Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Blessed to repeat (11/22/63)

Stephen King’s latest novel (a phrase with an onrushing expiration date if ever there was one) also happened to be one of his best received and reviewed; 11/22/63 made the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2011 list, for instance, which put it in some highbrow literary company. Which is not to say that it is highbrow literature in and of itself, because after all we are talking about Stephen King here. And I’m allowed to downplay his technical merits, I think, because I am a fully geeked out hardcore SK fan who semi-stoically bore the interminable wait between 11/22/63’s release in November and a copy coming into my possession as a Christmas gift from my wife. I finished reading it early last week, on the quieter of the two sick days I spent at home with the little guy.

It was pretty amazing. The height of the brow is debatable, but it is a very honest, very human book. Honesty and humanism have always been traits that SK has brought to bear on his best works, although sometimes they get lost amidst elaborate cosmic mythologies or horrific explorations of supernatural violence and madness and so on. 11/22/63 hinges on the trappings of time travel and alternate history, but it’s really a story about second chances, and about good intentions with bad outcomes, not to mention a well-observed period piece that deconstructs a fair amount of nostalgia along the way with the benefit of temporally-displaced hindsight. Much like one of my other all-time favorite Stephen King novels, Bag of Bones, it’s told in first-person by an SK surrogate, which is really the best approach for what I think is SK’s greatest strength as an author: the ability to make you feel while you’re reading as if you’re actually listening to someone talk, someone relating a juicy tale as you hang on their every word. One of the more interesting things about this go-around’s protagonist, Jake Epping, is that he’s a school teacher. King has written about teachers plenty of times before, of course (as SK main character professions go it’s probably tied with doctor for second place, behind author in a landslide), and that makes perfect sense since SK was a teacher before he hit the publishing jackpot, but Jake is no frustrated writer forced to eke out a living on whatever wages the Board of Education allows; Jake approaches teaching as a vocational calling, loves it and is really good at it. It’s almost as though King was finally getting around to making amends with all the teachers in the world, whom he no doubt deeply respects, for continuously implying that all of them work in second-choice positions.

Anyway, if you want to find more in-depth analysis of the broad merits of 11/22/63, I’m sure you could search them out elsewhere. What I really wanted to dig into is something I re-realized in the early going of 11/22/63: Stephen King has not only created a universe of continuity that rivals the major superhero comics, he’s become utterly comfortable having fun with it in ways that don’t smash you over the head.

Because 11/22/63 deals with the assassination of JFK in Dallas, the action moves into Texas for the majority of the book, but of course everything starts in Maine, just like most of SK’s other books. And SK makes references to those other books, sometimes in only the most fleeting ways. A janitor Jake knows from school is established as originally hailing from Derry, before moving to Haven after a childhood trauma. Both towns are fictional. Derry is the setting of SK’s infamous novel IT (as well as the lesser-regarded Insomnia), whereas Haven was the setting of The Tommyknockers. Whenever Jake travels through time he can only go backwards and only to one fixed point in 1958, and every time he emerges in the past he notices a red and white Plymouth Fury. SK’s automotive nightmare Christine was, of course, a ’58 Fury.

How long until they remake this movie???
There’s no deeper understanding of 11/22/63 to be gained from having read The Tommyknockers beforehand, it’s just a neat little Easter Egg for the deepest devotees (like myself). IT plays a bigger part, however, as Jake picks up on the vibe of unnatural evil in Derry that forms the spine of IT, and eventually Jake meets a couple of the young protagonists from IT (Richie and Bev). The Plymouth Fury also has a part to play in Jake’s own story, which I don’t want to spoil. Suffice it to say that SK picked absolutely the right story in which to indulge in self-referential antics like these. Not only does travel into the past allow a fairly literal venue for revisiting classic (or not-so-classic) SK novels, but a theme emerges over the course of 11/22/63 about how time harmonizes with itself, and how déjà vu takes on all kinds of maddening forms for a time traveler, particularly one intent on changing history. By alluding to himself, SK sets up those harmonic echoes as if he had planned it that way all along.

But, again, the thing that really struck me was that SK is confident enough to namedrop George Denbrough or the Kitchener Ironworks but not Pennywise the Clown, e.g. If you get the connection, you get it, but if not, there are no metanarrative footnotes to point the way. And of course in my ever-humble opinion that’s the way it should be. Even though, I strongly suspect, there may have been even more cool little self-shout-outs than I managed to catch, and I’m someone who’s been reading Stephen King books non-stop since about 1990. But I wouldn’t want the in-jokes I missed pointed out to me, necessarily. Maybe I’ll catch them myself next time.

Which brings me, at long long last, to one of my pop culture resolutions for 2012 that I’ve been hinting at for a while now. The next Stephen King book due out is an eighth volume of The Dark Tower series, the unexpected expansion of which is something I’ve touched on before. Of course there’s no question in anyone’s mind that I will read said book, but I am strongly questioning how resonant it will be to me at this point, a few years after having read the supposedly final seventh volume and around fifteen years since I jumped on board the series with The Gunslinger.

See, it’s not just the passage of time in the abstract that worries me, it’s a trend I’ve noticed in my own ability to recollect books I’ve read. Namely, that ability is lousy and getting lousier. Maybe my brain is graying, or I’m reading too much overall, maybe the books I read aren’t that memorable to begin with, most likely some combination of all those factors, but it is distressing nonetheless. Even moreso when I go out of my way to recommend a series to someone, or a friend just happens to stumble upon something I’ve already got under my belt, and then in an ensuing conversation about said books I find myself wishing I had notes to refer to.

Hence, be it so resolved: this year I am going to devote ample reading time to re-reading. I have a very specific plan for this based on what I consider fairly relevant circumstances. To wit:

1. I introduced my wife to Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles when the first book finally came out in paperback. (One of the very few differences of opinion between us: I love big old hardcover tomes, but she’s not a fan of that format.) The second volume comes out in paperback this spring, and she is eager to devour that as well. I will not be as unprepared to discuss its intricacies with her as I was when she read part one! So I have between now and late March or so to re-read The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear.

2. Also this spring, A Game of Thrones comes out on DVD. Then at the end of the summer (hopefully right around the time my family will be heading Carolina-ward for a week at the beach) the fifth book of the source series, A Song of Ice and Fire, comes out in paperback. (In this instance I got into the series late, started collecting it in paperback, and am committed to assembling a matched set for my bookcases.) I’d like to re-read A Game of Thrones before watching the television adaptation, and keep going refreshing my memories of the series before finally taking on A Dance With Dragons.

3. Finally, the aforementioned The Wind Through the Keyhole is my prompt to re-read The Dark Tower series in its entirety. Funny enough, I originally read the first three books in the series by checking them out of the library. I think I knew that they were part of an unfinished series and for some reason I thought they might never be finished? Also I was in college and flat broke back then? At any rate, I bought the fourth book in paperback and the last three in hardcover, then proceeded to loan the last three to an acquaintance and haven’t seen them since. So whereas with Rothfuss and Martin I can pull those books off my shelves at home and re-read them for free, I haven’t quite worked out all the logistics yet of re-reading The Dark Tower. But it’s on the list.

So there it is. A series I want to be able to talk about with my wife, a series I want to see on the small screen (and also discuss with my buddy Clutch, at that) and a series from the heart of one of my oldest obsessions. 13 books total to re-read, 15 books altogether when you factor in the new Dark Tower and new (to me) Song of Ice and Fire. I reckon it will take me pretty much all of March through July, and no doubt I will give intermittent updates on the progress here. Hopefully my employer won’t suddenly re-assign me to a different contract that I can’t mass transit to.

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