Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Body Disdained Memory: "Gerald's Game" Revisited, Part 1


Gerald's Game was released during the summer of 1992; July 13 is the date I've found that seems the likeliest to be accurate.

This was my first summer post-high-school, and I don't think I will ever think of Gerald's Game without remembering a bit about who I was during those weeks.

I'm going to indulge in some walk-down-memory-lane type stuff now, and I forgive you entirely if you just rolled your eyes and said, "Oh, fuck that noise" and are considering bailing out.  I'll make it super-duper easy for you to skip straight to the part of the post where I analyze Gerald's Game the novel and not Bryant Burnette the phantom teenager.  Alls you've got to do is scroll down a bit, find the photo of the Gerald's Game hardback, and voila, you have arrived at your destination.

Those of who who feel like taking a bit of a walk with me, you are welcome, you are thanked, and you are now walking.

I graduated from high school in the spring of 1992, and I had only a few weeks before beginning summer-school classes at the University of Alabama.  This was advice I'd been given by somebody; probably my dad, designed to just to sort of get my feet wet.  Nervous?  Boy howdy.  I never got comfortable in high school, and that was the same place day in day out, with the same people, for four years.  (Well, two places, actually; ninth and tenth grades were one campus, eleventh and twelfth another one across town.)  I had friends and was not by any means a complete outcast or anything like that, but the niceties of being a social animal just never clicked for me, and it was the cause of a not inconsiderable amount of distress.

For example, I never had a girlfriend the entire time I was in high school.  For that matter, I never went out on a single date.  This is not much of a surprise, considering that in all four years, I literally only asked one girl out.  And that didn't go terribly well.  ("I don't know if you like movies, but would you like to go see Lethal Weapon 3 with me tomorrow night?"  "I haven't even seen the first two, so not really."  Awkward silence ensues.  Wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't had to expend what seems in retrospect like enough courage to power a bullet train on working up the nerve to even ask.  But I did, so it was pretty bad.)

I worried then that there must simply be something wrong with me.  How else to explain not being able to interact with people the way seemingly everyone else in the entire world could and did?  And I don't think I was incorrect; there was something wrong with me, but I had zero idea of how to fix it, and so consequently, I found it a lot easier and less stressful to just bury my head in a book whenever I had the option to do so.

My author of choice, of course, was Stephen King.  Hey, I bet you knew that already, didn't you?  There were other authors I was reading, too, but none of them filled the void that King's books filled; not even close.  Remember the section in Carrie in which Carrie tries to impress upon her mother the need for her to fit in and get along?  That spoke to me.  The whole novel spoke to me; I never took it as a horror novel, it was always a tragedy in my eyes.  And all the other losers in King's books, too, spoke to me.  Not just the losers, either; the winners, as well, most of whom seemed like people worth aspiring to be.

I'm not going to go so far as to say that Stephen King's books got me through high school; that would be sensationalist exaggeration.  But they were a big part of what made it bearable.  No doubt about that in my mind.

Anyways, I graduated, and jumped more or less straight in to the college life, and I did so with a determination: I would not be the loser in college that I was in high school.  I figured it all boiled down to the same thing many another high-school dweeb has figured it boiled down to: man, just wait 'til I get someplace where nobody knows me, then I can really turn some things around.

Spoiler alert: it didn't work that way.  (Has it ever, for anyone?)

But let's not worry about that.  That's not what this post is about; this post is about the fact that during the summer of 1992, I had a spring in my step and a smile on my face.  I had a job (my first actual job -- and at the office I mention in the Pet Sematary section of this post, by the way), and whereas a lot of my friends thought I was crazy for starting classes during the summer break, I thought it was cool.  I enjoyed walking around campus, learning where all the buildings were and visiting the library and seeing all the new people, and most especially knowing that college was going to be a different sort of life for me than high school had been.  Ah, yes!  The unmistakable feel of optimism blowing through the air, wrapping you in its embrace as you went about you new daily routine!  Wonderful.

Things were not, in actuality, one whit different.  But I didn't know that; or if I did, I thought it was only because the changes had not actually kicked in yet.  But they would!  Any day now.

Turns out that you have to actually make things like that happen, but 1992 Bryant didn't know that.  And 2018 Bryant wonders something:

How can a person get through high school without learning that simplest of lessons?  How can a person be allowed to get through high school without learning that?

I was taught how to read, and how to do mathematics, and how to drive a car, and how to dissect a fetal pig; I was taught various history lessons, and how to block a defensive lineman when a fullback is behind you carrying a football, and so forth.

But I was never taught how to be a normal and functional social human being.  And not only that, I was never even taught the fact that it was MY responsibility to teach myself how to be that; never taught that if I failed to do so nobody else was ever going to pick up the slack.  I'd have earned an F in that class or maybe a D-), and if somebody had been there to actually GIVE me an F, maybe that would at least have been something useful.  A lot more useful than math has ever been to me, I can tell you that goddam much right the fuck now.

So maybe it's no surprise that while the optimism and the hope was there during those first couple of college semesters, the self-determination and drive were not.  Let's not blame poor old 1992 Bryant for it, though; he just thought it was a thing that happened somehow, so he kept on waiting, and waiting.  He figured that part of it out, though, eventually, but not for several more Stephen King books into the future, I am sorry to report.

Gerald's Game was released on or around July 13, which if I'm not mistaken was between the two terms that formed summer school at UA.  It was also around my birthday, and was also around the time my family went on our annual summer vacation to Gulf Shores.

Gulf Shores plays a crucial role in the blog's origin story, by the way.  My love of Stephen King was kicked off on our family vacation there in the summer of 1990, when my father told me about a review of The Stand that he'd read and mistakenly told me it was written by Steven Spielberg.  If you're interested enough to read more about that, you can do so here.  The short version is that I found out it was by Stephen King instead, read it despite the lack of Spielbergian authorship, and have been a massive King fan ever since.

Back to 1992.  I'd made a conscious decision to become a different person, but this certainly did not mean that I was going to give up being a Stephen King fan.  Why would I do that?!?  When Gerald's Game came out, I bought it, and (I'm assuming) waited until the first summer term ended to begin reading it.  I spent the ride down reading it.  I have no clue how far into it I already was when we left, but I have a vivid memory of reaching the degloving scene while we were still on the road.

It took all the fortitude I had in me not to make hurking noises, and it may even have required conscious effort not to straight-up vomit.  I am almost positive that I stopped reading lest I find myself (A) hurling up a damn storm and -- worse by far, potentially -- (B) having to explain what was going on.  Look, man, let's face facts: if you're a somewhat shy and retiring young man straight out of high school, and you're in a car with your parents and your younger brother, you do NOT want to have to explain the contents of fucking Gerald's Game.  This is not a thing to be desired.

It occurs to me now that I might have the chronology slightly wrong.  We may not have been driving down to Gulf Shores while I was reading that part; we may instead have been in the car driving from one destination in town to another.  And indeed, now that I stop to reflect on things, I am 99.9% positive that I actually bought my copy of Gerald's Game in a Gulf Stores bookstore I usually visited while we were there.  And now that I'm remembering things, I am fairly certain that not only did I buy Gerald's Game there, but that I also -- flush with cash from my first job (or perhaps lingering graduation-gift money) -- bought these:




I know for a fact that I bought all three at that bookstore, and that I was gobsmacked to find hardbacks of each in pristine condition; and I am fairly certain that I'd gone to the bookstore specifically to get Gerald's Game, and that I waited to get it until the vacation specifically to have a reason to go to it.  Hey, cool!  I love remembering stuff like this.

I also have a very vivid memory of being at a beachhouse, sitting alone in the house, reading while everyone else was outside.  This was not a beachhouse we were renting; we stayed in a condo.  However, one of my dad's cousins (who was married to a doctor) owned a beachhouse in town, and every summer, that side of my dad's family got together there, typically around the fourth of July (although it seems to have been later this particular year).  I got to see all these aunts and uncles and cousins that I typically only saw at Christmas otherwise, and I loved it, because I loved them all.

In terms of reading Gerald's Game, what I remember just as much as nearly hurking in a car is that it was about a woman trapped by herself in a room, all alone in the world, and that meanwhile, I was reading it alone in a room, but able to hear all these excellent family members outside.  Sometimes some of them would float inside for a while, to check on something in the kitchen or go to the bathroom or whatever, and they'd say something to me (ask me how college was), and I'd say something back (pretty good so far), and then we'd go back to our respective things.  I can only speak for myself, but I was pretty well content.

I finished the novel probably in a day or two, would be my guess, and was very confused and disturbed by a lot of it.  Asked, I'd have told you that I didn't like it very much.  It probably became my new least-favorite King novel.

In retrospect, this is not the least bit surprising.  Gerald's Game ain't the kind of thing a wet-behind-the-ears kid is going to grok.  This had happened to me before with King's books; not often, but Cujo flummoxed me, and so did Roadwork, and so did a lot of The Tommyknockers.  It was not a totally foreign experience to dislike a King book, but it was out of the ordinary, and I can remember being disappointed that my first new King novel post-high-school had been that one.

Rereading the novel last month, I found myself thinking of that version of me, and feeling a little bit haunted by the conjunction between the novel's content and my naive summer optimism.  There's no correlation between the two, really; there's not much in Gerald's Game that speaks directly to my own experiences.

Why, then, does this novel seem to be speaking to me as much as it is? 

It's a good question, and I'm guessing it's got something to do with the way in which my memories of reading it harmonize with the content.  But I think there's more to it than that.  Gerald's Game is, among other things, about the process of examining one's past so as to find a better future.  It's about reconciling oneself with the things with which one must be reconciled.  It's an admission that some damage can't be repaired, so it simply has to be embraced.  These are ideas that resonate with me.  Not for the reasons they matter to Jessie Burlingame, but that's no prerequisite, is it?

Nope.

Good ol' Stephen King.  He meant a lot to me in high school, and has meant a lot to me ever since.  I'm still finding new aspects to the nature of that one-way relationship, even in books that I'd written off at one point in time.  A great deal of my life feels like an extension of that image of me sitting alone in that room, while the world goes on outside and I content myself with being removed from (but not entirely distant from) it.  It's no great chore to be content in that room; it comes sort of naturally for me, when the worries of the world and adulthood quiet down enough to permit it.  I think to some extent, that's just who I am: a guy in a room while everyone else is outside. 

Being that with a Stephen King book in hand seems a lot more agreeable than being one without.
  


 
 
I'm going to explore this novel over the course of three posts, each of which is going to be devoted to a small handful of topics.  There will be a fourth devoted to the Mike Flanagan movie adaptation, as well.

I wasn't sure how to structure these posts initially, so I opted to listen to my gut, which in this case told me to begin by considering the sad case of the dog who makes a meal or two out of Gerald Burlingame's stiffening corpse.
 
The dog is referred to as "the former Prince," and in some ways, I think his story is the saddest and most upsetting of the entire novel.

We first hear about the dog on p. 5; pretty early, before Gerald is even dead.  Jessie is trying to talk Gerald out of his "game."  King tells us that Jessie has more or less mentally checked out of the room she is in, saying that she "had ceased to be here when the keys made their small, steely clicks in the locks of the handcuffs."  King continues:

But none of it had affected her hearing in the slightest.  Now it was a chainsaw she heard, snarling away in the woods at some considerable distance -- as much as five miles, maybe.  Closer by, out on the main body of Kashwakamak Lake, a loon tardy in starting its annual run south lifted its crazed cry into the blue October air.  Closer still, somewhere here on the north shore, a dog barked.  It was an ugly, ratcheting sound, but Jessie found it oddly comforting.  It meant that someone else was up here, midweek in October or no.

Unfortunately for both her and the dog, this is not the case.  We won't find that out for a while, though; for now, the barking is merely a part of the aural landscape in which Jessie is living.  It's portrayed very evocatively by King, who uses it as one of the several ways in which he puts us as inside that room alongside Jessie as we can possibly get.

The hints are there, though.  On p. 13, we hear from the dog again: "the dog began to bark in the woods again, sounding closer than ever now.  It was a splintery, desperate sound."  This is mere background noise to the drama that is unfolding between Jessie and Gerald, of course, so we probably don't take that much notice of it.  Still, a dog's bark shouldn't be "splintery" and "desperate."  That implies that something is wrong.  Something is wrong, of course, but in terms of our experience of the novel we are focused at this point on the incredible wrongness between this married couple we've just met.

A few pages later (17), a metaphorical dog shows up.  King tells us that Jessie is "revolted she had once again allowed" [Gerald] "to chain her up like a dog."  Now, if we wish, we can make a metaphorical connection between Jessie and the dog in the woods, who, it has very subtly been suggested, is perhaps in dire straits of some sort.  So will Jessie end up being; in fact, she already is, she doesn't know it yet.

It's very soon after this that she kicks Gerald and inadvertently causes his death, after which she goes into a sort of whiteout of panic in which she almost believes she is in a Twilight Zone-esque corridor filled with fog.  Part of her consciousness wants to stay there, too, but:

What finally got her going again was a barking dog.  It was an exceedingly ugly bark, bottomheavy but breaking to shrill bits in its upper registers.  Each time the animal let go with it, it sounded as if it were puking up a throatful of sharp splinters.  (p. 22)

King has now begun to make it clearer that whatever is going on with this dog is unusual and serious.  He's using it as a sort of echo of Jessie's own condition.  Jessie hears the barking again on p. 27-8 ("it sounded no closer, but it sounded no farther away, either"), at which point Jessie speculates that it is probably an ownerless stray, and therefore of no use to her.  Apart from brief mentions on p. 30 (of the dog's inability to serve for her as a way out of this situation) and p. 32 (of all the sounds -- (dog, loon, chainsaw, even the wind -- having fallen silent), this is the last we hear of it for a while.  King has seemingly been very deliberate in how he has deployed the dog's barks.  If we're clued in to what he's doing, the "splintery" and "desperate" sound serves as a reflection of Jessie's state of mind and the danger to her continued existence.  If we're not clued in, then we're probably taking the dog merely as a bit of the background; window dressing of a sort.

But King, of course, has other plans, and he begins to unveil them in a very strong moment that closes Chapter 4.  Jessie has tried as hard as she can to pull her wrists out of the handcuffs, and they have not budged one iota.  She begins to understand that she is truly trapped in place, and she asks herself aloud what she is going to do.  "Just what in the hell am I going to do?" she reiterates, and one fell paragraph break later, King drops a bomb:

As if in answer, the dog began to bark again, and this time it was so close it scared her into a scream.  It sounded, in fact, as if it was right outside the east window, in the driveway.

Novels are a lot less capable of deploying jump-scares than movies are.  A reader's relation to and experience of the material is fundamentally different; even if you're experiencing the novel in audiobook format, it takes too long for a sentence to develop for a true jolt to happen.

This is about as close as it can get, and it's masterful.

Jessie soon find out that the dog is even closer than she initially thinks, and before long (p. 51) King gives us another masterful moment.  Just as present as the barking of the dog has been, there has also been another sound: the banging of the door that she and Gerald forgot to fully close, which is whapping back and forth every so often as the wind blows.  It is a doubled sound, one bang followed, always, by another.  But then King gives us the sound again: "bang-bang, bang-bang, bang."  Jessie's mind takes note of the failure of the sound to resolve.  "What about that damned door?  Just what about it?  The damned door hadn't finished its usual double bang, that was what about it.  As if this thought had brought them into being, Jessie now heard the distinctive click of a dog's toenails on the floor of the entryway.  The stray had come in through the unlatched door.  It was in the house."

Notice how King is shaping the world around Jessie into a reflection of her mental, emotional, and physical state.  I say "state" singular because they are kind of one and the same.  And the world so closely corresponds to it that in a sense, the dog's appearance really does feel as if it has somehow been created by Jessie's distress.  Or, perhaps, IS Jessie's distress, given form.  King is playing with that idea throughout the novel; this is by no means a random occurrence of it here.  His intent, I think, is to put forth the notion that the world is what we make of it; or perhaps that we are ourselves reflections of the world's true nature.  It's a rich idea, and probably too big for me to get into here.  But it's worth keeping in the backs our minds, for sure.

We now reach the dog-related material that I really wanted to talk about: the revelation of where the dog came from.  King dives into the dog's point of view for about two pages, which is the entirety of Chapter 6.

This is not the first time King has ever given us prose from a dog's point of view.  He's peculiarly good at it, in my opinion.  Not everyone agrees with me on that, but he'd done it already in both The Stand and Cujo, and I find it to be devastatingly good in both.  If one were inclined to do so, one could accuse King of including the bits where he does it in Gerald's Game for no better reason than that he couldn't help himself from doing it.

I think there's more to it than that, though.  Bear in mind that these are the only bits of the novel in which we break away from Jessie's own point of view.  Yeah, sure, we get a few bits from "Ruth" 's point of view, but that's really just Jessie.  Bearing in mind that Gerald's Game is also a companion piece to Dolores Claiborne, which is (apart from the very brief epilogue) ENTIRELY from one character's point of view, I think it means something that King takes a few moments to step away from Jessie; and if it does, then it must surely mean something that he chooses to do so in this manner.

And it's not rocket science to suggest that what King is doing is reflecting Jessie's own state of existence in the sad tale of this poor dog.  And remember, King had already done some subtle work to subconsciously link Jessie and the dog.  So I think that when he steps outside of her perspective and into the dog's, he's counting on us to make that intuitive leap with him and understand that he's really still talking about Jessie.

Consider what we find out about the dog's origin.  "Its former name -- Prince -- was hideously ironic now," King says (p. 52), and we find out that this is because it has been abandoned by its former owner.  "The former Prince" is almost entirely the only way King ever refers to the dog by name, which is just abysmally sad to me in the way it implies that a dog's name is tied to the love invested in it by its owner; without that love, the name cannot and does not maintain.

We find out that the former Prince was previously owned by a lawyer, who bought the dog on a whim at a roadside vegetable stand as a present for his daughter, who has seen it and fallen in love with it.  They are staying at their lakehouse, and the lawyer knows that in order to bring the dog back to their actual home, he will have to pay a fee that could run as much as a hundred dollars. 

Apparently too big a cheapskate to entertain this notion, he instead elects to drive out to a deserted stretch of road and put the dog out.  "He had slept well that night," King tells us (p. 56), "not sparing a thought for Prince (soon to be the former Prince), who spent the night curled up beneath a fallen tree, shivering and wakeful and hungry, whining with fear each time an owl hooted or an animal moved in the woods."
 
Man, that's brutally sad.  And it's brought about by a shitty father, whose own selfishness and miserliness outweigh whatever love he feels for his own daughter.  Prince is a living, breathing being, and this man simply casts him aside like he's garbage.

We will soon find out that Jessie's own father was a complete piece of garbage, too, so the story of the former Prince is related to Jessie's by virtue of that callousness toward a daughter's feelings.  There is no other seeming direct connection between the two cases, but Jessie's plight and the plight of the former Prince are nevertheless the same at the bottom: they are the result of the actions of a father who abandoned his responsibilities in a moment of selfishness.

And, too, the lawyer is connected to Gerald in a mild way: by virtue of his status as a white-collar man (Gerald is a stockbroker).  This, too, will have additional meaning in the novel; not much, but worth a mention.  We may come back to that later, possibly in a different post.

From this point, the former Prince is used mostly as a reminder of how deadly Jessie's situation is.  He comes in and starts snacking on Gerald; it's what he has to do to survive.  It's gross and it goes against his conscious desires, but he does it because he has no real choice.  This prepares us for Jessie's eventual acceptance that if she is going to survive, she will have to go as far as it takes, and will have to do things that are almost literally unfathomable.

Much later, once she is free, she is getting into her car and preparing to try to drive away to get herself some help, and King -- canny fellow he is -- has the good sense to bring the former Prince back one final time:

She sobbed with relief and turned on the headlights.  A pair of brilliant orange-yellow eyes glared at her from the driveway.  She screamed, feeling her heart trying to tear itself loose of its plumbing, cram itself into her throat, and strangle her.  It was the dog, of course -- the stray who had been, in a manner of speaking, Gerald's last client.
     The former Prince stood stock-still, momentarily dazzled by the glare of the headlights.  If Jessie had dropped the transmission into drive just then, she probably could have driven forward and killed it.  The thought even crossed her mind, but in a distant, academic way.  Her hate and fear of the dog had gone.  She saw how scrawny it was, and how the burdocks stuck in its matted coat -- a coat too thin to offer much protection against the coming winter.  Most of all she saw the way it cringed away from the light, its ears drooping, its hindquarters shrinking against the driveway.
     I didn't think it was possible, she thought, but I believe I've come across something that's even more wretched than I am.

And, of course, she's correct about that.  After all, Jessie, in the end, proves to be able to use her intelligence and her capacity for self-reflection to get herself out of the situation she is in.  She's gone through some awful things in her life, things that nobody should ever have to endure; but she does have the means to escape from them.  The former Prince has no such ability; it is merely an animal, lacking anything beyond the basic instincts, and the basic instincts are not always enough.  Jessie can survive not being adequately loved; the former Prince is not so lucky.  We will eventually find out that Animal Control officers shoot and kill him; after all, a dog that has feasted upon human flesh cannot be trusted to ever rejoin the ranks of the semi-civilized.

Another writer might have decided to do something crazy like ignore that fact, and have Jessie go back to the lakehouse, coax the former Prince out of hiding, nurse him back to health, and create a new life with her new best friend.  It isn't hard to imagine a movie adaptation having gone that route; it's unrealistic, but who goes to movies for realism?  It wouldn't be at all out of character for a movie, and I can imagine some authors trying it, too.

Not King, though.  The fate of the former Prince serves as a reflection of how very real Jessie's own agonies were; she may have survived them, but they were nevertheless permanent.

Let's talk about a couple of them.

A big chunk of the novel revolves around the revelation that Jessie was sexually abused -- and (perhaps more importantly) mentally abused -- by her father on the day of the eclipse in 1963.  This is a fairly lengthy section of the novel, running about thirty pages.  It might be a bit too much for some readers.  It probably should be a bit too much for some readers.  This is one of those subjects that HAS to be painful, because unless you come from a completely different type of culture, there's simply no way that parental sexual abused of a child isn't destructive and traumatic.

But there's an argument that could be made that what Stephen King writes is escapist fiction; and there's a further argument that could be made that escapist fiction ought to not get as painful as King gets here.  I don't agree with either argument, by the way.  I do see how others could, and would, and did in the summer of 1992 when they read Gerald's Game.

You know, now that we've arrived at this scene, I'm finding my interest in writing about to be fairly minimal.  What mainly seems to want to come out is a defensiveness toward King's intentions, and since this defensiveness is defense against no specific attacks, what's the point?  I think King's intentions are clear and speak well for themselves, so maybe there's no real need for me to delve into this section.

Maybe a few notes about it are in order, though, so here goes:

  • Jessie is only at the house with her father because she herself "had launched a conscious, carefully thought-out campaign" which got her out of going with the rest of the family.  (136)  This is part of what makes the scene so devastating.  It's not just that it's a gross abuse of trust on her father's part, it's that Jessie clearly loves her father to an above-average extent.  "[H]er Daddy, whom she adored beyond the power of words to tell," King writes on p. 137.  That's heartrending stuff.
  • The big piece of evidence Jessie uses to get out of going with the rest of the family is that she is scared of Mrs. Gilette, an older lady who evidently slapped Jessie's hand in some sort of cookie-related incident years previously.  This echoes the theme of Jessie not being able to trust older authority figures.
  • The first warning sign is probably when Tom says "You could wear your pretty new sundress."  (138)  Oh, gross.  Ick ick ick.  I know what part of a man's brain is activated by the thought of a sundress, and to consider that part of the brain being activated by a girl this young (and one's own daughter on top of that) is just overpoweringly horrid.  Gerald's Game is sometimes considered not to be a horror novel, and if one's definition of "horror" must include the supernatural, then okay, maybe you're onto something.  But for my part, I think it horrifies as well as anything else in King's bibliography.
  • "If I'm a Daddy's girl, that's why," Jessie think on p. 142, in reference to her mother's seeming lack of sympathy for her regarding the cookie-related hand-slap incident (and probably her mother's general distantness).  The novel is unclear on the subject of what, if anything, Sally knows about her husband's abuse of Jessie; the implication is that she never finds out, but I wonder if there aren't suspicions of some sort both before and after.  Not enough evidence to go on either way.  But here again, Jessie has seemingly been failed by an authority figure.  Psychologically, you can possibly pin some of the fallout between Ruth and Jessie on Jessie beginning almost to see Ruth as a type of mother figure, and running away from it because she's not had great luck in that realm.  And she herself, of course, never has children.
  • On p. 149, there's a great and terrible paragraph in which Jessie sees a bead of sweat roll down her father's stomach and feels his "absolutely gorgeous" eyes on her.  Hey, man, vampires and sewer monsters are one thing, but this is something else entirely.  
  • P. 156: "What Jessie saw through her sunglasses and her home-made filter was so strange and so awesome that at first her mind refused to grasp it.  There seemed to be a vast round beauty mark, like the one below the corner of Anne Francis's mouth, hanging there in the afternoon sky."  King gives the eclipse itself some appropriately awesome descriptions.  We each walk around day-in/day-out living in a universe in which off-the-charts stellar awesomeness is happening all the time.  But we rarely get glimpses of them that allow us to take in anything resembling the full measure of their majesty and their terror.  I mean, black holes are apparently an actual thing.  That yellow thing in the sky that'll make your eyes hurt if you look straight at it?  That's a ball of nuclear fires about a million times larger than our entire planet.  And like, that's a pretty awesome thought, but the human mind isn't actually capable of conceiving of just how awesome a thought it really is.  The best we can do is conceive of conceiving of it, and even that is a thing that we have to step well outside of ourselves to do properly.  King does that on a few occasions in both this and Dolores Claiborne, and in both cases I think he also connects the idea subtly to another idea: that there are human feelings that can be just as off-the-charts un-understandable as any stellar phenomenon could be.  A father being so broken inside that he could do what Tom does to Jessie, for example.
  • The Marvin Gaye song "Can I Get A Witness?" is used as the soundtrack for this scene.  It's playing on the radio when the awful thing happens.  One wonders whether Marvin Gaye's estate was aware that the song had been licensed to be used in this manner.
  • King excels at describing the act itself in a way which we understand, but which is presented from the point of view of Jessie, who herself does not understand.  Not gonna dwell on any of that; I'll just say that it is incredibly icky, and extremely well executed.  It reminds me a little bit of how when he presents something from the dog's point of view, he tries to depict it in a way so as to allow us to know what that type of different perspective might be like.  I do not intend to compare Jessie to a dog, but instead only suggest that a sexual experience from the point of view of someone almost totally lacking in sexual knowledge is a very alien thing; probably not AS alien as a dog trying to comprehend the difference between shoed feet and shoeless feet, but not entirely dissimilar, either.

So that's pretty much all I've got to say about that.  It's gross and it's extremely well-achieved and if it's a bridge too far for some readers, I get that.

Speaking of bridges too far, let's talk about the degloving.
 
I mentioned above that the first time I read it, I was in a car with my parents, and I damn near horked up the contents of my stomach.

I'll tell you this much: when I reread the scene last month, my reaction was no less visceral.  I read it and had to literally force myself to keep my eyes on the page; I did a great of uncomfortable shifting about in my armchair, and there was at least one full-body shudder, and some disgusted vocalization.  I got though it, but only barely, and if my cats were capable of doing so, they might have recommended an exorcism.

For my money, this is THE single grossest scene in all of King's work.  There's some sex stuff (including in Gerald's Game itself, but also in It and The Stand and The Gunslinger) that rivals it, but only -- in my opinion -- due to the questionable morality that those scenes introduce.  On a level of sheer gruesomeness and pain, the degloving is unparalleled, as far as I am concerned.  (The only thing that comes close is the short story "A Very Tight Place," in which a guy has to escape from a porta-potty via the worst possible route.  That's pretty tough to read, too.)

And here's the thing: I'm just not up to writing about in depth.  It's just too much.  I don't mean that in a negative sense, by the way; I stand in awe of King's ability here.  Truly.  It makes me think again of the way he uses the eclipse as a sort of symbol for things too awfully awesome to actually comprehend.  I mean, I can only barely get myself up to the cusp of understanding how awful it would be to have to do that to yourself.  And I'll be honest: I don't think I'm that into being alive.  I think if I were in Jessie's position, I'd just cut my throat and call it a day.  Maybe not; hopefully not.  But I question my ability to go that far.

This is part of what makes Jessie such an admirable character for me.  Not everyone sees the novel this way, and if you are more inclined to see an anti-male message here than you are inclined to see a pro-Jessie, I guess that's as valid a read as any.  But it's not mine.  I admire Jessie greatly; she's survived things I myself feel I would be incapable of surviving.  She is an aspirational figure in that sense, and one of the great King characters.

And yeah, absolutely, I think the degloving is a big part of how King makes that happen.  How can you NOT admire someone who could get through doing that to herself?

A few notes, as I can bear to note them:

  • King foreshadows the degloving all the way back on p. 22, while Jessie's arms are falling asleep.  "These tingles faded away to nothing at her elbows, and Jessie realized with soupy, just-waking-up dismay that her forearms were mostly without feeling and her hands might as well have been gloves stuffed with congealed mashed potatoes."
  • King does a solid job with chapter-ending sentences in general in this novel, and the one with which he ends Chapter 30 is about as effective as it gets.  Jessie has come up with the degloving plan, and is about to launch into it.  She tells herself there is no chickening out from here.  King writes, "With that, Jessie lowered her right wrist toward the gleaming blade of glass."  (237)  when I got to this part during my reread, I heaved a big old sigh, rubbed my temples with my fingers, and put the book down for a bit.  I shooed my cats out of my lap, assuming they were probably about to be jostled out of it whether I wanted them to be or not, and then picked the book back up.  Reluctantly, but unable to do anything else.
  • "She kept pressing and her wrist kept eating the glass."  (238)  Fuck that.
  • "blue bundles of vein" -- Nope.  Nope, uh-uh, nope.
  • "she understood she could not depend on blood alone to slide her free."  (239)  I'm pretty sure that when I read this the first time, I was unable to conceive of what it might mean.  Well, I knew good and well on subsequent reads, and fuuuuuuuuuuuuck that.

Perhaps my reaction is best summarized by the single note I took:


 

Said with great admiration, of course; King here has defeated me, and I believe he probably would be very satisfied to know that.  He certainly ought to be.
 
We'll close with...
  
Well, before we do that, we need a soundtrack.  For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, this song has been stuck in my brain while I've been working on this post:
  
  
   
  
On the surface, I am entirely sure why the song came to mind.  I connect the album it comes from (Zooropa) with one of those family vacation to Gulf Shores I've been banging on about.  It came out in July of 1993, and I bought it literally right before we left to drive down for the vacation.  I listened to it all the way down.  This was a summer after the summer Gerald's Game came out, of course, so the two things are not related except in the most tangential of ways.
  
Still, the song -- "midnight is where the day begins" -- just keeps bouncing into my brain.  I'm going to go with my gut again -- "she wore lemon to color in the coal gray night" -- and just lean into it; so if you feel like obliging me again, click play and let the delicious falsetto of 1993 Bono take us back into Gerald's Game:

There is a gorgeous moment on p. 255 when Jessie is finally able to get herself a proper drink of water after freeing herself.  She thinks that in all her life, only her first orgasm was even close to being as satisfying as this drink of water.  "I'll never forget it, she thought, knowing she had forgotten it already, just as she had forgotten the gorgeous honeyed sting of that first orgasm as soon as the nerves had stopped firing off.  It was as if the body disdained memory . . . or refused the responsibility of it."
  
If this is true of a first orgasm, and if it's true of a life-saving drink of water, then maybe it's also true of unthinkable physical trauma.  King here is expressing something about taking the good to go along with the bad; this, too, is the natural order of the world.  An eclipse of memory can be equally a good thing or a bad thing; it transcends such things as "good" or "bad" and, in the end, simply is.
  
Thinking back on the way both Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne dealt with the idea that all the color eventually drains out of life and experience, I would point out again what I pointed out toward the end of my first post on those novels: that Gerald's Game ends with a rainbow.  And isn't a rainbow a rather awesome sight in its own right?  Not only that, but much more common than a sight than an eclipse.
  
These are deeply painful novels, but I think they both -- and Gerald's Game in particular -- end up also being deeply optimistic novels.  They embrace the loss of light, but also suggest that the light does come back, and sometimes it comes back in the form of a rainbow.
  
And speaking of coming back, so shall I; the next time, we're going to be visited by a space cowboy.

12 comments:

  1. 1. "Notice how King is shaping the world around Jessie into a reflection of her mental, emotional, and physical state."

    Actually, I think I've seen this phenomena in literature before. My term for it is Gothic Impressionism. Fittingly enough, the writer who introduced me to this concept was Edgar Allan Poe.

    Specifically, i think it was a Sparknotes booklet that introduced me to the method some horror writers have for making the external landscapes of their fiction reflect the inner mindscapes of the characters. Of course, I suppose it's possible to pinpoint Hamlet as the first instance of this sort of technique, perhaps.

    2. Pretty good observations re: The Canine fromerly known as Prince...Sorry, couldn't resist.

    3. My own experience growing up went like this: I was content to keep my distance, the major difference was neither my parents, grandparents, and perhaps more important, my friends at school were willing to let me get away with it.

    Perhaps they came from working-class backgrounds, they always pushed me to not just rest content and try to coast through life. the funny thing, if high-school was anything to go by, is that I suppose all that prodding paid off. I was never mr. popularity, but I was at least just one of the gang. Not a club, or even a street gang, just a circle of friends like always happens in high-schools across the country.

    The most interesting part has been something that's happened less to me, and more to my friends. Somewhere along the line, the safe-space trend took over, and it was a real surprise to see some of the same folk who all but kicked my arse to get me to lighten up are, strangely, in the position I used be in.

    Strange to say the least, though I can't help thinking they were right the first time, and that all this new "culture" is just one big fad.

    3. Oh yeah, Mr. Macphisto. I first heard of this when I discovered U2's "Zoo TV" tour. Pretty good stuff.

    ChrisC.

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    1. 1. Oh, sure; King is breaking no new ground here. One thing I've not mentioned in these posts, by the way, is the way Jessie's mind keeps vomiting up snatches of "The Raven" at her during her captivity. So the Poe comparison is pretty apt.

      2. I'm sure Prince played a few games involving handcuffs in his time.

      3. To some extent, I guess all new culture is fad. But then X-amount of it sticks around long enough to just become old hat. I'm sure there are still old fogeys out there wondering when fads like rap music will go away. All in one's perspective, I suppose.

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  2. Mr. Burnette:

    Geez man, I felt like I was reading about myself in high school and college. I think you’re one up on me, I don’t remember ever asking a girl out. I did have the stress-inducing pleasure of having my sister end up hanging out a lot with my dream girl. It’s a kind of sweet pain sort of thing to have her at your house and you have to just try to be cool with it.

    Gerald’s Game was the first King book I read a long time ago. I’ll have to go back and re-read it sometime. I like knowing that there’s always those previous books waiting there for me to dive into again and see through a different lens years later.

    I haven’t watched the Netflix version yet. I may have to skip ‘that scene.’
    Ray

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    1. I did skip it, and will continue to do so on subsequent rewatches! I just can't do it.

      I immediately see how having a crush hang out with your sister a lot would be both wonderful and terrible. That makes 100% sense to me.

      "I like knowing that there’s always those previous books waiting there for me to dive into again and see through a different lens years later." -- Yes indeed. I almost always feel like a reread of a King book is well worth my time. I've found a lot of them to be very different than I (thought I) remembered, which has been a lot of fun. And there are a number of them that I've only read once that I am really looking forward to revisiting, for exactly the reason you mention.

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    2. I'm glad that someone understood what I meant about having your crush hang out with your sister. It was stressful!

      There are still plenty of King books I haven't read yet, and that gives me a strong sense of anticipation. I'm just starting to get into the Dark Tower series - using your suggested reading list, of course.
      Ray

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    3. I hope you enjoy it! Feel free to post progress updates.

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  3. (1) "I think to some extent, that's just who I am: a guy in a room while everyone else is outside." I felt this way for years. Still do in some situations, for sure. I read a book once - can't remember what it was - but about how we all feel like imposters in our lives, that we always live in fear for that moment we'll be exposed as a fraud. It's interesting that so many of us have this fear, eh? Not sure what the wellspring of it would be. Human insecurity, perhaps nothing more than that - the by-product of a finite existence in a depreciating asset (i.e. mortality). Dunno. But: I hear you! And yes I agree very much: better with Stephen King in that room than without. (or any of the artists who help assuage however temporarily these fears.)

    (2) I definitely see the connection between the dog's life and Jessie's, but I'm not a particular fan of the switch-to-animal's-POV schtick. I don't think he does it badly, I just think it's a narrative urge one should resist at pretty much all costs. (I feel the same way about preteen sewer gangbangs.) Even if - and it's a big if, from this reader's armchair - such scenes actually work, the logic of them is just a bridge in high winds, ultimately doomed to snap. Or, if by some miracle, the bridge stays intact, then it was a reckless shortcut rather than finding the better way round. This is all just me, though, not saying you or anyone else is wrong. In fact, what you've described here makes me wish I could just make the leap. Alas, I cannot.

    (3) I do agree completely, though, with Jessie's / Prince's fates juxtaposed as you describe; that's sad and true and was the right choice.

    (4) I love that note you made in your text! How cool, like you say, to admit defeat/ see a clearer path from your perspective now than was evident at the time.

    (5) And how cool and unexpected to run into "Lemon" here! I love that tune.

    (6) The degloving scene never really hit me that way! But I only ever read it for the first time in 2012, so, yeah. Maybe just desensitized to such things by then. Or maybe it's all on account of "Evil Dead 2." Either way, it was a way out of her situation that I did not see coming at all, so I liked being shocked.

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    1. (1) I never came back around to the point I wanted to wrap up with: I don't know how many times I described my feelings on something as being the opposite-but-same: of being an outsider, looking in to a party/ crowd. That end of THE SEARCHERS sort of feeling. I can't quite walk across the threshold. I think (personally) that this is a potent optical illusion, and we're kind of proving it independently: the feeling of being outside-looking-in, or inside-looking-out, is relative. Feels like how-could-this-be-so? And yet there it is. Perhaps even chimerical. Regardless, I think, like I say, as I get on in eyars and hear this from so many other people in so many walks of life/ all over our caste system in the U.S.A. that this must simply be some by product of the human condition. Not exactly a cure for the feeling, but it voids of it some drama for my own trip round the sun.

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    2. (1) It's an interesting thing. I don't feel like there's anything weird or out of the ordinary about it. I'm comfortable being uncomfortable, if that makes any sense.

      (2) You're not alone, by any means. I've heard others express similar sentiments. I only wish he'd done one from a cat's perspective at some point! (I don't think he ever did.)

      (3) Poor old former Prince!

      (4) Stuff like that, I guess, is why I find rereads to be so rewarding. Not totally unlike time-travel.

      (5) The choice was between that and "Zooropa," both of which are sublime. But "Lemon" is one of my favorite U2 songs of all.

      (6) In some ways, I've never gotten fully desensitized to gore and trauma. I've still got virtually no tolerance for real-life grue, for example (and hope I never do). Some fake things don't both me a bit, but there are things that I simply cannot deal with. I wonder how much of that is due to the dread of it, and how much of the dread is due to the reaction in 1992. Interesting questions for which I have no immediate answer! But I kind of enjoy the fact that if only in this one scene, King is permanently too powerful for me not to be subject to TKO.

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    3. Oh, and by the way, that shoutout to "The Searchers" is 100% on-point. Hey, maybe that's part of the reason why I dig that novel so much! I'm sure my intense love for "Lonesome Dove" can also be quantified similarly.

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    4. "I'm comfortable being uncomfortable, if that makes any sense."

      Me, too! It's good to get to that point.

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    5. In case I have confused anyone, I somehow managed to refer to "The Searchers" as a novel above. I meant movie, of course. (Although I believe it is based on a novel, and I may even have a copy of that someplace. Never read it, though.)

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