Koontz's 'Intensity -- anagrams and Freud

January 14, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff

"Intensity," by Dean Koontz. Alfred A. Knopf. 308 pages. $25 Less than 40 pages into "Intensity," the new thriller by Dean Koontz, the reader is treated to the scene of a young woman shackled to a bed, the prisoner of a serial killer who has already dispatched her parents, brother and sister-in-law. Overhead hangs a large portrait of Freud, for the victim, a psychology student, "clung to a belief in many aspects of Freudian theory; she embraced the dream of a guiltless world, with everyone a victim of his troubled past and yearning for rehabilitation." She dies beneath Freud's gaze, at the hands of a man who kills simply because he enjoys it.

Get it? Get it? In case you don't, Mr. Koontz will invoke Freud's empty stare over the lifeless body a few more times before he is done. The reader who makes it through this strangely earnest book will then be rewarded with this bit of wisdom: "There are no explanations, only excuses."

Yes, that's all there is after spending 24 hours - the time elapsed in the book, in real life it will seem much longer - with another psychology student, Chyna, who escapes the killer's initial raid only to end up pursuing him to his lair. Chyna is an attractive character, resourceful and determined, but her pursuit of the killer is truly incredible, not to mention stupid and masochistic. I'd be tempted to connect this behavior to her unhappy childhood and her mother's string of dangerous/abusive boyfriends, but there are no explanations, etc., etc.

Philosophically, I'm not at odds with Mr. Koontz. He's right that our society, and the popular culture that reflects it, remains enamored with an outdated "Rosebud" school of psychology. It is rare that one thing, or one event, can explain a person's life. Some people are just born rotten.

But in using this set-up for his latest novel, his 60th, Mr. Koontz swiftly and neatly paints himself into a corner. If there are no explanations, then what's the point in writing 300-plus pages about a thrill-killer who embraces murder as a way to celebrate the moment? How can any writer redeem the tale of this happy psycho, Edgler - Edgler! - Foreman Vess, whose name, he informs Chyna solemnly, can be rearranged to form such "power words" as God, Fear, Demon, Save, Rage, Anger, Dragon, Forge and R. Dole. (Actually, he didn't mention the last one, but surely it belongs on the list.)

This book literally gave me nightmares, but I refuse to believe that's a recommendation. At any rate, Mr. Koontz, a perennial best-seller, has already had his say about such negative observations. At the end of "Intensity," Chyna reads a cruel review in the paper: "Any more, such little hatreds and indirect assaults seemed to her uncomfortably clear reflections of stronger homicidal impulses that infected the human spirit; symbolic killings were different only in degree, not in kind from genuine murder, and the sickness in the assailants' hearts was the same."

So Edgler and I are one and the same, although I have no desire to eat a part of Mr. Koontz to absorb his essence. The reader should know that the letters in my name, which include my middle name "Madeline," can be rearranged to form many power words, including Panned, Appalled and Real Mean Dame.

Laura Lippman, a features writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for 14 years and often writes about literature and publishing. Before, she worked at the Waco Tribune Herald and the San Antonio Light.

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