Friday, January 19, 2007

"Lisey's story" - Stephen King

We live so close to the people most important in our lives that, after some time, it’s almost as if a temporary blindness sets in. To really see them involves remembering things we would rather forget, face facts better left in the dark, embark on journeys that expand through whole decades, interpret signs we mostly shrug off as coincidences. Yet, at certain turning points, if we want to save them and ourselves, we have to look into old journals and memories. We have to look.

If I were to sum up “Lisey’s story” that’s how I’d start, but Stephen King’s latest is also about a whole lot else. The book starts as Lisey Debusher and her sister Amanda (there are three other Debusher sisters) set off to clean out the old barn, which Lisey’s husband, Scott Landon, deceased two years before, used as an writer’s studio. Landon was somewhat of an oddity in the literary world, since he managed to be a popular best selling author and yet courted by the academia - whose representatives of various institutions keep hounding Lisey to donate Scott’s papers, in the midst of which, they can smell unpublished works. Lisey has been the woman “behind the great man” most of her life and contentedly so; his “gal pal” as one particularly ignorant photo caption names her.

Life with Scott wasn’t all roses. There were episodes of writer’s block mixed with depression and alcoholism, many lonely nights as Scott encloses himself in his sound proofed studio, writing feverishly and listening to country music at levels probably detrimental to the health of the human ear. Their marriage has been childless (and pet less) and maybe that’s why the universe they both created has proved so enduring, even two years after one of them has disappeared from the face of the earth.

Since Lisey will remember many episodes from her twenty something marriage to Scott,
“Lisey’s story” has been described as a book about marriage, widowhood and the pain of letting go (and some describe it as his first foray into the “everyday” – to those I recommend 1999’s “The girl who loved Tom Gordon” about a little girl lost in the woods for two days – King has been at ease with both the everyday and the fantastic). But to me it is just as much about sisterhood. Some of the passages that take place with Lisey and Amanda felt so true to what my experience of life with a sister I felt sure King must have watched them himself (and indeed in the end he acknowledges his wife’s five sisters); the way that sisters can be so rude and even funny at the most horrible of times, when you wouldn’t accept such talk from anyone else; how you hate them sometimes but would help them commit unspeakable acts without so much as a moment’s notice. That all rang true, and is one of King’s major achievements in this book.

Scott and Amanda are the two driving forces in Lisey’s adventure. Scott is a writer, and as with other King characters that share his profession, he looks at the world a little more closely than the rest of us: not only does he not easily forget, he strives to remember at all cost and still is sensible enough to understand that some of us, particularly his wife, need to enclose certain truths behind a “purple curtain” in order to function in this world. Lisey will learn nothing new but she will have to do something much braver, in order to save herself – go back to memories she has long ago erased.
Amanda is a psychologically fragile woman, who has once before slipped into a state of semi catatonia, and who even in her middle age falls prey to “cutting behavior” most often seen in adolescent girls. She is the sister who the other four have to “keep an eye on”, and if the phone rings during the night it’ll be her name that immediately pops into the other women’s minds.

Now, as anyone married to a sensitive and caring person will know, your partner will often have surprising insights to share about your own family, words that shed light on people you thought you knew better than anyone. This is the case with Scott: long after his death, Lisey will realize that although she and her sisters are the one who cared after Amanda in her troubled times, it was Scott who really saw her for what she was.

The story takes place during a couple of days, during which Lisey will find her life threatened, and will need to remember a whole lot she would rather not, in order to elude her would-be torturer, and also save her sister Amanda. To do so she will have to play a game her husband learnt from his brother as a child a “bool hunt” which will turn out to be the emotional opposite of a trip down memory lane.

As with other King books, the childhood universe, the real and the imagined (and who knows which one we see when we “remember”) are of great importance. Sisters and brothers are intrinsically part of these worlds we create, but what this author understands and conveys so masterfully is that in a marriage, if each of the partners dares to open the door of his own inner world, then you can move through the joys and horrors of memories that somehow become your own.

It’s like this: sisters have the same set of keys to a secret world they shared. Sometimes, they meet someone great enough to give a spare one, and receive one in return. Of course some caution is in order because, as my favorite sentence in “Lisey’s story” goes: “(…) husbands were all too often the back door by which secrets escaped in to the outside world”.

King has got the marriage thing, and the sister thing down, he moves through this world through the next with the classiness of automatic, transparent glass doors; he’ll make you laugh when he’s trying to be funny; he’ll make you hungry when he talks about food and feel pain when someone is hurt. Also, when he’s good and ready, he’ll scare the shit out of you.

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