January 5th, 2012
|11:24 am - Stephen King 11.22.63|
Stephen King's new novel 11.22.63 is about a time traveller who tries to stop the Kennedy Assassination. I've just finished listening to it on audio. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's an SF story rather than a horror story, but most of the weight of the book is a nostalgic/critical description of the mid-century small- town America from which Stephen King emerged. I feel that King's books increasingly draw on his own life experiences, and I think this one dramatises the question he must sometimes ask himself - what if he had stayed as an English teacher, instead of becoming a novelist? Which is the more meaningful life for any person - anonymous or world famous? It also reflects on the work he has created. The main character in this book - an English teacher - visits Derry, the fictional Maine town in which many of King's horror stories are set, a few months after the 1958 portion of 'It' has concluded. He misses all the action of that story, but notices the town is traumatised by 'something which has just happened'.
Stephen King is good at exploiting the accidental democratic poetry that arises from common language. A major character in this book is 'The Yellow-Card Man', a name which feels meaningful. A recurring trope is little girls singing skipping songs: 'Charlie Chaplin went to France/ Just to see the ladies dance.' These are turns of phrase which work, or work their way in. He uses this democratic resonance throughout his writing, to give it the feel of being bigger or more permanent than it is, because it is embedded in something larger. In contrast I don't think he needs to insert the tired old 'maggots in the eyes' gruesome shock nonsense to give emotional heft to scenes. It's just not needed, and it makes me feel he doesn't trust his own writing enough. It feels like he's putting it in there because it's an obligation. Having said that - he's one of the most financially successful writers who have ever lived, so I guess he knows what he's doing, and giving the paying customers what they want. There's a little bit of silly gruesome stuff in this novel, easily passed over.
I am not sure human beings, or perhaps modern narrative conventions, can handle time travel stories very well. Most time travel stories have a causal (linear) timeline which drives the plot, even though it is threaded through different 'times'. Knowledge is obtained, items are destroyed, people are saved, because that is how stories work, even though time travel undermines all of those narratives. Not to go through all the ways that time travel stories try to preserve a linear plot in a non-linear world, but they don't often make complete sense. King lurches here between an SF solution (a smattering of physics) and a fantasy/theological solution (to do with destiny and harmony). I find the latter more satisfying in the King universe, because it aligns to the democratic poetry that gives weight to his work. His style of writing naturally suggests there's a pattern to reality, revealed in portentous phrases which catch your ear, and frightful events which recur. So if he builds this into his plot he is working with his style, rather than against it.
And I think this style of writing is better when it suggests rather than resolves. Without giving away the ending, there is an ending. I personally would have liked something less informative, more mysterious and unresolved. But then in a way I am saying I wish Stephen King was less like Stephen King, and he is successful in the form that he expresses himself, so why would he change. I guess my favourite way of resolving this story - this is not what happens - would be if the school teacher came back to the present to find that he had changed the future so much that he was now a novelist called Stephen King, and all his past works had come from the back pocket of the trousers of time.
King was the novelist of my teenage years, and the fear factor has never really been the most attractive aspect of his writing for me.
One of the things I've always loved most about him was this ability to give out glimpses of American life that one can feel authentic, even though they don't have direct experience of it: a song, a tv show, a car in his words often become almost "synecdochical" for a whole world to be known or remembered. His poetics of the objects in kinda unique.
The other great talent of his is , of course, in depicting childhood and adolescence in the most honest and vivid way. I think this is why so many readers have a special place for him in their minds and hearts.
Plus, he has this way of alluring the intimacy with his readers by a whole alternative world by means of cross-references between his stories: places, characters, quotations and so on...
I guess my teenage literary crush is alive and well...
Those things you describe are exactly the strengths he plays to in this novel: nostalgia, significant objects, youth, and cross-referencing/doubling.
I think King's invocation of fear works when it is in the uncanny, the world gone wrong, like the 'deadlights' in It, or betrayal of trust and family safety. Gruesome bits of rotting flesh just seem weak in comparison.
If King were one of the few writers who introduce people to enjoying reading, he'd do more than any English teacher, but so far as I know, he isn't. I wonder how useful his On Writing
has turned out to be.
If you want some uncompromising time travel sf, try All of an Instant
I quite like On Writing because there's no pretence of elevation. All of an Instant sounds like a real attempt to confront the implications of time travel in narrative - thanks for the rec, I have never heard of it before.