a review by Nalini Haynes
Stephen King’s latest novel, 11.22.63: Jake Epping is a high school English teacher whose wife divorced him, claiming he was emotionally distant. Jake has few friends or attachments to his life, but has an association with Al Templeton, the owner/operator of a diner that has a portal to 1958. Al went back in time in an attempt to prevent JFK’s assassination but failed; hence he recruits Jake in the hopes that Jake will succeed where Al failed. Al’s experience shows that history resists change, and acts against it – Al developed a swift acting, debilitating form of lung cancer, so he couldn’t live long enough to change history. Jake goes back in time knowing that history resists change, hoping he could fare better.
The contrast between 1958 and 2011 is explored well if not exhaustively. Jake’s early experiences in 1958 emphasise the lack of environmental protection and occupational health and safety. Other contrasts include the better tasting food and the overall fresher smells of the environment – when away from ecological disasters. Society’s attitudinal changes are also explored, including some discussion of racism as pertaining to moral codes, sex, segregation in education and public toilet facilities.
Moral codes are the most strongly emphasised as Jake develops a relationship with Sadie, a married woman. There appears to be little discussion of discrimination against women or attitudes towards divorce and divorcees – I’m not sure what the situation in the USA was during this era, but in Australia it was practically mandatory for married women to leave work. Sadie taught at the same school as her husband during her marriage and then secured a teaching positing in Jodie, Texas, as part of her escape from her abusive husband. There was no explanation as to why it was so easy for her to secure a position in the school given her circumstances, which was an unfortunate contrast with a potential sacking for immoral conduct on the basis of her husband cutting her with a knife, causing embarrassment for the community. God’s police got involved later, threatening to sack Sadie for immoral conduct on the basis of her relationship with Jake; this small-minded hypocrisy was mostly well-done except at that stage there was nothing preventing Sadie and Jake from getting married. Considering they were living in the 1960s, Sadie was a woman of the era and Jake claimed to love Sadie, it seemed strange that they didn’t get married in order to avert trouble and generally make life easier for themselves.
There were two really big holes in the story for me. The first was the lack of emotional attachment to the goal. Firstly Al, then Jake, goes back in time knowing that they’d spent 5 years of their lives in the past, in peril while history tried to prevent them from changing history, with only an abstract attachment to the idea that maybe saving Kennedy would improve history. To be leaving all you know to effectively live in another country (the past) and to risk your life in a cause, there needs to be substantial justification beyond some abstract thought that it might be a good idea. [Spoiler alert] This is mirrored by the conclusion, which I felt lacked emotional depth as well – it just seemed too easy for Jake, whose emotional state seemed to be one of mild regret rather than a great loss.
The second big hole was the basic story about every trip being a reset. Throughout the book I found myself stopping from time to time and thinking, ‘The basic premise [of time travel and each trip being a reset] doesn’t work, so this isn’t science fiction, and yet it’s not fantasy either…’ After reading the entire book I read the acknowledgements at the end where King revealed that he wrote the book one way only to have his son, Joe Hill, educate him about the dynamics of time travel (yay Joe!) King acknowledged that this resulted in a new ending to the book. This is very apparent – the Yellow card man was introduced in the beginning to lead into the new ending. I don’t want to give away too much here, so I’ll just say that the Yellow card man is both a solution to a writer’s dilemma and the source of a plot hole. I started reading time travel and parallel universe stories (and not just Doctor Who) when I was in primary school, so I’m probably more focused on this aspect of the story than the average reader.
Another thing that bugged me – in an early trip Jake was injured but after he went through the portal no mention was ever made of that injury again. It wasn’t clear whether that injury was ‘reset’ or not, which was an important point as Jake lived his life in fear of reprisals from history. Did Jake know something the reader didn’t? One assumes that the injury was not reset as the cancer that Al developed during his attempt to change history was not cured by Jake travelling back in time to ‘reset’ the past. By the end of the novel the reader knows more, but during the story I was frustrated by this omission.
JFK is old news and an ongoing obsession for America. I’ve seen a number of movies and documentaries about the era, more on JFK than even Martin Luther King. Red Dwarf already did an episode where JFK’s assassination was averted, causing disaster. As such, I’m surprised that this book kept my attention, carrying me along as well as it did. King managed to make an old story fresh again, which I think, at least in part, is due to his extensive research on this subject giving it the authenticity of history. This is the first Stephen King book I’ve read – I don’t like horror so I’ve avoided King. Having read this book and enjoyed it so much, I’m much more inclined to read the Dark Tower series now.
Why did this novel keep my attention so well? The larger events such as JFK’s assassination were made more real, more immediate, by looking at the consequences for Hop-along Harry, who, in one timeline, suffered brain injury, in another he died in Viet Nam, in another he had a different experience. This made the larger story more personal and the potential consequences more important. It was this kind of personal detail that helped me to become emotionally involved in the story and to care about the outcome.
Although flawed, this doorstopper novel kept my attention, kept me reading and caring about the outcome. 11.22.63 is recommended for fans of Stephen King, for people who enjoy historical novels, alternative timeline novels, suspense and more.