast. As his age and station in life demand, our hero has a considerable paunch. One day he starts to lose weight. Unfathomably, however, Scott loses weight on the scale, and nowhere else.
Scott loses weight continually but never appears any thinner. Gravity’s hold on him is weakening, and he appears to change gravity’s effect on things he touches, too. When Scott steps on the scale holding 20-pound weights, it shows a number identical to the weight he’d be without them. Week by week, as the number dwindles downward, Scott feels lighter, as if there is an extra spring in his step. And still—at 210 pounds, at 190 pounds, and so on—he looks the same.
Scott doesn’t know whom to turn to besides his doctor and friend, Bob Ellis, who figures there’s no medical explanation for Scott’s condition. Scott and Bob are also flummoxed by another matter. Up the road from Scott live a married couple, Deirdre McComb and Missy Donaldson, who own a restaurant in town. Deirdre especially is extraordinarily rude to Scott, seemingly without reason, and she tells him to stay away from her slightly more friendly wife. Nothing Scott does seems to work. Even worse, Deirdre and Missy are the object of some serious homophobia in the town, which is affecting business at their joint, Frijole. How can he help them, if they won’t trust his friendship?
The Deirdre problem and the weight-loss conundrum work in tandem throughout Elevation, colliding finally in the fateful day of the Turkey Trot 12-kilometer run. Deirdre is a former competitive athlete, sure to win the race. Scott gives Deirdre a wager: If he beats her (by this time he weighs under 100 pounds and almost leaps through the air), he gets to take her out to dinner and try to establish a real friendship. Infuriated by his presumption—the man still looks old, still looks fat—she takes the bet.
What follows is a wonderful collision of two very different plots, culminating in a third narrative strand that takes us to the end of the novel. But what do an oppressed lesbian restaurateur and a middle-aged man with an impossible weight disorder have in common, in narrative terms?
In one sense, it’s about their common mortality: “Gravity is the anchor that pulls us down into our graves,” one character muses, mistakenly attributing the quote to Faulkner. When Deirdre and Scott both run the 12K together, they are both fighting against all the forces that hold them down. To escape gravity is to become free.
But there’s also a psychological element at play. As Scott’s body gets lighter, his mind does also. He’s happy, as if his good deeds toward Deirdre have helped him shed his karma and become transcendent. It is the inverse of King’s 1984 novel Thinner, published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. In that story, an obese and amoral lawyer is cursed after running down a gypsy woman, gradually losing his mass until he becomes emaciated. The lawyer’s loss of body equates to a loss of power; he was not adequately punished by the courts for his crime, because he was the kind of guy who could “throw his weight around.”
the events of the Turkey Trot race do make
a large difference to Deirdre’s standing in the town. The next thing that happens is that Scott loses weight even faster. By the novel’s
end, Scott is very light indeed, his thoughts drifting toward the cosmic. He looks at the sky and sees “a half-moon
and what seemed like a trillion stars.” All those stars seem to match “the
trillion pebbles, just as mysterious, that we walk over every day, he thought.
Mystery above, mystery below.” Scott is drawn into a new conversation with the universe, now that the laws of physics have singled him out. “Weight,
mass, reality: mystery all around.”
Scott is nothing like the villain of Thinner. He is devoted to evening out the social forces in Castle Rock that uplift some and oppress others. Gravity in Elevation is in some ways a metaphor for those social forces. Scott makes people as well as objects light, when he touches them. When he does it to Deirdre, she glimpses a different version of her own mind, unembittered by other people’s prejudice.
Elevation is the kind of story you could inhale in a leisurely hour. But for all its slightness, it is a rewarding and philosophically complex piece of work, offering both social critique and a meditation on how our different experiences shape our minds. It’s an encouraging direction for a writer whose themes seem to be maturing as he does.