Monday, February 27, 2012

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Only months after her husband was cut down by an assassin in Dallas, Jacqueline Kennedy sat with the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. for a series of interviews. Knowing her comments would be sealed for several decades, she began freely recounting her husband’s political career and what she knew of the thought processes behind the great decisions of his presidency. The tapes of these conversations, sealed since 1964, were published last year. It was Caroline Kennedy’s responsibility to finally release her mother's memories.

“When does someone no longer belong to you,” she asked, “but belong to history?”

We often forget that history isn’t large impersonal forces, dates and names, but humans making decisions - be they short-sighted or far-reaching. The people of the past, and we of the present, have to live with the consequences. When we view their decisions years, decades, centuries later, we no longer see clearly the alternatives, or the pressures. Everything seems inevitable. As inevitable as a bullet, fired from a gun.

The premise of Stephen King’s “11/22/63” isn’t exactly new, but the result is one of the most satisfying long works in his prolific career. Imagining alternate realities to the Kennedy assassination has long been a parlor game for the Baby Boom generation. But Stephen King is content to create a fiction acknowledging the impersonal forces of individuals and the decisions and destinies of millions.

“11/22/63” follows Jake Epping, a Maine schoolteacher who is introduced by a dying acquaintance to a portal into the past. There the visitor from the present always arrives at the same date and same moment: September 9, 1958, at 11:58 a.m. Step through a second time, and you undo whatever you may have changed in the past. This allows for two things in the course of our story - the protagonist will have to spend a good deal of time assimilating into the past in order to change the outcome on Nov. 22, 1963, and whatever is changed can also be undone.

The story allows King to leaven in his usual ingredients - pop culture references, song lyrics, meetings with characters from previous King novels. It also allows him to create a nostalgic view of the past that we enjoy visiting. We can see the late fifties and early sixties in a way that invites us in. People, for the most part, are friendlier. The pace is more leisurely. Money goes a lot further. Even when things get dark, we enjoy the pulpy character of the darkness. This allows Jake, whom we accompany on the journey, to make the inevitable modern observations on the nature of the past.
Occasionally, the difficulties of the time are dealt with too easily. King mostly touches on the segregated nature of 1960s America in one scene that occupies two pages and dispenses with it in a way that seems too pat. It’s also easy to forget that in this simpler, easier time, people lived everyday under the tension of the Cold War, with the lurking idea that megatons of nuclear weapons were aimed at them and could be detonated at any moment, possibly even by mistake.

King also establishes a rule early on - the past is obdurate, Jake tells us. The more significant an event is, the more obstacles will emerge to block someone bent on forcing it in a different direction. When Jake does change the past, the results are sometimes bloody - and only marginally better or worse than the actual time he came from. Jake becomes a dark guardian angel, a man who realizes that at the end of his journey, he may very well have to kill a man to accomplish it, though he has no idea when he sets out that Oswald's murder will not be the only one required of him.

To carry out his mission, Jake assumes the identity of George Amberson and eventually finds his way to Texas to resume his career as a teacher in the past. The longer he stays there, the more he risks becoming involved in the past. His love affair with Sadie Dunhill is a sweet diversion, and in some ways a more subtle obstacle thrown up by the obdurate past. If Jake wants to thwart history, he is going to have to be willing to sacrifice something.

"11/22/63" allows King to indulge in one of his great themes - the nature of fate.

Many times in King's major works he comments on how much control his characters - and we as human beings have - over the way our lives will turn out. King often riffs on how the random acts of terror that dot our lives don't seem so much to be aberrations as the actual fabric of life, and that human beings seem in the grip of forces much larger than just emotions of the moment, much larger than just individual sin:

"For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see 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 dreamclock 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 they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark."

In the course of Jake/George's odyssey, we see several images rubbed raw by their constant evocation in our collective memory - the Texas School Book Depository, the Grassy Knoll, the specter of the Vietnam War. Jake understands that he must undo Oswald's act - and much of the book deals with Jake determining whether Oswald was the actual assassin - because Kennedy's death set in motion the events after: Vietnam, Watergate, the cynicism of the present, the loss of American idealism etc. Jake isn't intent on preventing one horror, but all the ones that follow. As he says, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it harmonizes, and what it usually makes is the devil's music."

In “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution,” James Piereson remarks on one consequence of that day in Dallas. Piereson states that the assassination changed the character of American liberalism, once it was revealed that Oswald was not a right-winger incensed by Kennedy‘s support of civil rights or his stance on Communism, but a misbegotten Marxist hungry for attention. It did so “by undermining the confidence of liberals in the future; and…by changing their perspective from one of possibility and practical reform to one of grief, loss, and frustrated hopes. It also compromised their faith in the nation because many concluded, against all factual evidence, that in some way the nation itself was responsible…A confident, practical, and forward-looking philosophy, with a heritage of genuine accomplishment, was thus turned into a pessimistic doctrine - and one with a decidedly negative view of American society and its institutions….It now seems clear that Kennedy’s assassination had the effect of draining much of that political energy out of the liberal movement.”

For Piereson, the political affiliation of Oswald is key to understanding the result. The initial belief of Kennedy supporters was that it was the climate of Dallas - a right-wing bastion in the heart of the segregated South - that had killed Kennedy. This view is stamped on virtually every page of William Manchester’s “The Death of a President,” where Dallas sometimes looms as a cross between some backwoods version of the Inferno and a Martian colony.

But the truth was that Oswald was a left-winger - an ex-Marine who renounced his citizenship and defected to the Soviet Union, disenchanted with American materialism and foreign policy. This, followed by Oswald’s immediate death, froze in many people’s minds the idea that Oswald was somehow not so much an assassin as a stand-in for whatever individual bogeyman could be made to stick in his place. In this climate of blame, the evitable result was the succeeding generations of conspiracy theories the event spawned, trying in vain to invest in Kennedy’s death a sense of meaning that was not there, if the official narrative - Oswald, a nobody, acted alone for quixotic reasons - turned out to be true.

King even quotes from Manchester’s explanation of why he did not believe the various theories:

“To employ what may seem an odd metaphor, there is an aesthetic principle at work here. If you put six million dead Jews on one side of a scale and on the other side put the Nazi regime - the greatest gang of criminals ever to seize control of a modern state - you would have a rough balance: greatest crime, greatest criminals. But if you put the murder of the President of the United States on one side of another scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance. You want to add something along with Oswald, something weightier. A photograph of H.L. Hunt handing Oswald a check for a million dollars would do the job nicely. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist.”

The key word there for future generations is that last “unfortunately.” Manchester, as with other chroniclers of the Kennedy years, desperately wished there was such evidence because it would bear out their worst suspicions about American political life, not to mention invest in Kennedy’s death the meaning that the event cries out for.

But King takes that absence of meaning and fills it with something else. His solution is simple and ingenious. A few months prior to the assassination, when time becomes even more precious, Jake/George is attacked and injured. During his time in the hospital, Jake is unable to remember the most basic facts about who he is, and what he has ahead of him. Suddenly all the conspiracies are rendered meaningless, all the minutiae of the story moot. It becomes a simple issue of a man in a tall building with a gun bent on murder, and another lonely, confused man bent on maiming history. He feels for Oswald "sorrow for a spoiled life. But you can feel sorry for a good dog that goes rabid, too. That doesn't stop you from putting him down."

By the book's end, Jake/George must decide whether he wants to continue his mission, and then whether he can live with the results. The book continues to delight, continues to entertain, continues to illuminate. Time, it seems, has its own guardians, and eventually Jake must learn to dance with them, and find a way to dance in the world that is left.

It is hard to read "11/22/63" without wondering how your own life might be different with just a few changes here and there. In June 1999, I wrote a newspaper story about a man from Gadsden, Alabama, Don Gentry, who served in the Marine Corps in the 1950s with Lee Harvey Oswald in Japan.

On the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, he was sitting in a barber shop when news came over the television that the president's possible assassin had been arrested in a theater. Gentry sat bolt-upright, dumbstruck, when he heard the name of the assassin. He told me his immediate impression, knowing what he knew about Oswald from the service, was that he probably did it. "You could have poured me out of that chair," he said.

It probably shouldn't surprise us that Don Gentry later became a preacher. He wondered how history might have been different if he had shared the Gospel with the man who later killed Kennedy. The impersonal forces of history can be very personal.

Other posts about Stephen King's work here and here

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
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Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 
Read a piece I did for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
Read another interview with the fleegan book blog here. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Many Dimensions of Star Wars

At midnight, May 19, 1999, I sat in a crowded theater like scores of Americans waiting for the lights to dim and the “first” installment of Star Wars to fill the screen. Sitting next to me was my wife of nearly two years. At home was our infant daughter, born almost one month to the day before. At that moment, I felt young and old, mindful of the past and hopeful for what the near future might bring.

None of this seemingly has anything to do with “The Phantom Menace,” but it has a lot to do with it. When I was seven years old, I saw the “first” Star Wars movie - Episode IV: A New Hope - in a different city, obviously at a different time. It would be another 12 years before I would meet my wife. The idea of having my own daughter was deep in the future. On that day, I was just a little boy who wanted his own light saber. Consequently, my reactions to both movies, like many others in the audience, were vastly different. With the re-release of “Episode I” in 3D, it’s probably worthwhile to revisit the opening chapter, now removed from the acclaim and vitriol that greeted it nearly 13 years ago.

“The Phantom Menace,” of course, is the beginning of the six-film story of the rise, fall and redemption of Anakin Skywalker, the prophesied Chosen One, the boy/man who eventually becomes Darth Vader. In our first film, Anakin is a nine-year-old boy in a forgotten part of the galaxy, discovered seemingly by accident at the exact moment of an intergalactic disturbance. Something that was on my mind in that crowded theatre in 1999 was a passage I remembered from a story in Time Magazine quoting Steven Spielberg that the “first” Star Wars trilogy would be very different from the “second” - “more like a Greek tragedy.” “The Phantom Menace” therefore must give a sense of the tragedy to come.

Lucas does this by showing us Anakin in the beginning as an absolute innocent, a little sandy-haired slave who scampers across the screen shouting “Yippee!” For those of us whose young nightmares were inhabited by the seven-foot Sith Lord he grew into, the boy seems inconceivable. It would have been a much easier decision to introduce an older version - slightly more mature with a more visible hint of darkness. But Lucas gives us the boy consciously to highlight the tragedy which follows. He must give us a sense that a soul has been corrupted, and also that there is something within him later worth redeeming, let alone fertile ground where redemption is possible.

We also encounter Luke and Leia’s future mother, Queen Amidala, the embattled sovereign of something that is either a monarchy or a democracy or both. (The politics of the prequel trilogy somehow manage to be too complex and too simple at times.) She is older than Anakin but not too much so - she shows a motherly concern for him as the group leaves Anakin’s home planet in a scene meant to echo a later one between Luke and Leia in Episode IV. But she is closer to the action in a way that Anakin is not - at least, until the film’s end.

Watching the movie again, I was struck by how ambitious it is. In the course of two hours, we move among two civilizations on one planet, speed to another world and visit still another before returning to our entry point at Naboo. I was also struck by the speed with which all of this happens. In the first thirty minutes, we are introduced to the Jedi Knights, witness a planetary invasion, travel from an underwater city through the planet’s core, then take off into space and arrive eventually in a junk shop to meet the saga’s hero - and villain - in the person of our young budding pilot. This newfound speed was a surprise, since one of the first impressions I got watching the film that opening night years ago was of “dead spots” in the narrative - expository scenes that didn’t really advance the story. Those spots are still there, as though Lucas did not trust his audience enough to keep up.

Lucas made another decision with the prequel trilogy, which was to create a set of films to stand the originals on their heads. This results in a trilogy of much more subtle films than the saga of Luke Skywalker. Instead of the Galactic Empire, a perfect adversary in the first trilogy, (Torture! Murder! Planetary destruction!) it seems this time we have the Galactic Trade Federation, which invades Naboo with its droid army. However, we know next to nothing about them beyond their green viceroy, Nute Gunray and his Japanese-sounding speech patterns. What do they do? Why do they need a droid army? Or perhaps it is Darth Maul, the horned-tattooed, intimidating figure with the double-edged light saber we should fear? He barely has any dialogue at all and is only called on to glare menacingly when he is not fighting two Jedi at once.

That’s because the real villain, of course, is the “Phantom Menace” - hiding in plain sight, the Senator from Naboo, Palpatine, who secretly is Darth Sidious, the Dark Lord of the Sith. As we will learn later, the will of the Force has ordained that the Dark Side will soon gain ascendancy. The Dark Side clouds the vision of the Jedi, making them unable to see the calamity which awaits the Republic. Instead, they can only sense the danger that seems to surround the coming of Anakin. It is the death of Qui-Gon Jinn, Anakin’s would-be teacher, that forces the Jedi to take on the boy’s instruction. However, the death is a double tragedy, since we are left to wonder what the boy would have done under Qui-Gon’s tutelage. And though we only dimly realize it, the Old Republic’s days are numbered. All too soon, it will become the Empire.

But in recounting these plot points, it’s easy to see the essential problem with the prequel trilogy - we know where the story is headed. Lucas has actually attempted something new - he is depicting a fallen messiah, foretold by a vague prophecy. We should be shocked to learn the fate of this little boy, but we aren’t, because we know it already. Because of this, plot twists do not surprise us. If you were to watch all six films without knowing the story, the revelation that Palpatine is Darth Sidious should surprise your. That the sweet boy of Episode I will two movies later murder younglings in the Jedi Temple should shock us, but it doesn’t. Our big shock moment came when Darth Vader revealed to Luke who his father was, and that’s the part of the story we want to see now, not some kid blowing up a ship in what seems like a pale echo of his son’s later achievement.

The chief source of derision in “The Phantom Menace,” of course, turns up early on in the movie - Jar Jar Binks, a clumsy, flop-eared amphibian who accompanies Qui-Gon, Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi on the journey. Jar Jar perfectly illustrates the problems that the movie presents. My theory is that Lucas, knowing that Episode III would be extremely dark, invented Jar Jar as a light-hearted entry point into the story, counterbalancing the eventual fate of Anakin. And like the rest of the movie, Jar Jar is many things at once- a fully digital character, aimed at providing both slapstick and spoken humor through his speech patterns, a loveable chum with a funny walk for our heroes. He doesn’t just try to pull off one thing, but attempts all these at once, and one occasionally wonders if any one of these ambitions is ever fully satisfied. If we take the original movies as a model, he’s in the story to function as Chewbacca. But Chewbacca doesn’t have dialogue, and his comic relief is largely physical due to his size. Basking in the reflected light of Han Solo, Chewie is “cool.” By creating a slapstick foil who is a fool, Lucas disappoints his fans with a character who is not sufficiently cool.

And herein we have the source of our movie’s anguish. “Star Wars,” as a whole, accomplishes what all great, enduring fiction does - it creates a world that makes you want to inhabit it. But more than that - it made a whole generation of fans want to create their own extensions of it. Because George Lucas made the decision to begin the saga in the middle, he gave that generation of fans a free license to imagine the story that precedes the coming of Luke Skywalker. This explains the subsequent fan fiction, fan created movies, novels, video games, and the constant demand for them. Giving those same fans 16 years after the original trilogy to imagine the backstory gave them ample time to fall in love with their own stories, to claim ownership of the fantasy realm, and to disdain anything that might replace them. When considering this, it is little wonder they didn’t expect - or want - the story to be filled with the likes of Jar-Jar Binks. When one sees the hate “The Phantom Menace” spawned from fans who waited patiently for it, the result seems academic.

Which brings us back to where we started - the theater where all of us waited to see how our cherished story began. The newer film didn’t mean the same to us as its earlier manifestations because it came to us at a different time in our lives. Our fantasy suddenly had much larger frontiers, and we were left wanting something more familiar. In fact, one wonders what the verdict would have been if Lucas had made the films in order, from Episode I to VI. Would we be disappointed that Luke’s portion of the story wasn’t as suitably grand as the fall of his father, or that the rebellion is a much smaller affair than the earlier wars with thousands of computer generated armies? Would we lament the absence of the prequel trilogy’s more earnest characters, replaced by the cocky heroism of Han Solo and Lando Calrissian? Would some critic find fault with Anakin’s presence behind the dark mask, his brooding thoughts closed off to us, and his children weak imitations of the characters who came before?

In watching the 3-D version, a few things have changed. I’m 41 and my daughter, now 12, sat next to me this time. The 3D transfer was unremarkable and a little disappointing. The moments where I laughed seemed more out of obligation than inspiration. But as Obi-Wan Kenobi fought Darth Maul to the death, I felt myself once again transported, and would have happily sat down to watch whatever came next, no matter how well I knew the outcome. At least that reaction was still intact, virtually unchanged from its beginning in 1977. Such is the enduring power of the Force.

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