Monday, 11 July 2016

Gerald's Game, by Stephen King

This was recommended to me by a colleague and I was very honoured to get a lend of her 1992 original paperback that was very much falling apart (it's 4 years younger than me). I love the feel of well read books, they're so pliant.

Stephen King raises the odd eyebrow every now and again for his portrayal of women. Yes, sometimes they're not very good characters. Sometimes they are a bit crazy and monstrous. Sometimes they exist purely to be alluring. Jessie Burlingame is one of his most nuanced and complex creations, holding down a whole book single handed.

The book begins with Jessie Burlingame and her husband Gerald in the bedroom of their summer cabin in lakeside Maine (where else? I ask you). They have decamped to the lake for an impromptu weekend in the interests of romance. Gerald, a successful lawyer but otherwise ordinary man has been able to reinvigorate the couple's sex life by handcuffing Jessie to the bed. Initially Jessie enjoyed the game, grateful of Gerald's renewed interest in her and the rejuvenation of their love life. On this occasion however, the cuffed Jessie changes her mind. She sees understanding and realisation in Gerald's eyes, and with horror, sees him shake them away, pretending that he thinks her protests are part of the game. Blinded by the panic that her dull, ordinary lawyer husband is preparing to rape her, she kicks him in the stomach and groin with all her strength. Gerald keels over, turns red, has a heart attack and dies, cracking his head on the floor for good measure. Jessie is alone, chained to the headboard with two sets of police issue handcuffs, on a deserted lake in the off season.

Gerald's Game reminded me of those sitcom 'capsule' episodes where the characters never actually leave the set and the whole episode takes place in one location. I'm thinking the classic The One Where No One's Ready ("I'm Chandler, could I be wearing any more clothes?"). Jessie, obviously, cannot move and her entrapment forces some very creative writing devices and some incredibly intricate plotting. Over the course of the next 3-4 days, Jessie wages a one-woman war of survival on her own mind and body.  She battles thirst, muscle spasms and desperation. She hears voices in her head; offering advice, bickering, encouraging or discouraging. Each one seems to be based on a her or person in her life, "The Goodwife AKA Goody Burlingame" (a kind of puritan Stepford Wife version of herself), Ruth Neary (a wild college roommate that she ghosted) and Nora Callighan (her  former psychiatrist). The voices all clamour for attention and appear to represent different parts of Jessie's fractured mind. She hasn't spoken to Ruth or Nora in years, but what they do have in common is that they both came dangerously close to uncovering a buried, traumatic childhood memory that Jessie has suppressed for years.

The only other characters that occur in the novel are the Former Prince, a hungry and skittish abandoned dog that risks entering the cabin to feed, to Jessie's horror, on Gerald. The other is a horrific deformed apparition; leering, hideously elongated and reeking of death, it's not clear initially if this is a physical reality or a figment of Jessie's dehydrated mind- but the terror it inspires is real. Interspersed with visits by these two beings, the plot is made up of tiny victories on Jessie's part; lengthy, gradual tasks like obtaining a drink of water, easing her muscles, lifting the headboard, interspersed with flashbacks to college, to a particularly harrowing solar eclipse in the 1960s and to her subsequent periods of trauma. 

It's a really thought provoking book that examines the contrasting expectations that society has of women and the emotional weight that such expectations accrue over a lifetime. Jessie is a silenced, dutiful, manipulated daughter. A trophy wife.  Forced out of a job she loved by a too-successful husband, she begins to take stock of her life, realising for the first time how unhappy she has been in her marriage. She's a plaything, a decorative commodity to first her father then her husband. Her ordeal at the lake forces her for the first time to confront and then reject the roles she has been expected to play. She is forced to save herself from the cycle of abuse at the hands of the men in her life. It's only when she resorts to digging up and accepting the hidden memory that she can start the process of freeing herself from it.

I have to add also that I was utterly heartbroken for Prince, the dog left to languish, starving, afraid and covered in burrs by some Massachusetts asshole in a Mercedes that couldn't be bothered to pay for his licence. The parts where the narrative switches to a Prince-eye-view are so sad to read. Poor prince.

Though I struggled with this book initially, it gripped me shortly after Jessie's first flashback. It's a brilliant character study and an impressive exercise in fiction writing. King can create unbearable suspense in a novel where the protagonist doesn't move, there are no conversations, a single location and a solo character. It's an interesting examination of the strength of survivors, the damage that repressed abuse can wreak on a person's life and the lengths that an individual will go to to survive. It's a lone, desperate woman refusing to give up and to claim her life back from the men that have hurt her.

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