All dread the “meh” review, and alas, yet again, it is upon us. As a long time Stephen King fan, I acknowledge that he has hits and he has misses (your mileage will vary on which is which). The Institute has gotten more buzz than other recent King novels because of all the TV and film adaptations of his other work popping up like Carrie from the grave, but it’s not his best.
We begin with a long interlude about Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop turned drifter who takes on a night job with the sheriff’s department in a small town in Georgia. Then we switch to the Ellis family which consists of a mom and a dad and a very gifted twelve year old named Luke. In short order mom and dead are killed and Luke is kidnapped. He wakes up in a room that is almost, but not quite, a perfect replica of his room at home, but which is located in a dorm inhabited by other children. While they are not all geniuses (Luke is universally acknowledged as the smartest among them) they all have low levels of either telepathy or telekinesis.
Will the kids, led by smart kid Luke, rise up against their oppressors? They sure will. Will Tim and Luke ever cross paths? You betcha. Will I find all kinds of problems with the book and still manage to read the entire thing over a remarkably short period of time? Yessiree. These are not spoilers. They are self-evident.
I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I read Firestarter in middle school but this book feels like a retread of older themes that is trying too hard. King is usually great with pinning down how people talk and think, but the level of folksy in this book, especially at the beginning with Tim and the small town, is almost a parody.
Meanwhile, the kids don’t seem like kids. Even genius kids would not sound like forty-year-olds and their pop culture references would not come mostly from the 1990s. They make so many 1990s references that I thought this book was set in the 1990s until someone made a reference to Hamilton. King has written so many great child characters that it’s especially jarring that these kids read not as gifted kids but as artificial constructs. As the book progresses, either the writing improves or I just fell into the flow of it, but it never completely loses the feeling that these are chess pieces as opposed to characters, with a couple of exceptions.
As is usually the case with King, there is a certain amount of liberal love (Donald Trump is disparaged, by name, twice, and Hillary Clinton’s slogan “Stronger Together” helps the kids make their plan). There are an equal number of problematic elements, such as the fact that the small town only has one female deputy, and she’s a ditz who exists purely to become Tim’s girlfriend.
I liked the images of small town nights, and the plot just zips along. I’ve read King books that I loved and some that I hated but not once have I said, “Well this is boring.” I like his slow character building moments, and this book has plenty. I also liked it that the message of the book is firmly on the side of idealism. The kids, and the good adults, are, in fact, “stronger together” in multiple ways, and the book highlights the importance of the individual and the importance of community, and how vital it is to balance the needs of both. There’s a lot of found family in this book which I just love.
Overall, however, this book just makes me want to re-watch Stranger Things and re-read Firestarter. It feels artificial instead of organic. But maybe that’s ok, maybe it’s just about freaking time we had a bunch of psychic kids storming the barricades while quote Hillary Clinton. Just because it’s artificial doesn’t mean I can’t get behind it.