Viking • 1992 • 331 pages
A Novel Critique
Stephen King attacks Gerald's Game from two distinct angles, the story angle and the message angle. As a storyteller, King initially seems once again at the top of his form. We begin in the middle of the action: in a remote cabin on Lake Kashwakamak, Jessie Burlingame has decided to indulge in her husband Gerald's bondage games for the last time. After he has secured her to the bedposts with two sets of police-issue handcuffs, Jessie begins to grow impatient ... then scared. Asking Gerald to let her up has no effect, and when she threatens him with divorce, Gerald only grows more turned on, convincing himself that Jessie is simply playing the game. Retaliating the only way she knows how, Jessie kicks out at him, connecting with his belly and - importantly for the novel - his genitals. Gerald falls off the bed and suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving Jessie stranded, chained up, and alone.
This initial sequence mostly works. King effortlessly sets a desolate scene and in broad sketches gives us a sense of the Burlingames as a couple. Bondage requires levels of trust and communication of which they are currently incapable. Making matters worse is Jessie's malleable self-interest: she has gone on with Gerald's kinky games simply to please him. We are also introduced to her "voices": aspects of her personality Jessie assigns names and interacts with, which eventually become something of a Greek chorus in her mind during her captivity, commenting on her situation and the events and decisions that led her here. All of this happens effortlessly; situation, mood, character, and narrative drive draw us instantly into this offbeat story, and we begin to get an impression of Jessie Burlingame as a person.
Unfortunately, impressions are all we get. Jessie's internal voices are each interesting and the interplay between them is fascinating. King also handles this device with surprising technical skill; the voices could have become confusing and difficult to follow, and King never allows this to happen. However, the voices also provide a barrier between the reader and Jessie's "true" voice. Instead of allowing us to get deeper into her character, the voices serve to divide her into composite parts. Unlike the clear division of Odetta/Detta/Susannah/Mia in the Dark Tower novels, none of Jessie's voices are fully-formed parts of her, and never really merge to become a single personality.
They do, though, allow Jessie to get to what is likely the core of her problems. Her time handcuffed to the bed forces her to dredge up a series of repressed memories, most revolving around the day of the total solar eclipse in 1963 (an event vital to the later Dolores Claiborne). During the eclipse, Jessie's father molested her; after, he had manipulated her into feeling guilty for it. The eclipse becomes a powerful metaphor for the abrupt changes in Jessie's young life. As day is swapped for night, so is faith for mistrust, love for fear, safety for jeopardy. King handles this sequence as tactfully as possible. While it is necessary for him to be explicit for us to grasp the depth and intensity of Jessie's reactions, King never crosses the line into luridness.
That this incident in Jessie's life has bearing on her current situation makes sense in the context of Gerald's Game, as well. As Jessie herself is sketched fairly broadly, it makes sense that this moment in her past defines her entire personality. Here, the eclipse metaphor extends, with that moment in her past casting a shadow over her entire present. Additionally, the handcuffs also serve as metaphors; Jessie is as chained to her past as she is to the bed. While these metaphors seem obvious, they are never clumsy. Following a lifetime of subjugation by men, Jessie realizes that freedom from her myriad shackles is up to her.
It is at this point that the story of Gerald's Game and the message of Gerald's Game become almost separate entities. Jessie's predicament is rife with real-life pitfalls and horrors. Gerald's dead body on the floor by the bed attracts a stray, starving dog who slips into the house and begins to eat him. The simple act of reaching a water glass and a method from which to drink from it becomes an unlikely source of tension and excitement; Jessie's resourcefulness and tenacity are thrilling to witness. At one point, the realities of crucifixion become painfully evident, as cramps and muscle-spasms begin to wrack through her. And there is the matter of the figure in the door, who comes into her room at night and watches her. For much of the book, neither Jessie nor the reader is sure if the figure is real, imagined, or supernatural - a concept King would revisit with the God of the Lost in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. The sequences involving this shadowy figure, who Jessie dubs the Space Cowboy, are among King's most frightening moments.
As satisfying as these elements are, Gerald's Game eventually becomes consumed by its agenda. After freeing herself from the handcuffs (as gory and thrilling a sequence as King has ever attempted), Jessie comes to the conclusion that all men are bad. Unfortunately, the book also comes to that conclusion and during the last seventy pages or so, that message is hammered home again and again. Instead of learning from her experience with the handcuffs or her success in facing her buried memories, Jessie takes an aggressively limiting stance that proves she hasn't grown as a person. By swapping her internalized self-hate outward, she is still allowing herself to be defined by the things that happened to her, rather than by the ways she has shaped herself.
Other story components mar the book, as well. King's insistence on having supernatural elements - in this case, an intermittent psychic connection with Dolores Claiborne from her eponymous novel (the two books were initially one long novel titled In the Path of the Eclipse) - seems as unnecessary here as the ghost/monster overlays in Cujo. The novel's epilogue, in the form of a letter Jessie writes to an old friend (whose personality Jessie borrowed for one of her internal voices) goes on far too long, explicating motivations and details that seemed apparent throughout the text. This letter also explains the mysterious figure at Jessie's door, in such meticulous - almost mundane - detail that it renders those previous thrilling sequences almost inert.
As a trial run for his following two "female consciousness" novels, Dolores Claiborne and Rose Madder, Gerald's Game serves a definite purpose, introducing concepts and situations King had never tackled in such depth before. In these later books, King would refine and work to perfect these ideas, blending story, character, and social commentary far more naturally. On its own merits, Gerald's Game is a good novel that falls short of being great.