misery

This is the last of the books that I was reading for Halloween. Yes, I finished it nearly a week late, but real life got busy for a while. I haven’t read On Writing in a few years, but one of the impressions I got from that book is that Carrie and Misery were two of the most important books of his pre-1999 career. I loved Carrie, so reading Misery was a good next step. I have to admit that I didn’t love it quite as much, probably for a variety of reasons.

This is a retelling of the old Scheherazade myth. The sultan is Annie Wilkes, a serial killer who one day finds her favorite author in a wrecked car on the side of the road. Paul Sheldon is one of those writers who keeps a clear mental division between the books he writes for himself (or his Art) and the books he writes for the public. He’s carrying a manuscript of one of the arty books, Fast Cars, which is full of profanity and grit and the worst of mundane humanity; the popular books are all about Misery Chastain, a vaguely Victorian sensation novel heroine. Imagine that East Lynne and Lady Audley’s Secret had a grandchild, set in their time but told in late Twentieth Century language. Paul hates Misery so much that he killed her at the end of the last book. Frankly, I was intrigued at the thought of her husband and her lover raising her child together, with no one to rely on but each other in pants-less isolation, but Paul being straight, Ian and Geoffrey do not get any sexy time. So, Annie makes Paul write a new Misery book, resurrecting her favorite character, and his writing keeps him alive from one day to the next.

The thing is, that this American male Scheherazade gives up. It may seem odd to specify gender and nationality here, but to be unpleasantly honest, have you ever met an Arab woman? They are tough and resourceful and they get what they want. Paul Sheldon just loses and loses and loses. The story gives him a reason to live long enough to see how it ends. He tells the story to keep himself from suicide. I was glancing through my journal the other day and saw how close I had come to dying, and I agree in the power of writing and story. For me, it wasn’t fiction writing – it was my own story. Those of you who were reading my Saudi Arabia blog may remember how dark those days were for me; I got through by telling myself a story, the story of my future. Sure, it may never come true the way I imagined it, but my ability to believe in that story saved my life.

What gets to me about Misery’s Return is that Paul Sheldon finally achieves what he thought was impossible: a book that was both artsy enough to satisfy him, but with enough popular Rider Haggard appeal to sell. It always bothers me, the way people of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries act like Good and Popular are mutually exclusive categories, as if people can’t tell or don’t like what’s good. Culture is culture, whether any one person calls it high or low, and what’s popular defines the culture we live in. It’s a better thing to embrace reality than to hide from the aspects of culture that a person doesn’t like or agree with. The best music, the best art, the best literature, is what survives; if people are still reading Stephen King horror novels in a hundred years, then that makes him better than the Writers’ Workshop novelists who can’t get a readership.

I like the three-act structure; King knows his storytelling. Act One establishes what is normal in the created world, which is that Paul has a downstairs bedroom in Annie’s house and she manipulates him by controlling his access to painkillers. His legs are splinted, but they’re healing in all sorts of bad ways, but there’s nothing he can do about it because he’s been kidnapped. Annie is a bit bipolar, but that doesn’t account for the murderousness. She has a puritanical streak, and won’t say anything stronger than ‘Cockadoodie brats,’ which I find odd. I’ve never really had much use for euphemism; words are powerful, but only in that they are containers for feelings and ideas. A word like Fuck is only horrible when it holds hatred and rage. As a representation of sexual activity, it’s an innocent sign, labiodental fricative moving to a vowel somewhere in the middle of the chart (if you’re American; Londoners seem to go with a much higher, frontal vowel) and finishing with a plosive at the back of the mouth. There’s something in the mouthfeel of the word that gives me a feeling of satisfaction and comfort. Act One leads to the burning of the manuscript and the agreement to bring Misery back from the grave.

Act Two deals primarily with the writing of the book and Paul’s attempts to escape. He is given a typewriter and paper, and gets back into the challenge of writing a story that his audience, one insane kidnapper/murderer, will accept and enjoy. He describes it as seeing a hole in the paper, which he tips himself into as if he were Alice following a white rabbit. He also finds and reads through Annie’s murder scrapbook; I never understand why criminals need to hold onto mementos of their crimes, as if they somehow become separated from their own pasts and need tangible reminders of what happened, as if without the proof they will forget their own actions. If you killed someone, how could you possibly forget him? And if you did forget that you were a murderer, why would you want to remember? To ensure Paul’s compliance, Annie concludes Act Two by amputating one of his feet. With an axe.

Act Three starts off farther ahead in time, but flashing back to what we missed, recreating the trauma victim’s perception of time as disjointed and fragmentary. Paul’s lost a thumb by now, but he still finishes the book. The way Paul loses things – his legs, his freedom, his manuscript, his will to live, his limbs – reminds me of Captain Ahab, who loses various navigational aids and personal comforts in his pursuit of the white whale that took his leg. When he loses his pipe, I just know he’s going to lose any sense of sanity. Paul pushes through and completes his journey (to the end of Misery’s Return) just as Ahab completes his (to the final confrontation with the whale, and death).

Think about the film Stranger than Fiction for a minute. We spend most of the movie waiting for Karen Eiffel, the writer, to figure out a way to kill Harold Crick, her character. She knows the book will end with his death, but she can’t quite figure out how to do it. Then, at the last minute, she can’t write that he is dead, and finds a way to bring him back. I feel like something similar happened to King in writing this book. Paul knows he’s going to die, and I fully expect it. A passage that I remember from On Writing that I can’t locate at the moment indicates that in his mind, Paul wasn’t going to make it. Annie Wilkes was going to win. He was literally going to be consumed by the character he hated but everyone else loved, in the form of Annie’s pig that she named Misery, and the singular Annie Wilkes edition of Misery’s Return was going to be bound in his own skin, as if this book were his organs, as if the story were himself. The writing led me to believe that this ending was going to happen, but at the last minute King saves Paul. He fights back and lives, though his mind will never really get away from Annie Wilkes, even after she’s dead. Now, why did he do that?

It would be fair enough to ask, I suppose, if Paul Sheldon in Misery is me. Certainly parts of him are . . . but I think you will find that, if you continue to write fiction, every character you create is partly you. When you ask yourself what a certain character will do given a certain set of circumstances, you’re making the decision based on what you yourself would (or, in the case of a bad guy, wouldn’t) do. Added to these versions of yourself are the character traits, both lovely and unlovely, which you observe in others (a guy who picks his nose when he thinks no one is looking, for instance). There is also a wonderful third element: pure blue-sky imagination. This is the part which allowed me to be a psychotic nurse for a little while when I was writing Misery. And being Annie was not, by and large, hard at all. In fact, it was sort of fun. I think being Paul was harder. He was sane, I’m sane, no four days at Disneyland there.

Perhaps there’s a certain sense of justice. Annie deserves to die, Paul doesn’t. She herself reminds us that the author is like God and He Only decides who lives or dies, so every time a fictional character dies the author killed her on purpose. And every author is in truth all his characters. The Ex used to read a lot of Diana Gabaldon, and in one passage she tells the story of sitting with some fans who were praising the hero to the skies but trashing the villain, and she thought about how foolish they were not to realize that Black Jack Randall was sitting at the table with them. King had a choice about which part of him to lose, what deserved to die. He chose to keep the writer and dispense with the kidnapping murderer.

There was a distance here between author and reader that I didn’t feel with Carrie – I think it’s related to the drugs. By the middle of the 1980s, he had become a substance abuser, which he was not when he wrote his first novel. And this is the book that helped him turn it around.

I did think, though – as well as I could in my addled state – and what finally decided me was Annie Wilkes, the psycho nurse in Misery. Annie was coke, Annie was booze, and I decided I was tired of being Annie’s pet writer. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I quit drinking and drugging, but I decided (again, as far as I was able to decide anything in my distraught and depressed state of mind) that I would trade writing for staying married and watching the kids grow up. If it came to that.

It was the drugs taking away his freedom, his art, his body, himself. Which is why Annie Wilkes could not win at the end of the book – Paul Sheldon may have given up, but Stephen King had not. Because the book ends in a different place than it began, I want him to go back and change some details so that I can accept the ending more easily, but at the same time I get it. When I think about the real life and the real person behind the book, when I read his story between the lines, I can take Misery as it is. King survived because he had people in his life that he loved; Paul doesn’t. All he has is the story, and if you’re a fictional character, the story has to be enough. Or, if you’re a suicidal English teacher in the Middle East and you feel cut off from all the people who love you, the story of your future has to be enough. Sometimes stories are all we have.

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