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Reading Stephen King

My week's vacation has been filled with good things: long bike rides in bright, cold sunshine, lots of knitting, a visit to my good friend [personal profile] roseambr (who is housebound following some foot surgery), a session with a spiritual healer, and some really good reading.

I've spent...let me see...about 35 hours of the last six days or so listening to Craig Wasson's narration of Stephen King's latest, 11-22-63: A Novel.

I haven't read King in ages, but I've admired his writing since I encountered Night Shift in 1978. He may be a mega-bestselling hack, but damn, he's a gifted one. Unlike other mega-bestselling hacks I'll admit to having read (*coughDanBrownJohnGrishamMichaelCrichtoncough*), King actually writes well. His prose is transparent. His characterizations are strong. His novel structure is beautifully controlled. And he elicits emotion in the great-novel tradition: through empathy, which he elicits over and over again with the just-so detail of character, setting, and action.

I found 11-22-63 really, deeply satisfying. It is, to say the least, long. Nobody really edits King anymore, I don't think, and there's something wonderful about that. He spins a detailed, well-controlled story--in this case, involving time-travel--and though one could argue that his stroll through the novel's landscape could have been slightly less leisurely, in the end you can see that every step of journey was aimed directly at the destination. I was never bored, and there was never a spot where, if my concentration wandered and I zoned out on a sentence or two, I felt I could just shrug and move on: I hit the 30-second back button a lot because I didn't want to miss any details.

Stephen King reads his own afterword in the audiobook (some historical notes, acknowledgments, and a glimpse into the truly gargantuan research efforts involved in the writing), and you realize that the narrator you've been listening to for 35 hours, Craig Wasson, sounds just like him.

Wasson does a nice job. His character voices are distinctive, and his acting is good--light-handed and accurate, enhancing the narrative rather than pulling me out of it. I rarely felt that he was stumbling over text he hadn't quite comprehended (a huge achievement in a book of this size), and he is consistent across all those tens of thousands of words.

Somewhat less good are his dialects. His various Southerns strike my ear as slightly more stereotyped than accurate, and he misses pretty completely on a Russian, though his German one isn't bad. The story calls for Texas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, and Boston Mainline accents, and one really famous voice that will always sound like a caricature no matter who does it--President Kennedy--but I'll give Wasson this: he makes a distinction between a Maine accent in the 1950s and the homogenized one of the 2010s that nails the sense of the past as a foreign country the way the written text couldn't have done.

"Is it really scary?" my sister asked me when I recommended it to her last night. It's a natural question to ask of a King novel. This one isn't. It has its share of graphic (strictly human) violence, and a certain amount of the bodily effluvia and sordid American urban ugliness that King always seems to favor as set dressing. There are a couple of nice steamy-but-not-porny love scenes.

Mostly, it's intriguing. It builds to downright thrilling at the climax, and has a long, satisfying denouement. King moralizes a bit, and lets his political flag fly (though since his is like mine, that's a plus). If I had to single out a flaw, it would be that Jake/George, the POV character, as a well-read English teacher familiar with science fiction, really should have known better than to do any of what he does in the story. You have to overlook that key disconnect in the early pages in order to let the novel unfold.

But it's worth it.

I made significant progress on my current knitting project, a pale-gray Aran-style cardigan, while listening to 11-22-63 (that is a really hard title to hold in the mind!), and now Jake Epping/George Amberson, the Yellow Card Man, and the tail-fins of 1950s American gas-guzzlers are entwined in the moss-stitch and cables of the left sleeve.

It's cold and sunny again today and I'm going out in a few minutes to treat myself to a pedicure.

Then I'm gonna start on Death Comes to Pemberley. I'll get back to non-fiction next week.

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