Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Week of "Misery," Fail Edition

"F" for effort, Bryant!  "F" for effort!

Your humble narrator regrets to inform you that, as regards his attempts to blog about Misery every day for a week, he proved to be as full of fail as Cookie Monster is of Lorna Doones.  And that, my friends, is pretty fucking full.

It was an overly ambitious goal from the get-go, but it's helpful in that it tells me quite a lot about what my aims for blogging should be.  For one thing, I'm almost entirely doing this for myself: I don't expect to attract many readers, and while I'd welcome them, they aren't essential to my motivations.  No, on the whole I'm doing this just to force myself to do what I've always wanted to do, which is to start getting my thoughts about Stephen King's books down on paper (or, in this case, the digital equivalent).

As such, I don't know that it makes sense for me to do the things I would have had to do to meet my self-imposed goals: staying up way too late and getting nowhere near enough sleep the night before having to go to work early is rarely the smart tack to take, and constantly bailing on hanging out with friends might lead to more writing, but it also leads to fewer friends.  Color me unwilling.

So, instead, Plan B: writing once a week seems like a more manageable option, and that's going to be my goal from this point forward.  Very attainable, even for the semi-lazy, which I certainly can be.

Coming up in future weeks, I'm planning an essay about audiobooks.  It will begin as something of a review-roundup: I recently bought the CDs of Ur, Blockade Billy/Morality, and Full Dark, No Stars.  I've finished the others, but am still working my way through Full Dark, No Stars; once I've finished it, I want to look at those various stories in general. 

Ultimately, though, I suspect that the essay will turn into a pondering about the nature of the audiobook format.  I'll be up-front about this: I do not believe that if you listen to an audiobook, you are reading the book.  Listening and reading are very different activities, one very passive and the other very aggressive.  I'm a fan of audiobooks, so don't assume that I'll be derogatory; it's just that the differences between the two media intrigue me.

After that, I'll be inching closer to my reread of The Tommyknockers (I'm currently on a reread of The Fellowship of the Ring that I'll be finishing first).  I only ever read this novel once.  It was one of the few King books I disliked when I read it, and I never felt the urge to revisit it; my chronological redevouring of the entire King canon, though, has brought me back to this one, and I find that I'm looking forward to it, just to see if my memory might have been a bit harsh.

That's the future, though, and in the present, I've still got a few observations left to make about Misery.  Let's get to them, shall we, and bring this malformed "week" to an end.

First of all, let's touch on a point that others have touched on before: this novel represents King working his way through his own battles with escaping addiction.  I'm always reluctant to bring an author's biography into an analysis, but it's appropriate here, seeing as how King has written about it himself.  In On Writing -- one of King's very best books, in my opinion -- he discusses his alcoholism and drug addiction, which by the writing of Misery in 1985-86 had become quite serious.  It was, unsurprisingly, difficult for King to get out from under the weight of his addictions:

"I bargained, because that's what addicts do.  I was charming, because that's what addicts are.  In the end I got two weeks" [from his wife Tabitha, who had held an intervention] "to think about it.  In retrospect, this seems to summarize all the insanity of that time.  Guy is standing on top of a burning building.  Helicopter arrives, hovers, drops a rope ladder.  Climb up! the man leaning out of the helicopter's door shouts.  Guy on top of the burning building responds, Give me two weeks to think about it.
     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."  (On Writing, p. 98)

This is fascinating for any number of reasons, but what I enjoy most is that while Annie is a symbol, she isn't a simple symbol.  No, she's darker and deeper than being a mere symbol for a snort and a shot, because in the novel, Paul responds to Annie's horrific stimulation by turning out his best writing ever.

If we can take King's word for it and accept that he was a fairly hardcore addict from the period of writing, say, The Shining through The Tommyknockers, then I think it would be easy to find people to argue that King's best writing came while he was a hardcore addict.  If addiction was Annie Wilkes, then the Paul Sheldon inside Stephen King turned out not only The Shining and Misery but also The Stand, The Dead Zone, Danse Macabre, Pet Sematary, the four great novellas that comprise Different Seasons, Cujo, The Mist, It, and The Drawing of the Three.  That's a staggeringly good output.  Annie might have been cocaine and booze, but "she" pushed Paul Sheldon Stephen King to some great work; that is simply undeniable.  It's this push-and-pull that gives Annie, and Misery, such depth; it's remarkable in that way, I think.

(For the record, while I think those above-mentioned titles are all among King's best work, I also think that plenty of his finest work has come in his post-addiction period: Duma Key, The Green Mile, From A Buick 8, Hearts In Atlantis, On Writing, Wizard and Glass, The Waste Lands, and Bag of Bones do not, where I come from, represent a radical drop-off in quality.)

Speaking of biographical detail, I'd remiss in my duties if I failed to note that reading Misery armed with the knowledge of what happened to King a bit more than a decade after its publication makes for some chill-inducing reading.  No, he didn't get kidnapped, but he was -- you know this, of course; I merely recap -- in a car accident, a very serious one, and he ended up in a painful recovery with shattered bones.  Many wry observers have noted that this was "like something out of a Stephen King movie," yuk-yuk-yuk, and I have no interest in being that literal with that awful situation.  But, reading a parable about a man suffering intense physical distress that was written by a man who, years later, suffered even vaguely similar physical distress ... well, it's a bit creepy.  Even creepier: King wrote sections of Dreamcatcher in longhand -- or possibly the entire novel (my memory fails me) -- while recuperating from his accident.  It's not one of King's better books, but it's certainly got interesting fighting-through-the-pain parallels with the fictive Misery's Return, and one wonders if, while he was toiling away with those tablets and pencils, King ever thought of himself as Paul Sheldon.

Speaking of Misery's Return, let's transition a bit and touch on this: wouldn't you kinda like to read the whole novel?  Don't you kinda want to know more about the bubble-headed Misery Chastain and her two stalwart lovers, Ian and Geoffrey?  Don't you kinda wish King had written the whole novel, and just wasn't telling us about it yet?  Yeah, that's what I thought; me too.  If I may be a bit more serious, it is worth pointing out that those excerpts from the fictional novel do, indeed, possess a compulsive readability, and it's even more notable that they really don't seem like King at all.  Just as he proved to be a master of pastiche in "Jerusalem's Lot," he disappears into Paul Sheldon's "own" style, and that's got to be a tricky task to master.

Moving on...

What, for you, is the most memorably awful moment in the novel?  Sure, the foot-removal stands out, as does the copmower scene, the thumb-removal scene, and that oogy rat-squishing scene.  However, I'd like to show some love for the scene in which Annie forces Paul to drink soapy water.  It's such a simple act of malice, and it lacks the grand guignol splendor of some of those other scenes ... but it rings truer, in a strange way.  Because, really, Annie doesn't force Paul to do it at all: no, she instead creates a situation in which Paul becomes so desperate that he wants to do it.  That is addiction, boys and girls, and we can all deny it as much as we want, but if we needed our medicine bad enough and the only water to wash it down with was filled with soap and old dirt, you'd better believe we'd be gulping it down by the mouthfuls.

More randomness:  I love the scene on page 110 in which we learn about the game of Can You? Paul played in order to figure out a key scene in Fast Cars.  He needed to figure out a way for his thug protagonist to sneak a recently-killed corpse out of a crowded theatre, and Paul's mind was up to the game.  What intrigues me is how this is fundamentally no different from the sort of mental gymnastics Annie has to perform in order to keep herself from being caught while murdering all her victims.  The sin may lie in the deed, but the dreaming of it cannot be held to be entirely pure; Paul and Annie are more alike than Paul would probably be comfortable admitting.

I'm sure there's more to say about the novel, but for now, I think I've said enough.  If you've never read it, you ought to bump it up on your to-read list a bit, and if you've read it but not in a long while, I'd suggest that it's worth a revisit.

I'll be back before too much longer with that promised delving into the world of audiobooks


  1. Haven't read this in soooo long, but quite an enjoyable recap. (And I sympathize with both taking the plunge on getting one's King-thoughts on paper or its digital equivalent, damn the torpedoes/ results, and the toil it takes on other aspects of life. I'm at about the halfway mark and after a few furious months of strong headwinds, am feeling the doldrums... but forge on we must.)

    I was as fascinated by the addiction/ recovery (both from addiction and from the accident) sections in On Writing as I was with all the rest of it. It had never occurred to me that Misery might be this complex cry-for-help/ exploration of addiction. Which, when you think about it, isn't even that esoteric. Just, when I read it, I was 15 or 16, so my brain wasn't quite "there" yet.

    (If it's "there" now. I have my doubts...)

    I'm always intrigued by those who claim he did his great work only fueled by coke/booze. I can't agree. His pre/during/post eras all have their ups and downs, but I maintain, as a writer, his career batting average is embarrassingly high. I still get through the books/stories and wonder 'How the heck does he keep DOING this?'

    Looking forward to revisiting this one. (I may even read it aloud to my cat.)

    1. Yeah, I think the hypothesis that King's best writing came exclusively during the drug years is a load of shit, personally. "Duma Key" and "11/22/63" belie that notion within recent years, and that's just for starters. As he approaches true elderlihood, it's likely that at some point the quality of his work really WILL drop off, but I don't think it's even come close to happening yet.

    2. I just found your blog yesterday and I have read through quite a bit of it. I dig your analyses. Very entertaining and perceptive. I just might be your number one fan...

      Cheers, I'll be reading.

    3. Thanks! I hope you'll find some stuff that amuses you. If you feel the need to, uh, "commission" me to write an extremely limited edition for you, I hope we can forego all the leg trauma.

      Thanks for dropping by! I'm always thrilled to have a new fellow-King-fan to chat with.

    4. Me too! I discovered your blog yesterday and I'm hooked already. I started with your review of The Glass Floor, 5 minutes into it I thought "damn this is good" and had to go get coffee and cake to settle properly and enjoy it, and it was great. Keep on the good work!

    5. Thanks a lot! It means a great deal to me to hear things like that.

      I had a lot of fun writing that review of "The Glass Floor," so I'm particularly happy to hear that someone enjoyed it.

      I haven't been making as much time for blogging lately as I'd like to (I kind of took a year off from it, in fact), but I'm hoping to get back into it full-bore soon. I appreciate the encouragement!

  2. I can't believe I never found your blog earlier ...

    I've been a Stephen King fan for a while, and a couple of days ago I read 'Here There Be Tygers', and it confused the hell out of me. So when I Googled it looking for some explanation of this very strange story, I found the link to your blog. I'm trying to read all of it in chronological order so that I can catch up to present day.

    Your thoughts on Misery are quite interesting to me. I'm not sure if I don't think about it much, or if I'm just not that analytical a person, but I've always had trouble gleaning (is that the word? I'm not sure) much meaning out of books; I've always just read them and seen the story. This concept of Misery being symbolism for King's own addiction has me thinking a lot more than I normally would, and I feel that I should thank you for that.

    Now, with that out of the way, I'm going to carry on reading 'The Monkey'. Have a nice day!

    1. Thanks, you too!

      I'd say a few things in response to this, starting with telling you that -- not that you've indicated you do, but just in case -- there is no need to feel any shame about not gleaning any meaning of this sort out of books. That, I firmly believe, is a very optional process. I have an English degree, which means that I was trained to do it; how well I was trained is a matter for debate, but the training certainly happened!

      I'd also say that the great thing about King's work is that reading it with that sort of critical eye offers rewards; but reading it purely for the enjoyment of the story and the characters yields rewards that are at least equally great. In other words, King works no matter which way you want to take him on.

      I appreciate your willingness to read through my blog in chronological order. That's the way I approach blogs that I discover and enjoy, so it makes me feel great that somebody would even consider reading my posts in that way!

      I apologize in advance for all the naughty words, typos, and incomplete projects.