Insomnia is one of those King books that a lot of people seem to actively dislike, but I can’t imagine why. I’ve loved it since the first time I read it. It’s a reference-heavy book — particularly when it comes to Dark Tower references, and I’ve noticed that Dark Tower lovers specifically seem to have less of a problem with it, so maybe that’s why, but it’s not as if it only references Dark Tower books. It takes place in Derry, for heaven’s sake — the flood from the end of It is referenced multiple times, as are other events from the book. And Mike Hanlon. And things from other books. Ludlow (Pet Semetary) and Raymond Andrew Joubert (Gerald’s Game) both make appearances. Meanwhile, the Dark Tower references are so thick and heavy that this might almost be part of the series. Clotho and Lachesis basically lay out the tower/multiverse concept. Not to mention Ka. Roland is referenced toward the end. And so on.
Possibly people don’t enjoy reading about older people. I’ve heard the book referenced as a potential cure for the condition that it’s named after, and it’s true that it does, in places, have a slow sort of feel, like following a retired person who has no reason to rush anywhere and can’t easily do so anyway. I kind of suspect that’s on purpose, given the age range of the main characters, and I don’t have a problem with it. Besides, it doesn’t really last — much of the last half of the book moves remarkably quickly.
I do think it suffers somewhat from using Ralph Roberts as the main character/point-of-view character. Given how closely this book focuses in on issues like domestic violence and abortion rights, I actually think it would have worked better if told from Lois Chasse’s perspective. Or maybe even Helen Deepnau’s, but I think Lois would have been best positioned to give the reader all of the same information and place characters in mostly the same roles, but with a more feminine viewpoint. As it stands, there’s a little too much old white dude attitude around these issues — enough to bother me.
Ralph drives me a bit nuts on the abortion topic. He seems to be generally OK with the fact that it exists, but does not want to hear about it. It’s a frustrating attitude for a woman — men generally want to be heard on the subject when they want to have an opinion on it, either because the abortion in question concerns their female partner or just because they have thoughts that they think are important. But when they don’t want to have an opinion on it, they wish we’d just shut up about it. But we can’t, because too many dudes who want to be heard when they do feel like it happen to be in positions of power over whether or not it will happen in the first place. And guys like Ralph Roberts — and maybe Stephen King, I don’t know — don’t seem to get that. They think because they as individuals aren’t stopping us, we have nothing to complain about. And that’s just not true.
You see this same attitude with the police officer Leydecker, too. He insists that Susan Day and the WomenCare group are stirring the pot with no justification because abortion rights are safe. Something else that a lot of older dudes think. Sure, they may be on the right side, so to speak, in that they generally think it’s OK for us to decide things about our own bodies, but they wish we’d shut up, and they don’t think we’re at risk. And maybe King thinks this too — or thought it then. Hopefully, if he did, he’s seen differently now. My margin notes for Leydecker’s line about abortion rights being safe read: “But they’re not. See Texas. See the Supreme Court. See Susan Collins, if you want to talk about Maine specifically.” We’re not safe, this is not settled, and until it is, expect us to make noise. We have to, because the men, even the ones who are on the same side, theoretically, generally won’t. They won’t oppose abortion, but they don’t do much to defend it, either. One of the big reasons women want to see a female president and more female politicians generally is because we want representation that understands, that doesn’t see our concerns as minor and up for compromising away, and doesn’t view our bodies as somehow not completely ours, even when they mouth the words. A lot of men truly don’t think they see women as less, as property, as baby factories (ew) but somewhere deep down, they do. They must… otherwise they’d actually prioritize defending our rights. They mostly don’t, even the “good” ones. So we have to do it. I object to the whole idea that activists for choice, especially female activists, are just rabble-rousers. These same men definitely wouldn’t call a male activist for some appropriately manly cause along the same political spectrum a rabble-rouser.
I wasn’t thrilled about Ralph demanding Helen Deepnau tell him why her husband had beat her up so badly, either. I suppose it’s a common enough question and I’m sure there wasn’t meant to be any bad intent, but why would you ask in that situation? The why doesn’t matter. There’s no good reason to knock out your wife’s teeth. When you pair that with Ralph’s thought about being part of a generation that figured it was a couple’s own business when a man knocked his wife around or a woman cut with her tongue — as if those two things were somehow equivalent — it left a bad taste in my mouth.
In the section where he’s having the conversation with Gretchen Tillbury, I noticed this: “He’s got these dopes believing that women in Derry are undergoing involuntary abortions, that half of them haven’t even realized they’re pregnant before the Centurions come in the night and take their babies.” The idea was to illustrate that these people have really gone off the deep end. And I realized, this was written in a world before Qanon groups, before there were people who really believed in a child trafficking ring run out of the basement of a pizza place (that doesn’t even have a basement), and before people really gathered in Dallas where they thought they were going to see JFK Jr come back to life and… appoint Trump president, or something. My point is that the nuts are a lot nuttier these days, it seems, and I wouldn’t be surprised or shocked to learn that an anti-choice group thought that unknowing women were getting secret abortions. Hell, they think unknowing women are having their fertility impacted by a vaccine as it is. I’m not saying that the anti-choicers in this book aren’t bananas, I’m saying that this particular manifestation of bananas doesn’t appear so shocking from where I’m sitting in 2021.
Political and philosophical questions aside, I think the adventures that Ralph and Lois have in this book are exciting. I have suffered from insomnia myself from time to time, and I also sort of like the idea that it could at least serve a purpose like letting you see a hidden world of auras. Because at 3am, when you’re exhausted and can’t sleep, insomnia feels like the most pointless suffering ever. At least these characters get a point.
And of course, in the end, Ralph and Lois don’t really go through all this to make a political or philosophical point, or even to save a bunch of lives. They go through this to save one life, because that one life will make a brief but important appearance along the last legs of the road to the Dark Tower. I don’t think you absolutely have to read this to understand that when you get to it, but it definitely doesn’t hurt.
Final thought — I’m fairly fascinated by the Green Man that Lois sees around the end of the story. I don’t know why he’s there. I don’t know what he does when he’s not in this story. And I don’t think we ever see him again? If I’ve forgotten and he shows up in another story, I’d love to know about it. And if not, I wish King would put him in another story so we can find out more about him. I’ve always wondered.