Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Week of "Misery," Day 2

Welcome back to my week-long celebration of the oogy glory that is Misery.  As I indicated yesterday, I've got a topic in mind for today, and the following photo will give you an indication of where we're headed:

That's right, we're on a steamer ship bound for the Dark Continent. 

(Yes, I'm aware that Stephen King has nothing to do with the Shaft films, but hey, it was either that poster or a photo of Toto ... and Richard Roundtree wins that fight every time.)

In Misery, King uses a running theme involving Africa, and I'd like to explore that theme a bit.  It's an interesting topic, and I doubt I'll do it justice -- I'm later than I'd've liked in getting started on writing this, and I've got an early morning tomorrow -- but I think I can at least hold my own interest for a while.  I may have more to say on the subject as I spend more time writing about Misery this week; if so, I'll post addendums in the form of comments.

One of the first pages of the novel is a mostly-blank page which contains only two words, both of them centered, with several lines separating them, at the top of the page: "goddess" and "Africa."  It's an interesting page, or at least so says the part of my brain that remembers the poetry-writing classes I took in college.  In them, I learned that in poetic terms, EVERYTHING is significant: line placement, word placement within those lines, capitalization (or the lack thereof), spacing, alignment, page justification ... if it existed on the page, then it mattered

Hell, sometimes it mattered even if it didn't exist on the page.  One of my favorite poems that I ever wrote, and one for which I still feel I ought to have be lauded just a wee bit more by my classmates, was one titled "Unpoemed Title."  Beneath that I wrote "by Bryant Burnette," and the rest of the page was a blank.  Still makes me chuckle.  Heh.


Part of me always thought that that philosophy -- that everything mattered and meant something -- was a load of crap, an artsy-fartsy way of justifying one's own pretensions.  But another part of me bought it completely, and knew without having to think much about it that it was absolutely the truth, because ... well, because a blank page has as much meaning as you want to invest in it.  "Unpoemed Title" was a joke, yes, but it was also a way of posing a question: what the hell is a poem, anyways?  Or, more precisely, what isn't a poem?  And if this isn't one ... then why isn't it?

Stephen King is a fine writer, and a sometime poet, and though I've long since abandoned any active interest in either writing or reading poetry -- I simply don't have the focus required to really be good at doing either -- I do feel secure enough about it to say that when someone like King composes a page as carefully laid-out as that page with "goddess" and "Africa," and nothing else, on it, he's not doing so randomly, or haphazardly, and certainly not as a lark.

No, that's King's cue for us to pay attention to those two words, to realize that they are invested with ... what?  Well, that's for us to decide, probably ... but certainly they are invested with something important.

In terms of the plot of the novel, the notion of "Africa" is most important as the setting Paul chooses for the majority of Misery's Return, the novel he writes for Annie.  (Only ... he doesn't really write it for her at all, does he?  More on that later.)  That novel turns out to be the best thing he has ever written, and it, as much as anything else, turns out to be his salvation.

Let's go down the rabbit hole a bit, shall we?

Why does Paul choose Africa as a location?  It isn't made explicit, but it appears to begin with a (seemingly) random association his mind makes between Africa and Annie:

"That prescient part of his mind saw her before he knew he was seeing her, and must surely have understood her before he knew he was understanding her -- why else did he associate such dour, ominous images with her?  Whenever she came into the room he thought of the graven images worshipped by superstitious African tribes in the novels of H. Rider Haggard, and stones, and doom."  (p. 7)

A few pages later:

"An awful memory bloomed there in the dark: his mother had taken him to the Boston Zoo, and he had been looking at a great big bird.  It has the most beautiful feathers -- red and purple and royal blue -- that he had ever seen ... and the saddest eyes.  He had asked his mother where the bird came from and when she said Africa he had understood it was doomed to die in the cage where it lived, far away from wherever God had meant it to be, and he cried and his mother bought him and ice-cream cone and for awhile he had stopped crying and then he remembered and started again and so she had taken him home, telling him as they rode the trolley back to Lynn that he was a bawl-baby and a sissy."  (p. 27)

A bit earlier, on page 24, Paul had a dream in which he was being eaten by a bird.  It is worth noting that while this seems like a simple, throw-away line, it's actually not so simple at all, nor, possibly, so much of a toss-off as it might at first glance seem.  Paul flashes to the memory of the caged bird because, clearly, he himself has become trapped; he sympathized with the bird as a child and cried even though he knew not why, but as an adult, he recalls the association with new and extremely disturbing implications.

And yet ... only a few pages earlier, he has dreamed not of being a bird, but of being eaten by one.  In Paul's mind, then, he is both captive and ... something else.  It is not clear what that something else is, and he seems still to be its victim, but if the something victimizing him -- and in the Paul-eaten-by-a-bird scenario, the bird must represent Annie -- is itself a symbol representing a captive creature, then that dream implies that Paul may yet hold some manner of power over it ... over her.

The majority of the novel, obviously, supports the notion of Paul as a captive, and in more ways than one: on page 52, the association is made plain as day: "[Annie] had stolen a rare bird with beautiful feathers -- a rare bird which came from Africa."  At this point, Paul has no hope of escape, no hope of ever finding his way back to "Africa":

"But you mustn't cry for that bird, Paulie, because after awhile it forgot about how the veldt smelled at noonday, and the sounds of the wildebeests at the waterhole, and the high scidic smell of the ieka-ieka trees in the great clearing north of the Big Road.  After awhile it forgot the cerise color of the sun dying behind Kilimajaro.  After awhile it only knew the muddy, smogged-out sunsets of Boston, that was all it remembered and all it wanted to remember.  After awhile it didn't want to go back anymore, and if someone took it back and set it free it would only crouch in one place, afraid and hurting and homesick in two unknown and terribly ineluctable directions, until something came along and killed it."  (p. 149)  
Paul is thinking these thoughts to himself, possibly in his mother's voice, and it's interesting to ponder the few stray associations and connections between Paul's mother, who seems, if only in Paul's mind, to want her son to remain a captive, and Annie, who certainly wants the same thing.  But that is perhaps a topic best left unexplored in this particular essay.)

And yet ... that dream linking Annie to the bird...

The fact is, Paul holds the key to his own cage, once again in more ways than one.  For he does return to Africa, by way of Misery Chastain's broken memory and a steamship chartered by her two lovers.  This is certainly not a coincidence on King's part, and while it is not made evident whether or not Sheldon is conscious of what he is doing, it hardly matters; it is the doing itself that matters, and in making the mental journey to Africa, Paul is ultimately able to break free of his captivity.

Literally speaking, Paul is able to use Annie's sheer enrapturement with Misery's world to hatch a plan in which he finally gains physical dominance over her.  It doesn't come easy, and his ingenuity has to come into play in ways that transcend his ability with storycraft, but in the end, it is only Annie's obsession with Misery that allows him to defeat her.

There's more to it than that, though.  Thanks to the "journey" to "Africa," Paul is able to make a legitimite breakthrough in terms of his art and his craft as a writer.  And eventually, he seems to realize it:

"Had he hated Misery?  Had he really?  If so, why had it been so easy to slip back into her world?  No, more than easy; blissful, like slipping into a warm bath with a good book by one hand and a cold beer by the other."  (p. 263)

This realization leads directly to the plan Paul hatches to kill Annie:

"How would you feel if she made you burn Misery's Return? the interior voice whispered, and he jumped a little.  Drifting away, he realized that it would hurt, yes, it would hurt terribly, it would make the pain he had felt when Fast Cars went up in smoke look like the pain of this kidney infection compared with what he had felt when she brought the axe down, cutting off his foot, exercising editorial authority over his body.
     He also realized that wasn't the real question.
     The real question was how it would make Annie feel."  (p. 264)

Paul is the captive, yes, but in some ways, he is also the captor: he holds Annie in the prison of not Knowing How It All Ends.  As long as he remains a vital storyteller, he has at least a modicum of power over Annie, and in the end, a modicum is enough.

This shift in the power dynamics between Paul and Annie is also somewhat reflected in Misery's Return, which apparently -- though we are not privileged with a glimpse at any of this part of the manuscript -- involves a climax in which Ian, Geoffrey, and Hezekiah race two other parties through the tunnels behind a huge stone idol of a goddess.  The winners of the race will determine whether Misery herself lives or dies (p. 275).  In "real-life" terms for Paul, this represents the mental chess game he must play with Annie in order to stay alive, but the mere possibility of survival once seemed distant and unattainable, whereas now it is enough of a possibility that a race is afoot: can Paul finish the novel, and use the end of it to gaim dominance over Annie, before the police show up again, thereby putting into motion Annie's own plan to kill first them, then Paul, then herself?  Paul, too, is racing to save a life: his own.

Paul wins in the end, and is able to not merely save his lief, but to return to it, shattered but not, apparently, destroyed.

What's all this mean?

Well, for me, it gets at the essence of the novel, which is that in order to survive the world, we must maintain some sort of dominance over it, but in order to do that, we must first gain some sort of dominance over ourselves.  Paul has become stripped down to his essence, and within that existence, he finds himself again, and is able to connect his talent for story with his artistic yearnings.  If Annie represents his fans, the ones who buy his books but also keep him "confined" within the label "popular author" and away from the label of "serious writer," then Misery's Return represents his embracing of that status, which in turn allows him to transcend it.

Put simply, Misery is about gaining control of one's own destiny.  A simple theme, but one with not-so-simple ramifications; they are probably different for each reader, and so that is where I will stop for today.

Tomorrow I want to examine some of the mental fixations Paul develops -- or, perhaps, falls back upon -- during the course of the novel, and I may well consider how these intersect with Annie's similar, though darker, fixations.

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