"Lisey's Story"

Judging from his latest, Stephen King may have to completely abandon horror if he's ever going to write a great literary novel.

Published October 24, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

In the sly opening scene of the current season of "Lost," what appears to be a routine suburban book club discusses a novel. The hostess is frazzled, having burned the muffins. One of the guests, a stuck-up guy with glasses and a white short-sleeved shirt, makes it worse by complaining that the book (which the hostess has chosen) "isn't even literature." When someone asks him why not, Stuck-Up Guy says, "There's no metaphor. It's by-the-numbers religious hokum pokum. It's science fiction."

The book is Stephen King's "Carrie," and the joke embedded here is that similar criticisms have been leveled at "Lost," whose producers have talked fulsomely of their admiration for King. (And King, by the way, has returned the favor by praising "Lost" in his column for Entertainment Weekly and participating in a roundtable discussion for that magazine with the producers.) It's true that Stuck-Up Guy sounds like an idiot -- how often are "religious hokum pokum" and science fiction found in the same neck of the woods? Plus, I haven't noticed that sci-fi is more deficient in metaphor than any other sort of fiction, and besides: Since when does "Carrie" qualify as science fiction?

Still, there's an interesting thought on the subject of Stephen King buried under all that pseudointellectual posturing. King's latest effort, "Lisey's Story," is a case in point. "Lisey's Story" is playing the approximate role that "Bag of Bones" played in 1998: the Stephen King novel positioned as a genre-literary crossover hit. King recently told the New York Times that his reading of late has tended toward D.H. Lawrence and Eudora Welty -- what he refers to as "meeting a better class of literary person" -- and this novel represents his best shot at "a truly good book," not just a successful horror yarn.

The novel examines the aftermath of a long, fiercely intimate marriage and the struggles of the surviving spouse, Lisey Landon, to recover from the death of her husband, Scott. In some ways, King is right -- this is one of his most artful efforts -- but in reaching so far, he's also come smack up against the wall of his own limitations as a writer. It's not that King isn't gifted; in fact, he has powers he's yet to fully explore. But to follow his talent where it most needs to go, he might just have to abandon the genre that's made him, as the Times puts it, "one of the few true rock stars of the book world." That's because, as the Stuck-Up Guy so succinctly put it, in Stephen King's fiction there's just no metaphor.

In fact, Stephen King, strange as this may sound to some, is a realist. The secret of his horror fiction, as countless critics have pointed out, is how deftly he weaves some mind-boggling evil -- a satanic clown, an epidemic of vampirism, an Indian burial ground with the power to reanimate corpses -- into the familiar world of suburban life. The creepiness, and even the horror, when it comes, manifests itself in humdrum objects like alphabet refrigerator magnets or, in the one really squirm-inducing passage in "Lisey's Story," a can opener. No matter how bizarre the menace finally reveals itself to be (King has a penchant for ancient, titanic evils), the descriptions are always concrete and the language anchored to everyday speech.

For my money, the most unnerving of King's recent novels is "From a Buick 8," an ensemble piece about a small rural outpost of Pennsylvania State Troopers beset by a demonic intergalactic sedan. Yes, the bits about the car are nearly as silly as they sound, and to be honest I can't remember very much about them. But the parts of the book I can't forget describe the working lives of the troopers, and they are, in their way, far more frightening than tentacles from another universe.

King had me digging my fingernails into my palms when he described what it's like for a trooper on foot to approach a car he's ordered to pull over. You don't know who's in the driver's seat, or why they were doing whatever it was that made you start up the siren. It could be a madman, some angry idiot spinning out of control on drugs or a mean drunk with a string of outstanding warrants and a gun. Then there was the trooper who got pulverized by a passing truck while standing next to a car writing out a ticket. And even the officers who don't get hurt routinely see human bodies in just about every imaginable state of mutilation.

King has never lost touch with his working-class roots, so even the slangy, needling camaraderie of the troopers' station house felt as palpable as the bad coffee and threadbare indoor-outdoor carpet. One of the things we expect from good fiction is that it make some unknown corner of the world come alive in our heads, and "From a Buick 8" absolutely does that. Having to check in with that hell car every so often got to be a drag, but this was a Stephen King novel, which meant it needed a bloodier hook than the nightmares of roadside law enforcement on which to hang its hat. Still, the supernatural parts of the novel felt halfhearted, and King's fan base made its dissatisfaction known on the book's Amazon page.

At least when King frames a new novel as one of his more literary efforts, he buys himself a little reprieve from the expectation that all his books must feature gallons of gore and malevolent monsters. Probably the most predictable things in "Lisey's Story" are the allusions to something called "the long boy," a partially described, semi-telepathic beastie with an "endless piebald side" and some unfortunate (possibly unintended) phallic implications. The long boy is the fiendish entity that haunted Scott, a talented, popular and critically acclaimed novelist (how's that trifecta for a fantasy?). Scott's art was rooted at least in part on his ability to visit an alternate world he called "Boo'ya Moon," which is where the long boy can be found, if you're foolish enough to get stuck there after dark.

Lisey discovers a string of clues Scott left for her when, two years after his death, she finally gets around to cleaning out his study. Figuring out what's waiting at the end of this posthumous scavenger hunt gets all tangled up with two more-immediate problems: Lisey's sister, Amanda, has lapsed into a catatonic state, and a maniac has threatened to harm Lisey if she doesn't hand over Scott's papers to a professor. It's the kind of plot that, if you think about it for five minutes, tends to dissolve into a mass of improbabilities and coincidences. King has preemptively responded to that very critique in the novel itself. In one scene from Lisey's memory, Scott brandishes a newspaper report about a lost dog named Ralph who finds his way home over the course of three years and countless miles. Just the sort of thing an editor would want to cut because it's unbelievable, but "Reality is Ralph!" Scott shouts.

Scott shouts a lot, when he's not blasting his music at a deafening volume in his study and speaking a bewildering patois of pop culture references, vaudeville foreign accents, obscure literary quotations, invented words, cryptic acronyms, pet names, catchphrases, inside jokes and -- when he's really upset -- the halting, naive speech of his traumatized rural boyhood. He seems to have never spoken a simple declarative sentence in his entire life. While Lisey is a likable character, someone plausibly moving from the image of herself as a handmaiden to a fuller appreciation of her own strength, Scott comes across like one of those clever, hyperactive 8-year-old showoffs who never shut up.

Since "Lisey's Story" is partly meant to be the portrait of a successful marriage, this might seem like more of a problem than it turns out to be. Lisey and Scott -- an aimless woman and a profoundly damaged but imaginative man -- are exactly the kind of couple that forms an unbreakable symbiotic bond because neither is entirely whole alone. He gives her purpose, she gives him stability; together they function like gangbusters. Sure, her role is overly maternal, but that's just garden-variety craziness. A better balanced couple often has fewer reasons to stay hitched.

The real problem with "Lisey's Story" is that it's just believable enough to rub your nose in how unbelievable the rest of it is. The maniac's motivations for attacking Lisey are pretty flimsy (even for a maniac), and the trail of clues left by Scott leads to a "treasure" that's anticlimactic and belies the book's title. The two story lines seem to be connected only by chance -- and by the author's desire to explore Boo'ya Moon. And that's where the metaphor deficit comes in.

King's alternate world has a partial, stage-set quality, but that's OK since it's not meant to be as fully realized as, say, Middle-earth. It's a dream place. A few touches -- namely, the scary ones -- deliver a nice Lovecraftian chill. But the central feature of Boo'ya Moon is a large, magical pool, like an oversize quarry pond, that plays a key role in the unfolding story, and here King gets into trouble.

Some of the descriptions of the pool are arresting. It is very still and has a white sand beach rimmed with "long, curved stone benches." A few people are sitting on them, but not side by side. On the beach, "standing far apart from one another, were four people, two men and two women, staring raptly at the pool. In the water were a half dozen more. No one was swimming. Most were no deeper than their calves; one man was in up to his waist." If you look at the surface of the water for too long, you can fall into a trance and lose track of time, remaining on the beach forever.

All of this has a nice, archetypal resonance, but King can't seem to let it alone to work its magic. He's already explained what the pool stands for in advance, several times, via scenes in which Lisey recalls Scott yammering on about "the word pool" and "the myth pool." Then there's Lisey's opinion on the subject: "it is the pool of life, the cup of imagination ... it's always about a mile deep in the Fairy Forest, and it's always sad. Because imagination isn't the only thing this place is about." We figure out what the other things might be when we learn that "gomers" -- Scott's word for catatonics -- are actually staring at the pool in another world when they seem to be zonked out in this one.

So far, so good; ponds, lakes and oceans are often symbols of the unconscious mind. But King, with the erring, materialistic instinct of the nonmetaphorical writer, gets too wrapped up in the pool as pool. He has Scott talk admiringly of the artists who sail out to the middle of the pool "in their flimsy wooden boats, after the big ones." One of the writers he names is Jane Austen, which conjures up unfortunately hilarious images of Miss Austen, in her pin curls and filmy empire-waist gown, trying to wrestle a swordfish into a boat like Ernest Hemingway. King means well by this, but while all imaginative writing involves some recourse to the unconscious, it's hard to think of a less chthonic novelist than Austen; she speaks with the serene voice of Enlightenment reason.

By the time King reveals that some of the people standing around the pool -- the figures wrapped in shrouds -- are actually dead, confusion sets in; I'm fairly sure dead people don't have unconscious minds. Maybe the pool is meant to be the collective unconscious? But dead people don't really have that, either. Perhaps Boo'ya Moon is what the ancients used to call the Underworld, the Land of the Dead, but in that case, what are all the living people -- like Scott, who could visit it at will -- doing there? Oh, and did I mention that the waters also have miraculous healing properties?

The pool symbol becomes so overworked that it loses most of its potency. King can't let it alone. He has the autodidact's exuberant impulse to toss in every idea that crosses his mind and the outsider's suspicion of tasteful restraint. These aren't necessarily bad traits in a novelist, but they're self-defeating if you want to deliver what A.S. Byatt has called "the shiver of the sublime." That is a matter of distillation, not multiplication. If you want a metaphor to have mythic resonance, you can't explain it to death. Its power lies in the unspoken, subterranean connections between images and abstract ideas. Kafka never has Gregor Samsa stop to tell his family, "You know, my turning into a giant cockroach is all about how monstrously alienated I feel from you and the rest of society." Kafka doesn't have to. And he knows it.

It's not clear whether King just doesn't get this, or he doesn't want to leave behind those of his readers who need to have everything spelled out for them in neon lights. Probably it's a little of both, but at any rate, there's nothing primal or sublime about neon. As it goes along, "Lisey's Story" abandons its interest in the mysteries of intimacy and creation and becomes a cat-and-mouse game with a generic sadistic baddy. How else to get pulse-pounding action out of this novel's quiet premise? As with "From a Buick 8," the genre elements of the novel are perfunctory; you can tell King just doesn't care about the psycho. The climactic confrontation arrives like a dose of the drug an addict can't kick even though it no longer packs a thrill.

What King ostensibly set out to do with "Lisey's Story" -- to portray a symbiotic marriage like the Landons' and to ask what happens when one of the partners dies -- may simply be incompatible with a here-comes-the-boogeyman plot. Or maybe King's just not cut out to combine the two. "Metamorphosis" is about a man who turns into an insect and it's about a man who feels inhuman, at the same time. It's not two stories, but one, inseparable. For King, the story of Lisey's marriage and grief merely occurs in the same book with the story of her adventures in Boo'ya Moon and fending off her persecutor. They don't really reflect meaningfully on each other. When King is writing about clearing out a dead husband's stuff, then he's writing about cardboard boxes and moving vans; when he writes about the long boy and its piebald side, he's writing about a gigantic diabolical tapeworm -- it's either one or the other, not both at once. A cigar is always a cigar.

This is the realism that makes King an effective horror novelist -- effective, that is, in scaring the bejesus out of us when that's what he wants to do. It also allows him to write persuasively about real life and its less exotic trials. So here's a final question for that "Lost" book group: What kind of novel would Stephen King write if he didn't think he had to have the protagonist fighting a supernatural fiend to the death on Page 500? Just asking.

By Laura Miller

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

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