Author: Stephen King
Genre: Suspense, 1987
Summary: Best-selling historical romance novelist Paul Sheldon is rescued from a debilitating car crash by his #1 fan, the deranged former nurse Annie Wilkes. Annie imprisons Paul and forces him to resurrect his dead Victorian foundling heroine, Misery Chastain.
I've read a fair number of Stephen King books (The Stand/ It / Wizard in Glass / Christine / Salem's Lot / The Shining), but haven't enjoyed any of them. Not that I don't think he's talented, I don't think even Harold Bloom can dispute that, its rather I find King's works to be short on plot. Bad things happen, even worse bad things happen, but it all seems spackled on, people moving from A to B to ... Z propelled by randomness and sometimes dramatic tone and storyline shifts that leave my head spinning (cough, Salem's Lot) . I know my impression isn't faulty because King himself argues the unimportance of plot in his writing guide, On Writing (which I did love btw, for its autobiographical details):
You may wonder where plot is in all this. The answer - my answer, anyway, is nowhere. I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you all in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible... Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice.
When I read this, why mouth dropped. Are you kidding me? Of course, real life doesn't have a narrative or plot! That's why humanity started telling stories in the first place, to impose plot, impose meaning, impose morals on the mysteries and coincidences of the incoherence of everyday life. His baffling disregard for plot is the reason why I've been hesitant to read any more Stephen King books. But Misery seemed a different animal than his usual stuff since there are no supernatural elements and I did enjoy the movie and am fully spoiled on the plot, so I decided to give Stephen King another try.
I'm glad I did! This is a fantastic reading experience, a modern twist of an old form, the Gothic novel. My issues with King's plotting don't intrude as there's isn't much room for elaborate plotting in this two-person drama. Annie tortures Paul, Paul tries to escape using all the wits at his disposal.
If you enjoyed the movie, I urge you to read the book. Movies will generally fillet a book, extracting out the plot and throwing away the setting, atmosphere, philosophy of the novel (Exhibit A: LOTR; Exhibit B: Name of the Rose.) There's a lot of richness in Misery the novel that the limitations of the movie medium doesn't capture. The novel is more than a battle of wills, its also a profound, thoughtful mediation on writing. Paul Sheldon compares himself to Scheherazade, composing a story so that he may live another day longer. The situation compels him to spend a lot of time thinking about writing, its purpose, its effects on both him and his audience. The only thing I've ever written is fanfiction, but even though King pisses on me from Felix Baumgartner-like heights, I can still feel a measure of "aha, yes, that's what its like." Here's some of my favorite passages about writing:
(1) On addictive nature of narrative drive:
It was something he had been irritated to find he could generate in the Misery books almost at will but in his mainstream fiction erratically or not at all. You didn't know exactly where to find the gotta, but you always knew when you did. It made the needle of some internal Geiger counter swing all the way over to the end of the dial...
The gotta, as in: "I think I'll stay up another fifteen-twenty minutes, honey. I gotta see how this chapter comes out."
The gotta, as in "I know I should be starting supper now - he'll be mad if its TV dinners again - but I gotta see how this ends."
I gotta know will she live.
I gotta know will he catch the shitheel who killed his father.
I gotta know if she finds out her best friend's screwing her husband.
The gotta. Nasty as a hand-job in a sleazy bar, fine as a fuck from the world's most talented call-girl. Oh boy was it bad and oh boy was it good and oh boy in the end it didn't matter how rude it was or how crude it was because in the end it was just like the Jacksons said on that record - don't stop til you get enough.
(2) The deflation one feels after a story has been completed
When it was done, he put the pen aside. He regarded his work for a moment. He felt as he always did when he finished a book-queerly empty, let down, aware that for each little success he had paid a toll of absurdity.
It was always the same, always the same-like toiling uphill through jungle and breaking out to a clearing at the top after months of hell only to discover nothing more rewarding than a view of the freeway-with a few gas stations and the bowling alleys thrown in for good behavior, or something.
In addition to the philosophical aspects of this novel, the characterizations are much deeper, though we never get any real answers as to why Annie is insane (Kathy Bates said she wrote an actor's diary for Annie where Annie was molested by her father, a trauma neither the novel or the movie ever allude to. It makes some sense, Annie's favorite pejorative is 'dirty birdie' and one of her earliest murders was her father). Paul compares Annie to a "Goddess:" amoral, implacable, a frightening matriarchal force that cows him. I kept imagining the Venus of Willendorf. Annie's much more malevolent in the novel and the gruesome tortures she subjects him to far outstrip the hobbling scene in the movie. But Annie still retains a mustard seed of pitiable humanity (I kept imagine Kathy Bathes rather girly, fleshy face) and the feminist in me does wince at Paul's focus on the grotesqueness of Annie's overweight body (though I understand its source, King as a toddler was tortured by an overweight babysitter). These parts of the book are some of the most evocatively detailed:
Then there was a mouth clamped over his, a mouth which was unmistakeably a woman's mouth in spite of its hard spitless lips, and the wind from the woman's mouth blew into his own mouth and down his throat, puffing his lungs, and when the lips were pulled back he smelled warder for the first time, smelled her on the outrush of the breath she had forced into him the way a man might force a part of himself into an unwilling woman, a dreadful mixed stench of vanilla cookies and chocolate ice cream and chicken gravy and peanut-butter fudge.
He had never been as close to her as he was then, as she carried him piggy-back down the steep stairs. He would only be as close once again. It was not a pleasant experience. He could smell the sweat of her recent exertions, and while he actually liked the smell of fresh perspiration-he associated it with work, hard effort, things he respected-this smell was secretive and nasty, like old sheets thick with dried come.
The biggest failure for me is the incorporation of the Misery Chastain historical romance novel within the text. Paul recognizes that his Misery Chastain novels are melodramatic pap with a dash of sex for the female fans. But he also says that the work that he produces under Annie's imprisonment, a novel called Misery's Return, is the best book he's ever written, better than his attempt at literary fiction. The only thing is, based on the excerpts (which read like the script of some embarrassingly racist 1920's King Kong movie) this pride is totally incomprehensible. I didn't skip the Misery Chastain parts, but I did side-eyed them something fierce. King's a talented writer, with a wealth of narrative ideas that aren't tied to any given genre. With Misery, he's demonstrated he can write in a genre that's mostly written by and written for women - the Gothic novel. But he is decidedly is one of the worst historical romance novelists, I've run across. Still, a minor quibble, in what remains a very satisfying story. A recommendation.
Here's the cover of Paul Sheldon's masterpiece, Misery's Return. I loved how Geoffrey, the male protagonist of this novel within a novel, is so obviously based on Stephen King.