Friday, February 17, 2012

Stephen King’s 11/22/63: When Time Travel Becomes Both Entertaining and Absurd

Novels about time travel are a modern development. One on-line listing includes a single case from the 18th century (Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century) and eleven from the 19th century (including Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine).

Nowadays not a month goes by without some fantasist traveling back into the past or forward into the future. How come?

Stephen King’s immense new novel about a man who travels from 2011 to 1963 to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy offers some clues.

I have read major chunks of King’s previous work and often have felt let down. Of course, with 300 million books in print, there’s no denying that the man from Maine knows how to spin a tale, and his plotting and subplotting are extremely generous. In 11/22/63, it takes him 400 pages and several subplots to reach Fort Worth and Dallas in the months leading up to Lee Harvey Oswald’s shooting of JFK and another 400 pages before a shot is fired. One moment I was madly turning pages, another just wishing King would get on with it.

If you can accept that virtually every one of King’s narrators over a 40-year career has spoken in pretty much the same rambling voice, with the same passions and obsessions (including an encyclopedic knowledge of rock music), in other word’s King’s passions and obsessions, and all of it in an occasionally amusing stream-of-consciousness delivery (frequently interrupted by parentheses), then King’s stories can make for good campfire listening. Immortal prose they are not.

But my big problem with King has always been his world view, his cosmology, or lack thereof. Philosophically, his books are absurdly confused. I first noticed this with It, a long long book about evil in a small town that starts with a cool premise but ends literally falling into a bottomless pit of apocalyptic nonsense. Most annoying of all is King’s seven-volume Dark Tower series, written between 1982 and 2004—with an eighth volume due out in 2012. Supposedly inspired by a single poem by Robert Browning (“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came”) The Dark Tower loses its way almost from the first volume. If anyone can explain its basic thought to me, there is a comment box begging to be filled at the bottom of this post.

In 11/22/63 Jake Epping, a divorced Maine schoolteacher, learns of a “rabbit-hole” leading from a diner down a flight of steps from 2011 to a specific day in 1958. Jake takes on the mission of preventing the Kennedy assassination, convinced that American life would have been better if the President had lived. The five-year lag from 1958 to 1963 accounts for the first 400 or even 600 pages.

King’s books often include a romantic hook. In 11/22/63, one of the first questions that arises, after Jake from 2011 falls in love with Sadie from 1958, is, Will true love trump the call of destiny? In other words, will Jake choose personal fulfillment (Sadie) over saving the world? The question arises because King rigs the game. The rule of his “rabbit-hole” is that every time Jake goes through it into 1958, anything he previously did in 1958 and all of the consequences are “reset,” as if they never happened. This and other “laws of time” according to Stephen King, are the hinges on which the plot turns.

A time-travel novel like 11/22/63 requires that the author play God where the mystery of time is concerned. In King’s case, time turns out to involve a possibly limitless number of alternate “strings,” like parallel universes that can become somehow tangled in one another. This cosmic mystery is only explained near the end of the book by a mysterious figure with a card in the hatband of his hat, which changes color depending on—what?! And believe me, I am not spoiling any of the real pleasure of 11/22/63 by revealing this odd “explanation” of so much of what happens in it.

Meanwhile, Jake learns that the past is “obdurate” (it doesn’t like much being changed, as King tells us, oh, about 100 times). Jake learns too about the “butterfly effect”—the old trope about a butterfly in China dying because someone sneezed in New England. It turns out that butterflies are affected in time as well as in space.

And lots of other vaguely new-agey and completely confused stuff.

I’ll end with a hypothesis, that time-travel became interesting to writers only after the Christian timeline—that old arrow from BC to AD, passing through the Incarnation—began losing its ability to hold our world view together in a convincing way.

It’s not technology or relativity theory that made time travel conceivable. (Wells predated Einstein.) It’s the loss of ultimate meaning—the lack of any final destiny at the end of that arrow—that has left us “entertaining” ourselves by dreaming up rules for rabbit-holes.

Like so many of King’s books, 11/22/63 is a highly entertaining best-seller filled with nihilistic nonsense.

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