Friday, November 18, 2011

A meditation on the nature of time

I finished Stephen King's 11/22/63 last night. This isn't meant to be a review of it (though I liked it, very much, and while it seems odd to say the words "cross-over appeal" about someone who has as many readers as King does, I do think this is a book that can be read and loved by people who don't normally gravitate toward his writing.) Rather, I want to talk about the way the book handled the problem of time.


As you might expect from a book that has a date for a title, time is a huge presence in 11/22/63. It is not quite a character, but it is the monster in the closet, the shadow at morning striding behind you, and at evening rising to meet you. And for most of the book, time moves at what seems an achingly slow pace. Oh, not that the pace of the book is slow - it isn't (unless you compare it with the careen of Under the Dome), but time cannot seem to move normally when history stands in front of it. Jake has to get to 1963 by way of 1958, and the ticking clock of the past echos louder and louder as we read towards the unanswered question. That tick tock becomes amplified almost unbearably when we arrive in late November of 1963, and King's text begins counting down the days. Trust me when I say that six numbers can make you shudder.


And yes, what King is interested in doing is exploring the idea of time travel, not alternate history, so I give away nothing (or at least nothing more than the fact that portal to the past opens in 1958 does) by saying that the titular date arrives very near to the end of the book. After Jake Epping has learned, time and again, that the past is obdurate. After entire flocks of butterflies have flapped their wings. It might seem obvious in a novel about time travel, but in 11/22/63 time is a force that cannot be ignored. I would say that it is the organizing force of the story, but then, isn't it always, when we begin with "Once upon a time" and end with "happily ever after?"


One of my favorite television shows is about a time-traveling mad man in a box, and one of the most quoted lines of this season was that "time can be rewritten." On my desk right now is Sean Carroll's From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time. I am writing an alternate history and wrestling in my own way with obduracies of time. Plot is made of people, you see, and while changing history can be accomplished with a sweep of my pen, the people inside it are surprisingly resistant to being altered for all that they've been dead for 400 years now. And they keep trying to put the pieces of history that I have broken back together. 


Time is a thread, a layer, a piece of a coordinate in spacetime. Time is a bubble on the side of a multiverse. Time is the crack of a bullet, the flutter of wings, the inexorable ticking of a clock creeping in its petty pace. It is the beginning and end, and all of the pieces in between, no matter how often they are rewritten. It is all we have, and it is never long enough.

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