What Does Stephen King Need to Prove Anymore?

I was expecting big things from “Lisey’s Story,” and maybe the let-down I suffered upon reading the novel has less to do with Stephen King’s storytelling and more to do with my own inflated expectations. After all, I read this novel five years after its initial release, and in that time, it’s been lauded and praised, blurbed by Michael Chabon, held high as the shining moment when “Genre Writer Becomes Important Literary Writer.” But I suppose I’ve always considered Stephen King to be a genre writer *and* a literary writer, depending upon his ambitions, so maybe the problem (for me) starts there? Did he need to prove himself?

“Lisey’s Story” has an interesting concept at its core, one ripe for examination by King. Lisey is the wife/widow of a great literary author whose death has opened up a series of problems for her: first and foremost, what to do with his old notes and manuscripts? To whom should they be donated? And when a crazy and psychopathic fan appears, clamoring for the materials, how will Lisey react? All her adult life, she has been ignored, left in the shadows, while her husband has been adored in the spotlight. Will anyone even take her seriously now that he’s gone? Can she fight her own battles?

But the problem with “Lisey’s Story” is that it does not feel natural. For all of the complaints that I (and many critics, and many readers) have made about King’s “free-writing” style (he doesn’t plot out his books, and simply lets the characters take him wherever they will…hence, we have 600 and 700-page novels that–in a more strategic writer’s hands–would be 300 pages long), that style led to some fantastic work. Consider “The Stand” and “It.” Consider “Carrie” and “Needful Things” and “Desperation.” When King is having fun with his story, the reader is having fun. When he is over-thinking and, in the case of “Lisey’s Story,” trying too hard to be a literary author, we’re not having fun while reading. There were portions of this book that felt painful to read, labored, and I’m not sure I’ve ever said that about King’s work before.

There were also some of the familiar negatives associated with an author who produces 1-2 books a year, little aggravations that perhaps King isn’t even sure he’s writing anymore: the constant need to create “pet languages” and terms and “-isms” (it works in moderation, but here, it’s overwhelming and annoying, the “smucking” and “bad-gunky” and “Boo-ya Moon”), and the Supernatural World of the Protagonist’s Own Creation/ Mind. Honestly, as I read “Lisey’s Story,” I just kept thinking: this is “Rose Madder” all over again, but Stephen King doesn’t know it. Or, if he does know it, he realized it too late, and now he’s trying to dress it up in a new way so that we don’t realize it.

Hey, maybe in fifteen years, people will still be talking about “Lisey’s Story,” and no one will know that “Rose Madder” (or a dozen of King’s other books, many of which are forgotten…anyone remember “Eyes of the Dragon” or “Insomnia?”) even existed. But here, now, I know it. And I know what engages me in a great Stephen King novel: his own love for learning about his characters, his own love for their stories. And here? It felt like he was trying to prove something, not like he was in love with the story or the characters.

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