Scribner • 2006 • 528 pages
A Novel Critique
There are three stories in Lisey's Story, told concurrently, focusing on the present, the recent past, and the distant past. Two of these stories are among King's most compelling. Lisey (pronounced lee-see) Landon's recollection of her marriage to Pulitzer Prize-winning Scott Landon is one of King's most finely-drawn portraits of mature love, continuing an emotional thread first tackled in Insomnia and expanded upon in Bag of Bones (the fact that the protagonists of all these novels are widows or widowers does not seem incidental). Further, Lisey's surfacing memories of Scott's tales of his tragic childhood bring in supernatural and horrific elements, subtly at first, then more overtly. Though King novels don't necessarily rely on horror and terror for effectiveness, it is in these scenes that Lisey's Story really shines. Oddly, the story of the present, Lisey's actual story, of both her run-in with an insane Scott Landon fan and her final, painful acceptance of her husband's death, is the novel's weakest aspect. Unfortunately, this is where King wants his novel to resonate the most.
In ways, Lisey's Story is a culmination of King's long obsession with the craft of writing, the people who do it, and the people it affects. Here, he asks us to look at a writer's life from the outside in, from the point of view of a woman who has lived with him most of his adult life and knows all (or at least most) of his secrets. King has approached this subject before; Liz Beaumont in The Dark Half is fully invested in her husband Thad's writing life, understanding the danger George Stark posed perhaps before Thad himself. While Liz is a well-drawn character, she - like Wendy Torrance (The Shining), Joanna Noonan (Bag of Bones), and Terry Marinville (Desperation) - exists mostly as an adjunct to her husband and her husband's work. Though King is treading on the same general ground (and even though Scott Landon is a famous fiction writer from Maine, an overused motif that feels stale in lesser works, such as the short story "The Road Virus Heads North"), in Lisey's Story, he has uncovered new territory to explore.
Here, King offers at least one possible answer to the often-asked question, "Where do you get your ideas?" He creates a fantastical world Scott Landon calls Boo'Ya Moon, reminiscent of the land through the painting in the earlier novel Rose Madder. Scott first travels there in his childhood, doing so by "flipping" into it as Jack Sawyer did into the Territories in The Talisman (there is even a subtle reference to the drink Jack initially relies upon), in part to escape the terrifying violence of his father. In this way, Boo'Ya Moon begs comparison with Wonderland, Oz, The Hundred-Acre Wood, Narnia, even Hogwarts - children discovering fantasylands as a way to hide from the grown-up horrors of reality. The "word pool" or "myth pool" - a literal thing in Boo'ya Moon, where writers indeed get their ideas - becomes a potent metaphor for creative drive and instinct. A sheltering tree, which Scott dubs the Story Tree, feels as iconic to Lisey's Story as the lamppost is in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Young Scott - and later, a much older Lisey - relies on this tree, which feels almost as "good" during the night as it does during the day; as wonderful as Boo'Ya Moon is, he explains to Lisey, it grows "bad" at night.
This division is essential to Lisey's Story: the concept of good and evil uneasily coexisting gradually emerges as the novel's main theme. Scott Landon's father, who occasionally falls victim to what he refers to as "the bad-gunky" (whether this is supernatural or psychological is never quite clear, to the novel's strength), goes from good to evil over the course of days, at one crucial moment murdering Scott's brother Paul, who also suffers from the bad-gunky. Scott's later life, in particular his and Lisey's marriage, is in general wonderful ... but it, too, has a dark side. Scott continually refers to a vast creature, a thing with "an endless piebald side" in Boo'ya Moon that casually noticed him when he was a child and now lingers in the background of his life, always ready to notice him again. Like the myth pool, this creature becomes a powerful metaphor, signifying childhood traumas that forever affect the grownups those children become.
One interesting sequence involves Lisey's and Scott's extended stay in Germany, marred by Scott's writer's block and increased drinking. Both he and Lisey escape into frequent, nearly feral sex; Lisey later admits to herself that while the sex was satisfying and exciting, it left her uneasy. For readers following King's handling of sexuality since his earliest novels, it is fascinating to watch him unearthing complexities in sex he has never quite tackled before. In his earliest novels, sexuality is often threatening: Carrie's puberty awakening her powers, the foreboding image of the naked woman in the tub in The Shining, the teenage experimentation between Leigh and Arnie in Christine portending the murderous jealousy of the car herself, and the perverted sex between Harold and Nadine - and later, the evil sexuality between Nadine and Flagg - in The Stand are classic examples. Later, in The Dead Zone, King attempts something approaching healthy adult sex between Johnny and Sarah ... but even then, Sarah is married (a theme repeated in "The Mist" and It, and later between estranged couples in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Duma Key). Later novels, especially his "female consciousness" novels in the 1990s (Gerald's Game, Dolores Claiborne, Rose Madder) view sex as intrusive and often violent; even sequences in Desperation suggest sex in baser, darkly experimental tones. Here, necessitated by his themes, King reveals that purely physical - even kinky - sex can exist (at least occasionally) inside a healthy, mutually satisfying marriage.
The most frightening aspects of Lisey's Story are in Scott's stories of his childhood, told to Lisey at the start of their courtship and gradually recalled as the novel marches to its close. This device is similar to that in Gerald's Game, in which Jessie Burlingame's current predicament is interrupted (and informed) by the tragic events of her childhood. Scott's stories themselves are potent, told with an off-kilter, kinetic energy unlike the more fluid pace of Lisey's memories of her marriage, or the halting, almost stilted feel of the present. While King makes efforts to connect the tragedy of Scott's past with that of Lisey's present (one more intriguing connection being that of siblings - Scott's brother and Lisey's sister - afflicted with mental instability), the fact remains that Lisey's most important repressed memories are not her own.
Regrettably, Scott Landon remains the most powerful character in the novel, despite his being dead at the outset, rendering Lisey's Story more Scott's story. At the start of the novel, this seems expected: Lisey herself is overwhelmed by Scott's death and is unsure of how to carry on without him. Despite a powerful early memory of Lisey saving Scott's life at a speaking engagement, every action Lisey takes seems to further reinforce her standing as Scott's wife, rather than her own person. Unlike the constant - occasionally ghostly - presence of Joanna Noonan in Bag of Bones, the memory of Scott and his lingering force of personality overwhelm the novel, forcing Lisey into his shadow. The final sequences, in which Lisey travels to Boo'Ya Moon to uncover Scott's final missing manuscript - and, in so doing, finally learn to cope with his death - are admittedly stirring, but even here, the focus is on Scott's farewell and the final, terrible story of his past. Lisey's acceptance of Scott's death (and life) seems almost incidental.
Indeed, much of Lisey's present story lacks the sense of importance it should have. Early in the novel, we find Lisey steadfastly refusing to go through Scott's papers (what she refers to as his "incuncabilia"), thwarting the efforts of Scott Landon experts desperate to uncover lost writing. This portion of the book is fascinating, allowing a glimpse into an area of publishing general readers may not be privy to, as with the squirreled-away manuscripts in Bag of Bones, or the rare-book industry discussed in Wolves of the Calla. Unfortunately, the "Incunks" are represented by a man who calls himself Zack McCool, a dreadfully generic obsessed fan who harasses, attacks, then mutilates Lisey in her house. Lisey lures him into Boo'ya Moon, where he is devoured by Scott's long boy (more shades of Rose Madder), and where Lisey herself is healed in the myth pool - both good metaphors for closure. However, the Zack McCool storyline, while gory and occasionally frightening, is simply not as powerful as the other aspects of the novel, feeling standard and occasionally forced.
One other mixed element in the novel is Lisey's and Scott's shared language. Though it is fun and a little thrilling to get a glimpse into the intimate wordplay of a long marriage, the invented words themselves - "smuck," "bool," "african" for "afghan," among many others - occasionally feel overused and impenetrable. King would later utilize invented language to more menacing effect in the mouth of Under the Dome's deceitful Big Jim Rennie.
In final estimation, Lisey's Story is a partial success. The stories of Lisey's and Scott's marriage are fantastic, exploring both the good and bad of a long, complex relationship. The tales of Scott's dark childhood are even more fascinating; even though King has looked at the specific horrors of children (especially children with special powers) in the past, here he presents a new story that is as fresh as it is disturbing. Lisey's story, however, is undone by both an underwhelming antagonist and by Lisey herself, who is never quite as compelling as she needs to be in her own novel.