Monday, November 20, 2006

Why I Read Stephen King

It's not really even the stories, although I am, admittedly, a sucker for most of his stories, purely for the STORY part. But what it is, really, for me, is the details. He is the only popular, contemporary male author capable of writing in a woman's voice without irritating the crap out of me. ( I have friends who would award this honor to John Updike, but on that we'll just have to disagree.) I like the way Larry McMurtry wrote about women, but his male characters are always soundly baffled by the fairer sex. I like to think that Stephen King gets a LOT of input from his wife, who he apparently loves to distraction.

Anyway, back to my point, which is, I love the man's books for the details. The dialogue, the conversations, the relationships...the "smucking" MADE-UP WORDS! I love it when a book has a passage, or even just a turn of phrase, that prompts me to read it over and over again. Not counting the Great Ones, the Classic Authors, there are few contemporary writers who have this power over me. John Irving, Larry McMurtry, Eudora Welty, the recently-mentioned-here Ellen Gilchrist, and a smattering of others have done it, so that I revisit their works again and again and again. And so has King.

What started me down the road that led to this post today is that I'm about halfway through King's latest novel, Lisey's Story. I'm not sure, at this point, that the story is going to be such great shakes--by which I mean, the PAYOFF. How satisfied you feel at the end by the conclusion of the STORY. It's not looking great from that angle at this point, but there are 250 pages or so left to surprise me. I'm always intrigued when Stephen King writes about writers, which he's done several times now, always with similar themes. The idea of the darkness that lies beneath a creative mind, how dank the well from which some artists draw their inspiration, will always interest and fascinate me.

This latest book, while about a writer on the face of the tale, is written from the point-of-view of
the writer's wife, and is ultimately about her--heck, the writer is already two years dead when the book starts, so it's a feat that he's such a huge character. I do adore the way King paints marital relationships in his novels. Even in his tales of great love (and this is one), he does not shy away from showing the warts, almost celebrating those times in human relationships when we just want to smack the crap out of someone we love, and somehow using those moments to magically magnify the depth of the emotion, the love.

Stripping away any supernatural aspect, this is a story about a woman who falls in love with a brilliant, gifted, and mentally ill man...and marries him, despite pretty much knowing what she's in for (although, as usual, with Stephen King driving the bus, you know she doesn't REALLY know everything). It would be accurate to say that I am identifying, in no small part, with Lisey. I'm "feeling her," if, in Kingspeak, you can dig it.

Let me be TOTALLY clear here, for those of you who have read or will read this book: MY husband does not, in any way, approach the level of "Big Crazy" that affects Lisey's husband. This guy has a genetically passed-on dangerous psychosis, with the added complication of supernatural boogers chasing after him. Alex has neither of those problems. But he is saddled
with the mental illness that is bipolar disorder, and like the writer character in the book, he is highly conscientious in his dealing with what is basically one of life's "unfair" aflictions and does what he can to shield his loved ones from the worst of it, sometimes to his own detriment.

And what I have in common with the fictional character that is Lisey is that, in her marriage (and with a sister as well), she has taken up a post in what I think of in my own life as "the watchtower." This is a position that, if you've never been there, can't possibly be explained to you. Make no mistake: Between the two of us, Alex's lot is without a doubt the more difficult. But I can't really tell you about that, because I'm not him. What I can tell you a tiny bit about about is the "lifeguard" role, and what it means to me--and keep in mind that Alex is WONDERFUL about managing his illness. I can only imagine what it is to man the watchtower for a loved one who lacks insight into his or her own illness. But even for me, here's just a taste:

It means being ever-watchful. Always. The second you're not paying attention, that's the very second you're going to overlook a crucial clue to something that's coming right at you. You are attentive to your loved one's every mood, every action, every word, and every bit of body language. You become protective about what kind of information reaches him, and how it's conveyed. You form a buffer-zone between him and the rest of the world, when needed, and
you form his lifeline TO the rest of the world when that is called for. And you try your best to know the difference. You walk a treacherous tightrope between beating yourself up for "jumping the gun" and interpreting something as a danger sign that really isn't, and worse, second-guessing yourself for having MISSED something that maybe, just maybe, could have made a difference. Or maybe you saw it, and just didn't act on it. Or most likely, you, just like him, WANT so desperately for things to be "normal" that you simply will it to be "nothing." And I'm here to tell you, that never works.

So what was it that sparked all this navel-gazing? Just a simple, short passage in a pop novel. One that would probably passed right over by most people. This one, describing Lisey's part in what turns out to be her husband's descent into a mentally unstable state:

"There's a period of time--two weeks, maybe--when she goes
on trying to believe that things are getting better. Later she'll ask
herself how she could be so stupid, so willfully blind, how she could
mistake his frantic struggle to hold onto the world (and her!) for any
kind of improvement, but of course when straws are all you have, you
grasp them."

Can you dig it? "When straws are all you have, you grasp them." Can SK get a hallelujah? You
bet he can get one from me.

NOTE: The two consecutive Stephen King-related posts are a coincidence. I think. (cue eerie zither music)

P.S. Scroll down to the bottom of the previous post for the latest update.


  1. So...Um....I've had "Lisey's Story" for about 6 months now....

    I got the Advance Reader Copy when I was working at the bookstore.

    I lent it out to a friend, and haven't gotten it back yet...

    I totally need to read it.

  2. Interesting. It's little idiosyncracies like this that really make me wonder. Some of what you describe is what Jim has described. He words it as "walking on eggshells". It makes me feel really immature & horribly impulsive. But he doesn't say it to be mean, he actually only wrote it once to let me know how he felt. It's something I want to work on, but as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes 'wanting to work on it' just goes out the door & my emotions/moods are in charge.

    I think it's important for partners of a mentally ill person express their feelings & frustrations. What you've written has given me insight. Thanks, Belinda, for being so honest.

  3. I've had several people rave about this book - must reserve at the library - great post!

  4. I'm impressed with anyone who lives with someone like you and Lisey and go out of your way to protect them. It is such a huge undertaking and I can only admire you and wish you the best.

  5. It's automatically a lot easier when the other person is going out of their way to protect *you*, too. If our thing works, it's because there are two of us "working" it, for sure.

  6. I love this post and I have nothing more to add than that.

    Oh, well yes I do..."Hi Alex!"

  7. Hallelujah!!

    I love this post. I love Stephen King, even though, as you say not all of his stories have that 'payoff' ending. (which is typically a BIG pet peeve of mine). Have you read "The Dark Half?" I can't remember the wife's name from that book but this sounds like it could be about the wife in THAT book. I'll have to look into that...

    Nice post :)


  8. Roddy Doyle's The Woman who walks (Walked? No memory!)into Doors is utterly convincing from a female persepctive, and brilliant. :)

  9. Just finished Lisey's Story. Methinks it might be one of those great ones, that ends up being a secret told between friends,"psst, you gotta read Lisey's Story". At first, I was worried, and then I couldn't put it down. I love it when Stephen King does that to you...



  10. Lisey's Story gets better as you go. I'm not sure there's a huge payoff but I did enjoy the book. I do like the love your spouse worts and all message.

  11. Thank you. Everyone thinks I love Stephen King because he always succeeds in freaking me out. But you hit it on the head - the details. The way he writes conversations. The not being afraid to show the warts in marriage and relationships. You said it better than I ever could. And, yes, he does seem to love his wife to distraction.

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