Dead on the vine

It's too bad that Stephen King's "The Plant" -- not the e-book experiment but the smart, witty publishing satire -- is furling its leaves.

By Laura Miller

Published December 1, 2000 8:12AM (EST)

Stephen King's decision to take a hiatus from writing installments of "The Plant" has been treated by the media as nothing more than a dispatch on the viability of e-book self-publishing. "Publishers one, authors nothing," wrote David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times.

Like a lot of book review editors, I regard the advent of e-book self-publishing with apprehension, but when it comes to "The Plant," I was an early and enthusiastic supporter who gladly paid for each of the five installments. "Riding the Bullet," King's first foray into e-publishing, under the aegis of Simon & Schuster, was a flimsy, disposable specimen of Vanishing Hitchhiker folklorica, but "The Plant" I loved. King has promised to finish it someday, but if that doesn't happen, the novel shouldn't be allowed to simply fade away until nothing remains but a label reading "Failed Experiment."

Despite the e-book's Roger Cormanesque premise -- a crazed, devil-worshipping would-be author sends an evil plant to the offices of a struggling, low-rent publishing house, and the plant brings the company success as long as it's provided with human sacrifices -- "The Plant" is a deft satire of a variety of types from the world of book publishing. Perhaps elsewhere, in some corner of his vast oeuvre that I have yet to plumb, King has created a semi-disillusioned highbrow comparable to junior editor John Kenton, who toils in the shabby Manhattan offices of Zenith House, but I haven't found him yet. King's heroes are usually salt-of-the-earth everymen or other authors of commercial fiction, so there's a piquant delight in witnessing how exquisitely "The Plant" skewers the breed of literary intellectual who have so often dismissed him and his books. King is more generous with Kenton than Kenton's ilk has been to him, though; the author's fondness for the young editor's shopworn idealism and the thwarted energy it fuels keeps "The Plant" from degenerating into cattiness.

"You don't really get heavyweights like Milton, Shakespeare, Lawrence, and Faulkner in perspective until you've lunched at Burger Heaven with the author of "Rats from Hell" or helped the creator of "Gash Me, My Darling" through her current writer's block," Kenton writes in one of many self-admittedly "prolix" memos to his beleaguered editor-in-chief, Roger Wade. (Wade's answer? "Dear Christ, Johnny! Do you ever shut up?") Like "Dracula," "The Plant" consists of letters, newspaper clippings and journal entries written by the various principals, who are all extravagantly eccentric and often downright crazy.

Kenton, who clings wistfully to memories of his days as head of the Brown University literary society, and the thrice-divorced Wade, who feels like he's getting a brain tumor when he learns that Zenith may be up for an "assessment of position," have a complex, gruff and ultimately touching relationship. Supporting characters include a caustically brilliant black janitor who insists on tormenting the white staff by talking like Stepin Fetchit, a psychotic retired general intent on revenging himself on the Zenith editor who rejected his book, "Twenty Psychic Garden Flowers," and the mysterious Carlos Detweiller, who sets the story in motion when he sends Kenton a proposal for a book called "True Tales of Demon Infestations," accompanied by some all-too-convincing photographs.

Anyone who's ever come anywhere near a book publisher knows at least four John Kentons, a couple of Roger Wades and untold numbers of whacked-out, borderline illiterate, wannabe authors (retired gentlemen with Big Theories being a significant percentage of the latter). Apparently that didn't turn out to be enough readers to keep King from abandoning the project to work on bigger, scarier books, although I think "The Plant" would have sold better if competently promoted -- only once was I sent an e-mail notifying me of the posting of a new installment, when, obviously, messages should have gone out to everyone who bought the first section every time a new one went up. Sharp, vigorous send-ups of the book world are surprisingly hard to come by (while academic satires are bafflingly thick on the ground), so it's especially disappointing that this new one has withered at the peak of its bloom.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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