Monday, January 29, 2007

Looking for the Perfect Bool?

In Stephen King’s new book, Lisey’s Story, the voice of the story is, largely, a couple’s intimate language. In that language, a game of intrigue with a surprise waiting at the end is called a “bool.” It can be a joke, an adventurous ploy, a scavenger hunt, or maybe most important for the bool I’m chasing right now, a book. It’s a bit of foolishness that promises some reward, but the best part is really in the playing along, and one of the things that drives the bool player forward is the risk that makes your stomach flutter. As 3 of the 4 letters suggest—if only because you never know what’s waiting between you and the next station of the bool--it’s scary.

This fresh take on what fiction is all about is one reason I read just about everything Stephen King writes. Because he focuses on effect over affect, on the bool of the story over the significance, a deep journey into a marriage like Lisey’s Story comes off no more pretentious (and probably more fun) than last year’s much more situationally driven zombie tale, Cell.

King recognizes one of the central paradoxes we talk about in my lit classes. Plain old prose fiction became a self conscious art form (famously defined by Edgar Allan Poe about 170 years ago) at the same moment it quit trying to justify itself as a story with a moral—an essay or a fable—and allowed itself to become a good “bool.” Poe was talking about the short fiction, which he said should be a) readable in one sitting, b) waste no words and c) have a singular effect. He didn’t define that effect, but it is very clear that it is as much emotional as intellectual, right brain as left.

That’s why what we call “horror” is not only as old as prose fiction itself, but it’s the genre title that fits King closest. In truth, “horror” seems insufficient to describe what King’s been up to since 1992’s Gerald’s Game kicked off 16 novels that I think comprise the strongest run of his career. Still, nothing else will do. Terms like “magic realism” and “surrealism” don’t suggest King’s unswerving allegiance to the good “bool,” and that’s the quality that keeps him one of the very few unifying forces among everyday people in our culture. That alone would make him important. The fact that he also manages to apply a sharp intellect to virtually every issue in our society in the process makes him, quite frankly, great.

What King gets is the direct way prose fiction takes us on journeys through the dim recesses of each others' minds. (In On Writing, he calls it a kind of mental telepathy.) The romantics recognized this and zeroed in on hypocrisy and madness as central themes. The realists recognized this and explored the infinite shades of ambiguity. King draws on all of this, but in a world far more unmoored in its self image, he fixes his aim on the epiphany of the good scare. Those dim recesses are, after all, very ugly, scary and fear-filled places. You don’t go there, you don’t get to what’s most intimate about the human experience.

I think what makes Lisey’s Story a particularly great bool among King’s great bools is that it works this psychological territory in such an elemental way (although not unprecedented—Gerald’s Game, Rose Madder and the first thirds of Bag of Bones and Insomnia come to mind) that it’s easy to understate just what a horror story it is. They simply seem like great character-driven stories with people you want to read about as long as you can.

But the horrors here are rich, varied, and cut deep wounds in our self serving models of the universe—on every subject from the ideals of marriage and family to the trade off between individual and collective growth. It’s a book about the connections between mothers, fathers, singles and couples without children, and it’s a book about the interplay between grief and recovery and fighting for survival, for each other and for one’s soul (a place that seems, at once, the loneliest in the universe and just as likely that one big soul Tom Joad tells us about).

As in life, this bool reckons with all of these concerns at once. The bool behind the bool is that it took the “master of horror” to do it so well.

(Thanks to Dave Marsh for all of the thoughts I can’t quite separate from my own here.)