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. 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.
– Stephen King, from 11/22/63, pp. 615-16
Finals week when I have stacks of papers and exams is usually not the time to start a nearly 850 page novel, the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read. I found his style engaging, the story riveting, and the gentle weaving of drama, deep philosophical ideas and social commentary to be subtle and effective. However, this is not a book review, and except for obvious bits you’ll get from any description, there are no spoilers. Instead this is a stream of consciousness reaction to a powerful and intriguing novel.
First, the length. Someone wanting a fun read may be put off by 843 pages and a book which will build your arm muscles just by holding it while you read. It has to be that long; the reader has to feel like years have past, that the man from 2011 is fully living a life from 1958 to 1962. You lose yourself in that era, his identity there is real. Second, it’s definitely not a horror novel; it provokes thoughts and theories, ties up the loose ends enough for the story, but leaves enough open for one to contemplate — especially the larger issues of time, life, reality and love.
I’m left contemplating the nature of existence on this planet. There is a truth that most people neither mention or spend much time thinking about. Every life is full of twists and turns whereby chance decides whether one dies early, finds love, gets a lucky break, or has everything fall apart. Moreover in the grand scheme of things most lives are forgotten not long after death. The daily dramas and emotions we perceive are part of a tapestry that lingers forever as a moment — a fleeting, ever changing moment.
Therein is the part hard to grasp. Now lasts forever, we’re always “now,” even though we categorize experience as past, present and future. If you believe modern physics, space-time is an entity whereby past, present and future are mere illusions caused by how we experience the world in which we find ourselves. At the very least each moment is nothing but a series of sensations that we somehow make sense of as we move through them.
Life is therefore ephemeral and fleeting. It feels real enough as we experience it, though even our most intense experiences are gone as soon as they happen. The world changes slowly, but completely. Each individual life seems meaningless along the current of time, yet all we have are individual lives and moments. We contribute what we can, and never really know the impacts it has, the “butterfly effect,” as King calls it, as each choice we make sends ripples that ultimately touch multiple lives, imperceptibly yet fundamentally changing reality.
I think about this as I watch some of the TV shows I’ve mentioned in this blog, including Pan Am, which takes place during the very era King describes, or Banacek, whose early 70s perspective shows the start of change, as chauvinism, ubiquitous smoking and conservative social norms start giving way to the impact of the counter culture movement. I think about it as I watch my children get irritated at a hotel when the TV won’t pause. To them, TV is DVR. A show not being able to pause or be recorded, well, they haven’t heard of such a thing!
And why not? My five year old has never wound a watch, but he can go into “Gameboy” and get on a display XBOX 360 and figure out a game that stumps me. And we don’t even have an XBOX! I see students connected to friends and parents on facebook, e-mail getting dismissed as old fashioned while texting while driving surpassing drinking while driving as a main concern for teens, and I realize how quickly one era has folded into another. The streaking, disco and concept album period of the seventies is gone.
Life, existence and reality feel fleeting and unreal. Reality isn’t hard matter blasting its way through time with Newtonian certainty, but complex ideas uniting and igniting change with quantum complexity. Unlived pasts exist in some portion of the universal mind; at some level of reality all possible choices have been and are being explored. The idea of past, present and future is a psychological orientation to allow us to navigate the world in which we find ourselves.
That’s both humbling and inspiring. For while each individual life or moment of existence is not as important or central as we experience it to be, we are all an integral part of a reality weaving through and around us, with birth and death just moments in this vast experience. Those moments my bind the experience each of us has in an individual existence, but probably don’t delineate our entire being.
After finishing the novel I was exercising to the Moody Blues, and the following stuck with me:
“Isn’t life strange
A turn of the page
A book without light
Unless with love we write;
To throw it away
To lose just a day
The quicksand of time
You know it makes me want to cry, cry, cry –
Wished I could be in your heart
To be one with your love
Wished I could be in your eyes
Looking back there you were
And here we are” – The Moody Blues