I… really don’t think I get it.
I don’t say that lightly. I hate to not get it. I usually pride myself on getting it, even if I don’t especially like it. But I’m not totally sure that I get this one.
I’m aware that this is the one King refers to as his favorite story. It’s also commonly referred to as his most autobiographical — to which I say, I kind of hope not. At least, I kind of hope Lisey is not an accurate portrayal of what he thinks of Tabitha King. If it is, I think this does her a great disservice. And just based on the little I know of her and the little I’ve read by her — admittedly, not very much — I don’t like to believe real-world Tabitha King would stay with a man who viewed and treated her the way that this book treats Lisey Landon. I get the impression of Tabitha King as an actual strong, smart, competent woman who wouldn’t put up with being treated like… some combination of pitiful and irritatingly bubbleheaded. And that either is Lisey Landon or at least is so much of the way everyone sees her that even a book from her POV treats her that way. The characters keep saying she’s strong/smart/etc, but there doesn’t seem to be any real proof of that for most of the book.
I mean, at one point she kind of muses that “Two years, and she still hadn’t quite gotten used to the idea that there was no man around to read the instructions and puzzle out the meanings of Fig 1 and Fig 2.” This is over the complicated task of — charging her cell phone. And this is also 200 pages in, so it’s not like she’s being introduced to us this way and is later going to reveal hidden depths. This is just her.
Scott Landon is a pretty clear King-insert character. If that’s the part that’s supposed to be autobiographical, I get it. I mean, it’s still not a one-to-one comparison — we know that Stephen King’s older brother isn’t dead or crazy, we know that his mother raised him, she didn’t die in childbirth, and we know that his father left the family, King didn’t kill him. I am pretty sure we also know that King isn’t a murderer, except on the page. So Scott’s backstory is obviously entirely fiction. But lines like “He claimed that for him, writing a book was like finding a brilliantly colored string in the grass and following it to see where it might lead,” sound like pure King.
And Scott Landon may have thought that “And the treasure was never the money you got for the book; the treasure was the book.” But I feel almost certain that I’ve heard or read King saying something that’s at least a paraphrase of this. I’m not sure where — the author’s notes of some book? An interview? Twitter? — but this is one of the rare books I hadn’t read before, and when I came across that statement, I was absolutely certain I’d heard or read it before, in pretty similar language if not those exact words. Definitely, it feels like a King sentiment. But if he was thinking about his ultimate end and what would happen after, I’m still unsure why his exploration of that includes a wife that seems nothing like his (and no children, which is another area where Landon and King diverge. Although, I can actually sort of see that, since having grown children who are off doing their own thing can feel somewhat like not having that child at all. They aren’t there, they don’t really factor into your day-to-day.)
Anyway. One thing this book does seem to be about is what Grammar Girl calls familect. Both Scott and Lisey have a lot of it, and as you’d expect from people married for 20+ years, their different familects have blended together, so we see Lisey using both throughout. Homicidal insanity is bad-gunky. Big sister Amanda is big sissa Manda-bunny. Instead of saying “fuck” the characters say “smuck”. A lot. Lisey calls the professors skulking around hoping to get their hands on her husband’s papers “Incucks” which, as far as I can tell, is based on the word incunabula — which is a word that refers to books printed before the 1500s, as far as I can tell, and wouldn’t be used to refer to Scott Landon’s papers at all. Not that “incucks” isn’t a good word the way it’s used here, so maybe I can forgive the reach King took to create it. But then there’s also all of the bools and booms and Boo’ya Moon itself.
The language here is offputting. It just is. I get the concept of familect, and while I don’t think that most families have quite as much of it as Lisey’s and Scott’s do, I can buy into that well enough. King’s a wordy guy, of course, his characters have lots of words, fine. But if you go visit a friend living with their family and the whole time they’re there, they’re using a ton of “family words” that have no real meaning to you — even if you can kind of get the gist — it makes you feel like an outsider. Sort of like if everyone was speaking a different language, but at least, in that case, they’re probably not expecting you to know and understand the words. Reading Lisey’s story feels to me like being someone who speaks the same language but not the family dialect — I feel like I’m being left out on purpose, maybe even laughed at a little for not picking it up quickly. I don’t care for it.
And this is all just vibe, pretty much. The main conflict in the present day is that an unhinged person… wants Scott’s papers? No, that’s the pretext, but it doesn’t seem quite right. More like an unhinged person who has fixated on Scott and wants to hurt Scott’s widow… because. The same way a different unhinged person (they turn out to be connected) fixated on Scott and tried to kill Scott earlier in their lives together. There’s not really a reason — it makes about as much sense as John Hinkley Jr. shooting Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster… there’s not a real through-line there outside of the mind of the shooter. Which maybe was the point, and the point of the whole “reality is Ralph” bit — reality often doesn’t make a lot of discernible sense. I feel like it’s more satisfying when the characters in a story make some, but fair enough if King wants to tell stories that don’t make total sense — I feel like he’s done that before in ways that don’t bother me as much as this one did. The Colorado Kid comes to mind — we never do find out what that guy was doing there or why he needed to die (if, that was, it wasn’t a senseless accident, which it could also have been). The short story “The Moving Finger” never gives us any kind of why, and I loved that one.
Ultimately, Lisey’s Story feels as if it were written for someone who is not me. Which is also fine — you can say the same for Hearts in Atlantis, though I find that one more accessible, even if I know I’m probably not channeling what people who actually lived through the Vietnam War felt. This book seems like it is for someone who finds some common ground with the familect (not me) who sees themselves or someone they know in the various representations of mental illness (also not me, although Amanda rings a few bells. Just not enough.) and maybe who knows and understands what it’s like to be connected to a famous person/a prolific and vivid writer/King himself (again, not me.) He wrote, I believe in On Writing, that his ideal reader, the person that he wants to impress or make laugh or whatever while he writes, is Tabitha. So maybe there are things in it that speak to her, whether or not Lisey is supposed to represent her. If so, they probably speak to other people as well. Just not, I don’t think, to me. Since this is a first read, I definitely want to go back to it in the future and see if my opinion changes. I don’t hate it. But it’s not going on my favorites list right now, and I feel further removed from it than I do most of the novels I’ve read and revisited here so far.