Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Lisey's Story

I just finished Lisey's Story. Like many of King's books, it is long--513 pages, including the afterword--and complex. Also like many of his books, it is an absorbing, can't-put-down page turner long on plot and short on characterization.

Let's talk about the good things first, because there are lots of them. Lisey's Story is a good book. A good read, the kind of book you sit down meaning to spend a couple hours with and end up reading until midnight, as I did last night. No, it isn't Ulysses or Against the Day. It's a hell of lot more accessible than either of those, and perhaps this is what gets Harold Bloom's back up. Lisey's Story will sell a zillion copies. Harold and his fellow nitpickers will never be able to install heated pools in their Maine basements based on book sales. Nor will anyone try making a movie of Deconstruction and Criticism. I can see brothers Miramax all over Lisey, though.

By now you pretty much know the story: Lisa "Lisey" Landon, widow of famed writer Scott, must confront demanding professors, siblings, and an arch lunatic while considering the best way to deal with her husband's papers. Winding through these real world problems are memories Lisey has tried to bury: Scott's horrific childhood and his way of coping with it, an alternate reality he calls "Boo'ya Moon."

Boo'ya Moon is both beautiful and terrifying, a place to avoid after sundown, when the monsters come out. It is also a place of healing, home to "the pool," the place where words and stories swim.

Boo'ya Moon is a marvelous act of sustained metaphor. It's rare for writers to really talk about what imagination means, how a rich fantasy life often teeters along sanity's fine line. Good writers, and possibly the bad ones, hear a lot of voices. And it's either write them down or take Lithium. Sometimes it's bad enough to do both, or self-medicate with liquor and/or drugs, as King has. Either the voices are speaking too loudly, or they've fallen silent. How tempting it is to still them.

But King never has, and in a way, he's brave. Here is a man who's been to hell and back--I doubt even Harold would argue that--and managed to incorporate his experience into his work. When Scott Landon falls fatally ill, King shows us the hosptial with the kind of small, chilling details that can only come of being there:

"To the left of the door is a sink where Jantzen washes his hands...On a gurney to the right are gauze masks, latex gloves in sealed packets, stretchy yellow shoe covers in cardboard box with FITS ALL SIZES stamped on the side, and a neat stack of surgical greengowns." (427)

Scott Landon, like his creator, struggles with drinking. Interestingly, he is never into heavy drugging, and manages to quit smoking. But his demons are never far, and get him in the end, leaving Lisey with her quest.

King's depiction of long marriages, with their in-jokes, self-referential language, and wordless communication will bring nods from many. The pain of Lisey's loss is soberingly elegaic. King's serious health problems--the seed of the book sprang from Tabitha King's remodel of her husband's office while he was hospitalized with pneumonia, an aftereffect of the '99 accident--aren't easily dismissed as "penny dreadfuls." Scott Landon was a lunatic, but he loved his wife. And she loved him.

At times, though, it is only the strength of Lisy's affection that allows us to set aside some of the book's weaker aspects. Lisey is not an entirely realized woman. Early in the book we are shown Lisey and Scott reading novels:

"Scott reads people like Borges, Pynchon, Tyler, and Atwood; Lisey reads Maeve Binchy, Colleen McCullough, Jean Auel,...Joyce Carol Oates, and just lately, Shirley Conran." (56)

I took this list at face value--Lisey is not an intellectual, though King is at pains throughout to depict her as intelligent, resourceful, practical. But a woman who reads Joyce Carol Oates isn't likely to avoid Atwood or Tyler. When Scott proposes to Lisey, he uses the adjective "holistic" to explain part of his love for her. She asks him what it means. As they grow wealthy from Scott's worst book, traveling widely, one wonders why the obviously game Lisey, who follows Scott to Boo'ya Moon and hangs in there even as the uglier details of his past unfold, doesn't grow with him intellectually. Lisey is seemingly content with her lot as the practical wife, and has little of her own personal life. She does not work. They do not (wisely, we find) have children. What is she doing all that time Scott is writing? Being practical and grounding?

Some of the language, meant to invoke the Landon marital code or family life, can get annoying. "Smucking" and "blue-eyed wonders" need a rest. And why are Lisey's parents Dandy and Good Ma? The endearment "little Lisey" goes only so far when we have no idea what Lisey looks like until the book is nearly finished. Call me trivial, but early on Scott Landon is detailed from his dandruff to his nail biting. We never even learn Lisey's haircolor. Finally, on page 360, we learn that Lisey is slim and that Scott once described her face as "a fox in summer." Huh?

This lack of physical detail does have one great benefit: the gorefests that once reigned (or rained, if you want to be grossly literal) in King's novels are seriously toned down here. Even when Lisey's stalker finally gets his prey, we are shown little, and what we do learn is flatly told. Scenes from Scott's childhood are told almost starkly, only adding to their horror--and believability.

In the end, King says it himself, referring to the professors longing to get their hands on on Landon's papers:

"Oh, maybe a little treasure for the more rabid Incunks, the collectors and the academics who maintained their positions in large part by examining the literary equivalent of navel-lint in each other's abstruse journals; ambitious, overeducated goofs who had lost touch with what books and reading were actually about...." (416)

About being taken from this world to Boo'ya Moon.

Stephen King: Lisey's Story. Scribner, New York. 2006.

Books, Stephen King, Book Reviews

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