Monday, October 14, 2013

Re: 11/22/63 and a Certain Surprising Thumbs-Down

This post is spectacularly full of spoilers. 

I have been reading Stephen King since before I was 10 years old. I've read 45 of his books, which according to this problematic list is about half of his output. After finishing Ulysses, I must have decided that my taste for long books had not abated, so I set in on 11/22/63. I hit what was in essence the first plot point and did something that I know is a sin, something I never thought I'd admit to doing in a public place. I read ahead. After gathering intel on what happened in the middle and the end of the book, I decided provisionally to keep going. My bookmark is currently placed between pages 358 and 359, and now I'm thinking of doing something else I've never done before: give up on a King book before I'm finished.

The first problem is that I refuse to accept a foundational premise of the book - that life in America would have been better if JFK had not been assassinated. Of course murder is bad, and murdering the president is super-bad. But, my friends, Kennedy was not much of a president. Charisma is not leadership, and youth and energy are not strategy. Many of his good ideas were his speechwriters' or RFK's or others'. When, in an early chapter, the older man who sends Our Hero on his journey monologued about how there'd be no Vietnam if Kennedy stayed in office, I just did not buy it.* LBJ is certainly the central villain of Vietnam, I don't deny that, but Kennedy's foreign policies were crap. He meddled in a coup in Iraq; he rattled his saber idiotically at Khrushchev. Martyrs are always more popular in death than in life.

So when Our Hero set out to save JFK, I kinda pursed my lips and went "Really?" Which is partly why I decided to read ahead (which I realize violates The Laws of the Book, and I'll pay my penalty duly). I wanted to know if King would take the opportunity to have Our Hero try more than once to change the past, if he'd make it so that we saw a few different futures, a la Back to the Future II. And I wanted to know if a world where JFK completed his term would look like the sunshine and lollipops that King's 1958 resembles.

The answer is no to both. The future garnered from saving Kennedy is seriously fucked up. Not only has Our Hero wrecked civil rights for all (which is kind of appropriate, considering my other big problem with the book, which I'll get to shortly), but he's caused nuclear war, delivered late-20th-century terrorism prematurely, and indeed shaken the very underpinnings of the space-time continuum to ruin. So I guess I predicted that, even before reading ahead, because of what I think about Kennedy.

Is there a more nostalgic writer than King? I venture no. Part of the reason I loved It as much as I did was how accurately he evoked 1958 through most of that book, and I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that he decided to return to that very year to get us going in 63. But before long, there seemed to be an awful lot of this

and not very much evocation of what 1958 felt like to people who were not white males with plenty of money. 

I'd like to pause here to point out that I am a King fan. A big fan! I have defended him without fail, all these years. He is one of the handful of writers who set my imagination in motion when I was a child. His work means a lot to me. Truly, truly.

But this book. This book.

King goes on at great, great length, in fine, excessive detail, about how incredibly super everything is in 1958. The cars, the food, the friendly folk, the safe neighborhoods, the cheap gas. Once, once, there is lip service paid to the difficulties of segregation. Other than that, it is all 

about how awesome the late 50s were in America. 

I have such a serious problem with this. Anne Roiphe wrote something in her (amazing) book Art and Madness that I had always suspected:
It is true what they said about the fifties. You really were supposed to behave. You wanted to look like all those around you and to keep your lawn free of floating leaves and nasty weeds. You wanted to live inside the lines where ordinariness of everything would protect you from the dragons that lay at the edge of the map ready to blow fire in your face if you strayed off course, to the edge of the known world.
The 1950s in America were not a happy time for women, or African-Americans, or gay people, or artists, or people in poverty (thank LBJ, in fact, for cutting poverty rates nearly in half), or, again, really anyone but middle-class white cis males. It was a time full of appalling repression not just of literal freedoms for certain racial and gender groups, but of cultural freedoms. People did not have the ability to dress the way they liked, to speak the way they liked, to act and think the way they liked. It was all in such specific little boxes. This length of dress; this type of hat. Not too loud with the music, and it mustn't be any of that vulgar rock 'n' roll. We take cultural freedom for granted today, and we shouldn't, because in my mind it is one of the dearest in existence. And it's the precise type of freedom that the cultural revolutions of the mid-to-late-1960s granted us, which the action of 63 avoids altogether by taking place mostly from 1958 to 1963.

And even here, King wants to have it both ways. His style, which I once heard described as "jes' folks", doesn't suit the buttoned-up world of adults in the late 50s-early 60s, so he just has people talk the way they always do in his books, without worrying about how off it sounds.

"...even ladies who've reached a certain peak of maturity aren't averse to a nice boink on a Saturday night."

This is dialogue from 11/22/63 spoken by a female small-town principal in Texas, in 1960 or so. She definitely has A Personality, but I don't care if she's Dame Edna, I simply do not believe that a Southern woman of any age would say such a thing to a man she's not married to, not even now, much less in 1960.

My understanding is that the part of 63 I haven't gotten to yet is only half about Kennedy and Oswald and so on, and the other half is about the eye-level story of the protagonist. But this protagonist is not reaching me. He's too anonymous, too much like all the other King I-guy protagonists for me to want to spend 800 pages with him. Also, King's writing is failing to bewitch me this time around, and while I think it's mostly because of these two big problems I have with the book - failing to believe that the protagonist's mission is worthwhile, and feeling that the protag (if not the author) is COMPLETELY wrongheaded about how he views this period in history - I think it's also because I've been studying writing so hard in the last year or so.

There are a lot of helping verbs in this book, a lot of places where the sentences could be tighter. Whole swaths of the book are completely unnecessary. Bag of Bones is one of my ten favorite books - perhaps even one of my five favorite books - and although it's even longer (I think), all its pieces jigsaw together interestingly to make a whole. Mike Noonan's narration doesn't linger too long on unnecessary shit, like his vacation in Key Largo or his activities during the years before he finally goes to Sara Laughs. In skimming ahead in 63, I don't see that happening here. It's more like Insomnia, which never did gel, and which was long for no reason.

So it hurts me, but I think I'm not going to finish this one. It's a little mystifying that of the 45 I've read, this particular book is a thumbs-down. I've disliked other King, but I didn't expect to dislike this one, since it was on so many Best of the Year lists. Ah, well. Guess it's on to other books.

*Edited to correct the idea I had that Kennedy put us into Vietnam. An older, wiser person than I noted that it was actually good old Eisenhower who did so. I stand by the rest of the paragraph; Kennedy certainly didn't pull us out of it. 

1 comment:

Katharine Coldiron said...

Postscript: I read the rest of the book and liked it no better. It was hair-tearingly repetitive, with narrative devices older than Methuselah, and the main character still didn't grab me in any way. Also, there was an odd inconsistency with what the character knew and didn't know about living in the past. Two thumbs down.