King's Highway pt. 64: Lisey's Story

Okay, so, in keeping with the approach described in Hearts in Atlantis (i.e. A book is like a pump. It gives nothing unless you first give to it... You read the first ten percent, and if you don't like it by then, if it isn't giving more than it's taking, put it aside.”) I got to the end of part one (pg. 170, more than ten percent, actually) and, I'm sorry to say, this story and these characters are just impenetrable to me. I give up.

I really wanted to enjoy this one, as many out there is it's one of King's best. Not the least of whom says:

“In Lisey's Story, Stephen King makes bold, brilliant use of his satanic storytelling gift, his angelic ear for language, and above all, his incomparable ability to find the epic in the ordinary... In his hands, the long, passionate union of Scott and Lisey Landon - of any long-lived marriage, by implication - becomes a fantastic kingdom, with its own geography and language, its dark and stirring chronicle of heroes and monsters, its tragedies, griefs, and glories. King has been getting me to look at the world with wonder since I was fifteen years old, and I have never been more persuaded then by this book of his greatness.” - Michael Chabon, author of Wonder Boys and Maps and Legends

Which, if you haven't read, you should. Very much a travel guide for the aspiring writer/ reviewer.
It's nice to see a writer like Chabon championing King's work like this, and I wish I could have accessed this story he's describing. It sounds great, exactly the sort of story I usually love. It's entirely possible that it all comes together in the rest of the book, but after finishing part one, I felt like Steve and Andrea in that episode of Beverly Hills 90210 when they can't find the rave and grow increasingly bewildered.

“U4EA,” s2, e15, thank-bless-and-damn you, internet. Anyway, this was me, holding up an egg to the 170 pages I read, trying to find the way, and getting increasingly lost.
I'll try again as an old man. Or maybe before then, who the crap knows. Someday. As mentioned elsewhere (with The Talisman or Black House), I gave it the old college try, but it's actually kind of nice to end this project with some unread King on the shelf for the proverbial rainy day.

Here's the plot, as described by the wiki: 

“It has been two years since her husband's death, and Lisey is in the process of cleaning out her dead husband's writing area. A series of events occurs that causes Lisey to begin facing certain realities about her husband that she had repressed and forgotten. As Lisey is stalked, terrorized, and then mutilated by an insane fan of her husband's, Lisey begins recalling her husband's past—how he came from a family with a history of horrible mental illness that manifested as either an uncontrollable homicidal mania or as a deep catatonia, how he had a special gift, an ability to transport himself to another world, called by Scott Landon 'Boo'ya Moon,' how Scott Landon's brother was murdered by his father when his brother manifested an incurable insanity, and finally how Scott Landon murdered his father to save his father from the madness that had finally taken him over.”

Sounds great, right? I'm intrigued. I wish I could have found my way in. 

So, while I can't offer my personal experience with the book, there are two reviews of it that are worth discussing. They each touch on many things that have occurred to me throughout this project. The first is by Jim Windolf for the New York Times:

Lisey’s Story succeeds where Bag of Bones, its fraternal twin, failed. Both books are supernatural love stories focused on mourning and marriage. But Lisey and Scott make much better novel subjects than their Bag of Bones counterparts. They are loopy and dramatic. Unlike the couple in the earlier book, who are chewed up by creaky plot machinery, Lisey and Scott are the story. They fit F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum, ‘Action is character.’”

The two books may indeed be fraternal twins, but even if I was not as enamored with Bag of Bones as many King fans, I was compelled to finish it and can still remember many details about Mike Noonan and the gang. I only gave up on Lisey’s a few days ago and couldn’t tell you anything, really, about Scott and Lisey. Or anyone else. It’s like the pages self-erased themselves from memory. What’s true for me isn’t true for everyone, of course (and thankfully); all I can say is I don't personally see Lisey and Scott as emblematic of that Scott Fitzgerald quote.

“In the afterword, King challenges reviewers to check his first draft against the final version to see how rigorously it was edited (by Scribner’s Nan Graham). “I had first-year French essays that came back cleaner,” he writes. Despite her red pen, the novel has its lulls, its repetitions, its gratuitous explanations. A few unfortunate lines remain, for example, “Amanda sounded just as bright as a new-minted penny.” (Cut to Bloom, spitting out his morning coffee.) But give him a break: King is a volcano. Let his new admirers play Flaubert to his Hugo.”

I'm not quite sure what he means, here. Anyone? What exactly would Bloom object to? Perhaps “as a new-minted penny” is trite, but really, this speaks to the “ear” to which “serious literary criticism” is tuned and not to King’s merits or lack of merits as a writer, or some universal axiom. Should every character in every story speak in a manner pleasing to Harold Bloom? With all due respect to said ear (or, say, Gertrude Stein's, whose highly-refined taste is equally self-evident in the writers she promoted or her critical theory, or Ezra Pound's, before he went crazy) why should a writer concern his or her self with “pitching” a story to it? And is memorizing the frequency of a particular ear the right approach to begin with?

The anxiety of influence, indeed. Call it what you will, but it strikes me as just a snootier version of an Oprah's Book Club approach to reading/ writing/ evaluating. Snootier, but no less arbitrary.
I've often compared King to Dickens; both authors seem less interested in pleasing the ears of the literary-gatekeepers and more interested in “hearing” their own characters/ speaking directly to their respective Constant Reader. Is it a coincidence they are the most-read novelists of their respective age? Perhaps. It's interesting to consider, though, and perhaps it speaks to the endless conflict between popular success and literary acclaim.

(King addresses this in his Playboy interview, but I don't have it handy. Interested parties may look there for more, though.)

Lisey’s Story has an abundance of solid descriptions (“His mouth tastes like the inside of a piggybank”) and indelible images (a boy burying a corpse with a toy shovel). Throughout, King is as cagey as a veteran pitcher, employing a career’s worth of tricks to good effect. He ends chapters midsentence, slips in and out of italics, breaks into verse, deftly changes tenses and switches perspectives and narrators the better to carve out his big story.”

Hasn't he done all these things (ending chapters mid-sentence, italics, tense-change, etc.) many times before? Perhaps Windolf is saying that in Lisey's these things are used to better effect? Fair enough, but I disagree. Here, they alienated me rather than drew me in.

I’ll offer this final quote without comment, as, if you enjoy the novel, it seems to me a lovely description/ validation of it.

“Boo’ya Moon is “this world turned inside-out like a pocket,” and it’s as real as J. M. Barrie’s Never-Never Land, L. Frank Baum’s Oz or the Grimms’ forest. Like those places, Boo’ya Moon arises from childhood longings for the things not provided by one’s parents or guardians, and it’s as forbidding as it is wonderful. You come away from Lisey’s Story convinced of the existence of King’s fantastic realm and of something else rarer still in fiction, a long, happy marriage.”

The second review is by Laura Miller for Salon.

“In the sly opening scene of the current season of Lost, what appears to be a routine suburban book club discusses a novel. One of the guests (complains) 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. 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? … 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. (It plays) the approximate role that Bag of Bones played in 1998: the Stephen King novel positioned as a genre-literary crossover hit. (It) represents his best shot at “a truly good book,” not just a successful horror yarn.”

Bag of Bones again, interesting! Some responses:

1) I remember that scene from Lost. That season three premiere may have been the most personally-anticipated season premiere of my lifetime. Looking back not just on Lost but on Abrams' and Lindeloff's other work, it's funny to see how much King they recycle and acknowledge. The way Lost played out, actually, is very similar to Dark Tower stuff.

2) Is Bag of Bones the twinner of Lisey’s Story, then? I ask those of you who’ve read both. I enjoy compare/ contrasting or linking King’s novels together. I think Needful Things and Under the Dome are an interesting duo, for example, or The Dead Zone and Duma Key. If I had this blog to do over again, I might have read everything first and then divvied it up in pairs like that. Food for thought. Anyway.

3) This is really beyond my scope, here, but I like the idea of evaluating “religious hokum-pokum” with sci-fi. Certainly, much sci-fi of the twentieth century (particularly the early-to-mid) is arguably as “hokey” as religious parable, and certainly King has set up shop at the crossroads, previously. (Like the end of The Stand, or pretty much the whole thing, actually.) To answer her question re: 'how often', I say, often enough.

This is where the reviewer and I part ways:

“(In Lisey's, King comes) smack up against the wall of his own limitations as a writer… as the Stuck-Up Guy so succinctly put it, in Stephen King’s fiction there’s just no metaphor.”

Really? It seems odd to me to make that point about hokum/ sci-fi and then claim that there is ‘just no metaphor?’ within the work of the guy who has given us imaginary-thing after imaginary-thing like vampires, telepaths, town-covering force fields, multiverse-towers, time travel, alien clowns, Tommyknockers, He Who Walks Behind the Rows, et al.

Am I misreading this? Isn't it most of it metaphor, freely-offered to the reader, not overly-explained?

“(Lisey’s) is 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.” 

All of the above is representative of the type of language I found so distancing. I don't fault for King for trying something new (and he seems consistent enough with it, in what I read), but the language of the novel was the biggest barrier for me.

That and I just didn't find Lisey (or her family) all that compelling. (Agreed on Scott Landon, though.) I like the idea of this book (and these characters, even dialogue like “Reality is Ralph!”) very much, but it just wasn't coming together for me.

Miller details at length her issues with the way King handles Boo’ya Moon (she has the opposite reaction to it than Windolf did) aka the “myth-pool,” but I only want to speak to her last point, here:

“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.”

Maybe true for Lisey's, I'll defer to those who read the whole thing, but I’m just not sure that’s an accurate take on the many metaphors King has given us over the years. Start with Salem’s Lot and work your way forward through the years; do you see an author whose characters turn to the audience to explain their metaphorical value? 

I'm reminded of the “Oliver Stone Land” sketch from the old Ben Stiller Show, where haunted-house characters jump out from the shadows to say things like “I'm an Indian and I represent Death!” etc. I like a lot of Stone's work, but it's a fair point, I guess. I bring it up because I just don't have this reaction to King's work. I discussed this a bit last time around, with Gerald's Game, so I guess it's on the brain.
I’m probably parsing Miller's review too much, so feel free to check it out yourself and agree/ disagree. Just felt like including/ discussing their perspectives a bit before moving on, as they got me thinking. The relationship between signs and signifiers and the whole meta/ post-modern debate always fascinates me, even when no agreements are reached.

In the final analysis, I don't agree that Lisey's reveals King's “limitations” as a writer, but it may reveal certain limitations common to the perennial populism vs. elitism approach. All Things Serve the Beam.


  1. Reaching back to my years as a high school English major...

    I think Miller would have liked Mcgoohan's "Prisoner" because the idea I got from her review is that she's more of an enthusiast for so called "symbolist" literature like Kafka. My guess is Ms. Miller must be a big Salvador Dali fan or something of the like, with little taste for realist fiction such as King writes, where such "explanations" are part of the genre.

    Remarkably, I got the characters pretty well and was willing to go along, the only problem with the book for me in terms of style was asking the following question...No offense but, did you just write a chick flick book Steve?...NYAGGH!!!!

    So yeah, then I put the book down barely halfway in, yet the more I think about it, the more I'm convinced (I hope, again no offense) I was overreacting. Maybe if I ever finish it I'll broadcast my thoughts in some way. I've had time to ponder over that book you see, and how it relates to King's others and in particular King himself. So I'm not sure, but I think I may have some idea of what to expect going back to it.

    Here's some quotes from the Windolf review that I find interesting, and food for thought:

    But when he really wants to put a scare into you, he brings on his most fearsome monster of all, that quivering mass of ego and insecurity known as ... the writer.

    King’s writers have a tendency to serve as conduits to the supernatural world, which usually results in sprees of violence. All that heady dreaming at the desk, the author seems to suggest, leaves the flesh open to corruption. Think of Jack Torrance, the short-tempered playwright of “The Shining” (1977). One moment he finds himself working, confusedly, on a five-act play, and the next moment he’s chasing his wife and young son with a mallet at the behest of vengeful shades. Or take Thaddeus Beaumont, the mild-mannered novelist of “The Dark Half” (1989), who finds material success only when he adopts a nom de plume. Thaddeus revels in the freedom to write “any damn thing I pleased without The New York Times Book Review looking over my shoulder,” but then his alter ego springs to life and goes on a killing rampage.

    In a 1993 essay, King wrote: “The question which haunts and nags and won’t completely let go is this one: Who am I when I write?” The same question lies at the heart of his new novel. Scott Landon, the fragile, prize-winning novelist at the book’s core, answers it like this: “I am crazy. I have delusions and visions. ... I write them down and people pay me to read them.” In “Lisey’s Story,” King once again finds terror in the creative act, but for the first time he sees beauty there, too."

    Just food for thought.


  2. "Lisey's Story" is the only Stephen King book that I did not enjoy reading. There are individual sections that work well, but the marriage-language shared by Lisey and Scott annoyed me so badly that I hard to restrain myself from simply putting the book down and never finishing it.

    I'll be curious to see if I like it better the second time. I suspect I won't.

  3. There were several King books I did not enjoy reading (The Tommyknockers, Gerald's Game, Insomnia, and The Regulators). However, I never struggled to finish them.

    I had a real grudge match going with Stephen King while reading Lisey's Story. I kept thinking, "I don't care how foolish or stupid this novel gets, I'm going to finish it."

    The villain was tacked on, much like the "monster" in Gerald's Game. I disliked everthing about this novel -- the plot, the characters, the made-up language, and its length.

    I will reread it again as I strive to reread and review his entire body of written work. But I ain't gonna like it.

  4. ChrisC - you very well may be right about Laura Miller's likes and dislikes.

    It mildly bums me out to leave the work unread, but I've just got too much other stuff to read and not enough time to read it. I gave it the Ted Brautigan window, and it failed to grab me. Too bad - the descriptions make it sound fantastic, but I was just lost/ not-entertained/ unmoved.