Blending Boundaries in a New Time-Travel Twist
Book Review of Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Published by Scribner.
As I type this blog, there are certainly people in the world that believe time travel will someday be possible and most likely people trying to achieve it as this very moment. But until they succeed, time travel is simply one of the most inspirational and consistent roots of storytelling. The theories of how time travel could come about, who would use it and why and how it would affect society has intrigued brilliant minds and brought us countless books and movies. Back to the Future was one of my favorite movies as a child. The time-traveling DeLorean in that depiction is as ideal as it comes. The user is allowed to set a date and time into a keypad, race to 88 mph and POP! they can jump forward or backwards in time as they please.
Jake Epping, the main character in 11/22/63, does not have the DeLorean’s convenience. His time-traveling portal takes him back to 11:58 a.m. on Tuesday, September 9, 1958 every single time. No matter how long he stays in the past, only two minutes pass in the present (2011) and if he goes through the time-traveling portal again, everything starts over at 11:58 a.m. on September 9, 1958 as if he’d never been there. Once Jake’s friend, Al, convinces him of the possibly endless positive effects of stopping the assassination of JFK (no Vietnam war, saving Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King from assassinations, and much more), Jake commits to spending over five years living in the past and attempt to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting Kennedy.
Like all long novels, 11/22/63 has a lot of characters and a lot of separate but interweaving plot lines. During his first year living in the past, Jake intervenes with two other acts of violence and learns that the past has a way of resisting change. After that, Jake has time to relax before the big event. In this gap, King provides us with a complicated love story. Their relationship is filled with lies, deceit and danger but in the most romantic and loving way. The love story completes the novel and creates an ending with much higher stakes.
Now, with the hope of inspiring readers to pick up the books I review, I promise to never reveal an ending. But, I will share that King’s interpretation of the effects of time travel are much more complex than that of Back to the Future.
Covering a large time span in a novel like King has here, makes pacing extremely important throughout the story. The multiple plot lines allow King to keep his pace consistent. The dangerous events that Epping tries to prevent in the first few months of his time travel experience act as a sort of buffer for the JFK assassination. While entertaining the reader with heart-tugging and suspenseful action, King is showing the reader a smaller scale of what is to come. When done well, this kind of buffer hooks the reader and gives them a clear idea of what is to come, only on a much larger scale.
King is not only a pro, but a veteran. With over 50 published novels, many of them best sellers, his line to line prose is, as always, excellent. His balance of detail and plot is admirable and his books are always filled with unique and relative similes and metaphors. When he does slip in a cliché, he often points it out by having a character remark on the phrase (see Interesting Fact of the Day section below for an example). One negative to having published as many books as King, is the challenge of making every story original and unique from its predecessors. The most obvious is the plot of each story needs to differ but the characters and the writing itself have to be unique as well. Any writer should take note of King’s similes/metaphors and how they always relate to the current situation in the book. His specific but brief descriptions are also note-worthy. As a writer, I love description! But because I love it, I can catch myself getting caught up in the description and unnecessary details and forget that any reader is reading first and foremost to know what’s happening. Description should be sprinkled in amongst action, not the other way around.
The quirkiness of the minor characters in this book caught my attention. At one point in the book when Jake is living in the past, he interacts with a young boy and girl who are learning to dance for a talent competition. The young couple is full of energy, constantly joking around, using quirky nicknames, giving the reader a vivid picture of teenagers from the late 50’s and, therefore, leaves a strong impression with the reader. Although we only interact with these characters for a few pages in the 842-page novel, they left an imprint on me as a reader for a long time. Another example is the ex-husband of the woman Jake falls in love with. The man displays psychotic behavior and has a clear case of OCD in a time when such behaviors were rarely diagnosed or understood. Although the idea of this character does have a larger influence, he is only on stage for a very brief time, committing a horrible (yet memorable) crime. In comparison to these characters, Jake is boring. Not flat, but boring. By making the quirky characters minor to the story, it allows King to create those unique and memorable characters without committing a ton of energy into them. The reader accepts their peculiar habits without feeling the need to know who they really are or what that quirkiness really means/hides. Having a constantly funny or amusing character could change the entire mood of the story which is strongly centered on death and murder.
A tip of the hat also needs to go to the research King had to compile to make this work of fiction hold as true as possible to the truth of the history behind it. King’s afterword in the book is an excellent one, sharing some of the prominent resources he used to compile his research including historical books on the assignation, interviews with people close to Kennedy, and trips to Dallas to capture the mood and atmosphere of the city. This research comes through in the clear, confident way King tells the story. As a reader with very little knowledge on the subject, I never raised my eyebrow to something that seemed clearly fabricated. Even in the obviously fictionalized sections of the book, every detail seemed to blend perfectly with the larger picture we know to be true about the events and the real people involved. Historical fiction, when done right, is a real treasure. King crosses boundaries (like all true visionaries) with this book by blending historical and science fiction and produces a novel like no other.
This 842-page book is worth the time commitment.
*Note: It’s uncommon for me to praise a book to such extent. I guarantee my next review will not be so kind.
Interesting Fact of the Day from page 57 of 11/22/63:
“Do you know the phrase watershed moment, buddy?”
I nodded. You didn’t have to be an English teacher to know that one; you didn’t even have to be literate. It was one of those annoying linguistic shortcuts that show up on cable TV news shows, day in and day out. Others include connect the dots and at this point in time. The most annoying of all (I have inveighed against it to my clearly bored students time and time and time again) is the totally meaningless some people say, or many people believe.
“Do you know where it comes from? The origin?”
“Cartography. A watershed moment is an area of land, usually mountains or forests, tat drains into a river. History is also a river. Wouldn’t you say so?”
“Yes. I suppose I would.” I drank some of my tea.
“Sometimes the events that change history are widespread—like heavy, prolonged rains over an entire watershed that can send a river out of its banks. But rivers can flood even on sunny days. All it takes is a heavy, prolonged downpour in one small area of the watershed. There are flash floods in history, too.”
How I found this book: As a big fan of Stephen King, I always keep an eye out for his new titles. The historical twist of 11/22/63’s plot immediately caught my attention. My boyfriend bought the book for me as a Christmas present. ❤
Posted on January 28, 2014, in Book Review, Literature, Uncategorized, Writing and tagged 11/22/63, book review, historical fiction, Interesting Fact, JFK, John F Kennedy, science fiction, Stephen King, time travel, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.