Friday, December 13, 2013

Stephen King's 11/22/63: Defying the Dark

“I know life is hard, I think everyone knows that in their hearts, but why does it have to be cruel, as well? Why does it have to bite?”

There’s something about Stephen King’s writing that gets to me. Yes, he has a very grim view of the world.  The darkness in his universe is pervasive, but that's how King gets us to long for the light.

Perhaps I feel this way because I am intrigued by the religious imagery that permeates many of his books. In an interview with NPR, King said the following about his belief in God:

"I choose to believe it.... If you say, 'Well, OK, I don't believe in God. There's no evidence of God,' then you're missing the stars in the sky and you're missing the sunrises and sunsets and you're missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together. Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But, at the same time, there's a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, 'Well, if this is God's plan, it's very peculiar,' and you have to wonder about that guy's personality — the big guy's personality.”

His mesmerizing 11/22/63 demonstrates this peculiar tension between the beauty of creation and the beasts with human nature. Men love their children while they beat their wives. People with the best of intentions inadvertently pave roads to hell. A winsome, religious small town hides perversions and excesses simmering beneath the surface.  These things stubbornly persists because something powerful and purposeful is shaping the course of human history. The past protects even moments of great tragedy as the world unfolds in ways that may be far better than we realize. That does not mean, of course, that we have to like it.
“For a moment everything was clear and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dream clock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it  and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what thy cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.”
King's worlds contain the occasional hallelujahs, but they are always broken and often bittersweet. His fictional worlds mirror our own: chaotic, painful and brimming with fickle fate. Even the most religiously devout wonder at times about the Designer's personality, and yet - if 11/22/63 is correct -  the Big Guy moves in better, deeper ways than we realize.

The primary plot of 11/22/63 involves a trip into the past to save JFK from his assassination. The heart of the story, however, revolves around the relationship between the time traveler, Jake, and Sadie. Sadie is a troubled and beautiful soul whose past keeps stalking her (literally); Jake is the 2010 knight in shining 1950's armor, set to save not only the world but the woman he now loves. His first trip does not work out how he had planned, but thanks to time travel he can just try again.

When he returns to the present to reset the timeline, he discovers that his idealistic tinkering has actually brought about evil, pain and suffering in ways he could not have envisioned.  The Butterfly Effect has a way of messing things up. Jake thought stopping the worst evils would make the world a better place; he forgot that it is in the ordinary course of life that the greatest horrors build momentum. No matter how much we want to change the way things were (or are), the past has purposefully unfolded in a way that defies our ability to understand. As one of the guardians of the time travel portals explains,
“You have to go back and close the circle... Changes will occur… the changes are never for the better. No matter how good your intentions are.” 

I hear in Stephen King's writing the voice of longing. King believes there is design, but despairs of understanding it. He thinks God may be there, but questions what kind of God would allow a world with such persistent pain. His solution appears to be some form of deism in which God made a beautiful cosmic machine that may well crush us in its gears.
“Coincidences happen, but I've come to believe they are actually quite rare. Something is at work, okay? Somewhere in the universe (or behind it), a great machine is ticking and turning its fabulous gears.”
Stephen King sees, understands, and writes about evil in a way that is perhaps unparalleled in modern fiction. Though circumstances often threaten to overwhelm his characters, his literary darkness can be pushed back with the light of goodness, truth, and love. That's not the same as saying he believes it can be defeated. Left with that grim reality, the best things in King's world are those moments in life when bitter chaos and sweet design create in us an ache for a distant hope.

We don't understand the "why" in so many situations. That, I think, is abundantly clear to everyone. Perhaps we don't need to. Perhaps it is sufficient to believe that life is far more complex that we thought. There is design in the midst of obdurate pain, mercy we can never fully comprehend, and murky glimpses now of the hope and love for which we all long. 

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