(Belatedly cross-posted from Goodreads to give the site some content while I handle the renovations!)
November 22nd, 1963. You know how it unfolds: shots ring out in Dallas, and within seconds, President John F. Kennedy is dead.
What if you had the power to go back and change it? To stop Kennedy from dying, and hopefully change the course of world history in the process, even preventing Vietnam? Would you do it? Even if it came with several rather large hitches?
And so we begin.
Time travel is on a different pedestal than most other speculative-fiction tropes, because of the sheer breadth and game-changing nature of the technology: if you make a time travel story, you have to go whole-hog and make the story completely about time travel, IE The Terminator or Doctor Who. If you treat it as just another piece of tech or magic, a one-and-done plot device that is never spoken of again, you end up with what JK Rowling had in Harry Potter and the Prisoner Of Azkaban’s Time Turners: an elephant in the corner that causes unwanted questions to arise (“why didn’t some brave wizard just go back and kill Voldemort when he was born?”).
King presents the time-travel device in 11/22/63 not as a man-made machine – no DeLoreans, police boxes or hot tubs here – but as a freak natural phenomenon: a time-space distortion that just so happens to be located in the back room of a burger joint. It takes the traveler to exactly one place and time: that very spot on a specific day in 1958. Making the “means of travel” so rigid and specific helps King to avoid the kinds of questions that would arise from a Time Turner sort of scenario.
It’s also a great reason to crank up the drama and the stakes: every time a traveler goes back to their own time through the portal, the things they’ve changed in the past take hold and simply become history.
As the first act unfolds, we’re introduced to this incredible discovery and Jake becomes charged with his mission: to take the portal and wait five years in the past, at which point he must stop the assassination of President Kennedy. The hope, then, is that he can kick the course of history back on the straight-and-narrow: no Vietnam war, no millions of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of Americans coming home in black bags.
And it’s this first act of the book that I found the most enthralling, when King takes us on an unbuckled ride through all the what-ifs and what-could-go-wrongs; by the time Jake steps through the portal to begin in earnest his five-year mission, we’re charged. We’re hyped. We’ve already bought the book, and it’s already in our hands or on our e-readers, but this section is already where things get fun. It’s an exploration of how exciting an act can be using primarily dialogue.
Even though the story technically takes a long time to get going (Despite having the stakes laid at the reader’s feet early on, the main plot involving JFK doesn’t kick into gear in earnest until much later), it doesn’t feel like the plot is spinning its wheels when Jake tries a ‘dry run’ where he travels to Derry to stop a brutal murder that deeply affected someone he knows in the present day.
Wait – Derry?
I love continuity, even in small doses, so imagine my reaction to finding out that this act of 11/22/63 is a straight-up crossover with King’s previous opus IT. As this section takes place shortly after the entity was banished the first time around, we come upon some familiar faces (Beep beep!), and Jake even, it’s strongly hinted, comes very close to the location where the creature’s essence persists, biding it’s time until – well, read IT for the rest. If there’s a downside to this, it’s that if you haven’t seen any incarnation of IT – the book, the TV movie with Tim Curry – you might end up confused at these tertiary details, but as it’s one of King’s more well-known exports, most of his readers will probably be safe.
King’s treatment of the late fifties and early sixties can best be described as ‘balanced’. We savour the delicious authentic root beer in 1958 right alongside Jake, just as we cringe with him at the segregation and open racism in the South. Knowing his place as a temporal alien and that the course of history could have a terrible, horrible, no-good very bad day if he steps on the wrong butterflies, Jake’s poker face when confronted with these sights that might seem so foreign to us today carries him through.
Here’s where I have to digress and say something about romance subplots in stories that are not primarily romance: I get them, but I don’t love them. I know some people who won’t even pick up a book any more that doesn’t have a romance subplot, but to me, a romance subplot that isn’t perfectly-integrated into the main plot is one of the most surefire ways to bog down the pacing of a story.
And, indeed, Jake’s relationship with small-town schoolteacher Sadie does mark the book’s transition into more deliberately-paced territory. In King’s defense, this is where Jake’s long-haul waiting-game begins anyway – but after the often-intense, often-exciting speed at which the previous segments had moved, seeing Jake go to small-town Jodie to build a life for himself while he waits for the fateful day at the Book Depository, finding companionship and love, is a little bit like coming off the highway and into a residential zone: suddenly going 50 instead of 100 feels much slower than it actually is. They have a word for that – velocitized. The pre-Jodie stuff in this book makes you feel velocitized once Jake reaches Jodie.
That said, it still kept me reading; even the slower sections of 11/22/63 are infused with a near-constant awareness of time, like a doomsday clock inching ever-closer to Jake Epping’s appointment with Oswald and his sniper rifle.
And the reader feels it just as well as Jake does: something is going to have to give. If his relationship with Sadie is to last after Minute Zero of his mission, he’s either going to stay in 1963 or she’s going to have to go back with him. Back…to the future!
(Low-hanging fruit. Sorry.)
But, credit where it’s due, Sadie serves as Jake’s connection into the past, and his reason to want to stay after his mission is complete, which makes the romantic subplot crucial for the protagonist’s development.
And – yes, don’t worry, the book comes up with a myriad of backup reasons as to why Jake can’t simply hunt down Oswald in 1958 and give his skull an impromptu air-vent, pop back through the portal and get back to the 21st century just in time for Diners, Drive-Ins And Dives. And whether or not they’re fantastic reasons, I accepted them just fine while reading, which makes them perfectly serviceable in my mind.
That all said, the weeks leading up to “the day” finally buckled down and gripped me the same way that the first act did, only this time with action instead of words. When it comes time to take to Dallas and change history – for JFK and his family, for all those who would die in Vietnam, and for everything that would come after – I recommend a tissue or two. Not because it’s sad, but because it’s so white-knuckle intense that you’ll want to wipe off the hand-sweat that will surely have accrued on the spine of the book or the back of the e-reader. Our intrepid hero and his equally-intrepid woman are dashing through the Dallas streets, the “obdurate past” is throwing every car crash and mob scrum as it can muster at them along the way, and oh my god guys this is a damned fantastic climax.
And therein lies the secret to how Stephen King transitioned so seamlessly from horror to genres like fantasy and thriller: it’s not that he’s so good at being a spookster; it’s that he’s just good at this whole writing thing. He knows how to craft a scene in a way that will dig in and not let go without vigorous effort.
To skip ahead a touch, I understand a lot of people find King’s endings troublesome; it’s as though the inspirational force that guides him through these wonderful stories suddenly takes a coffee break. And, yes, I can definitely understand why people had a distaste for this particular ending. Can you tell the following section is going to be spoilertastic?
To wit, it turns out that, ultimately, Jake’s five-year quest was for naught. In stopping Oswald, he accidentally sets humanity on a darker course than before. He didn’t avert Vietnam – instead, America still went to ‘Nam, and this time, ‘Nam went nuclear. The Civil Rights Movement never happened. Domino effects tumbled until the Maine that Jake finds at the other end of the time-space slip is a dystopian nightmare.
And worse yet, tampering with such a colossal event in human history has caused the space-time continuum to start unraveling, manifesting itself as catastrophic earthquakes killing countless people.
Suffice it to say that in his effort to keep from stepping on the butterflies, Jake accidentally woke up Godzilla.
So the solution? Close the circle. Each loop is a complete reset except for the residue (Whovians would call it “time energy”) left behind, so…that’s how to keep reality from unraveling. Just step through again, undoing everything he had done.
As fans of stories, we have a certain expectant relationship with the law of cause and effect, and it can be jolting to see the scenario King had constructed for us over the past hundreds of pages come crashing down, becoming unmade far more swiftly than it took to build up. A cynic might call it a betrayal of the audience’s trust; a more optimistic critic might say this is the ultimate “chase is better than the catch” narrative.
That said, I’m unsure how I feel about certain elements of this post-climax. Don’t get me wrong, I love those reality-unraveling plots, just by their insanely high-stakes nature, but it didn’t feel too well foreshadowed to me, so much as dropped into the story at the eleventh hour to make an already-dire situation worse.
But at the same time, the very end of the story – to me, anyway – does what a truly good ending will do: make me mentally flash back to earlier elements in the story, and think, “Yes, yes, that’s good.” Watching Jake find the Sadie of his own time, who doesn’t know him now yet feels as though she should have, and watching them begin a dance – it was satisfying. The kind of ending where you can allow yourself to recline on your couch, take a contented drink of whatever it is you’re filling yourself with, and put the book down while saying, “Ah, that was good.” Given all the importance placed on dancing in the book – “dancing is life”, after all – it felt as though Jake had finally chosen to embrace the moment, rather than try to change the world. And he’s happier for it.
All-in, I enjoyed 11/22/63. Considering there were five years to cover, the narrative kept me engaged even during the slow-creep. Fans of speculative and alternate-history fiction will find a lot to like here, and needless to say, time-travel fans will have a lot of fun with that aspect. The Looking Glass is turning this one in with a delightful three and a half old-fashioned root beers out of four: check it out!