Well I’m back with another Stephen King review–this time, with one of his newest highly anticipated novels, 11/22/63. I luckily got it for free from work and so was able to get to reading it sooner than I expected. The reading took a long time, with my curse of being a slow reader of course, and because this novel is a hulking hardcover of 849 pages. I still “breezed” through though, because King has a unique and well-told story here.
11/22/63 is about a divorced high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, ME, named Jake Epping, who goes back in time to prevent the JFK assassination. It is a grand and ambitious plot, and yet the page-to-page story is full of realistic discomfort, tragedy, and uncertainty.
Before I get to my thoughts on the novel in its entirety, I want to say that the prologue was really what drew me in. It is beautifully written and sets the tone of the story perfectly. It also shows us that Jake has substantial reasons to travel back in time–perhaps even more substantial than the saving JFK. Having such a wonderful prologue to frame the book proved to me why 11/22/63 was named by the New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of 2011.
I think King made use of time travel appropriately for this story. He didn’t give much explanation about how the “portal” in Jake’s friend Al’s diner exists or why it only brings people back to the summer of 1958. The reader knows just as much as Jake and Al know, which is not much. When Al, the man who discovered the portal in the storeroom of his run-down diner, reveals his secret to Jake, they speculate that the slightest wrong move or the subtlest molecule out of place will change or destroy it. But neither of them really know. Al has used the portal to travel in time before, aging in the process, while his time actually spent in the past always turns out to be two minutes–no matter if he stays for two minutes or five years. And each time he goes in is a reset.
Al recruits Jake to help him stop the assassination of JFK because he won’t be able to do it himself due to becoming terminally ill with cancer. He feels strongly that we would be better off if President Kennedy was never killed–that the Vietnam War would never have occurred, nor would a host of other woes in the current world.
Jake then, becomes this vigilante figure as he travels in time, taking on the pseudonym of George Ambrose. He soon finds that, like most time travel stories, changing something unpleasant in the past can lead to an equally unpleasant future. I found it phenomenal, though, that King added another layer to Jake’s battle with the butterfly effect. Not only is it uncertain that the future won’t be ruined by his noble efforts, but Jake also has to deal with a past that fights back. The past doesn’t want to be changed, and so when Jake tries to change it substantially, things happen to prevent him from doing so. Car trouble, falling trees, food poisoning, and worse. The threat of death follows Jake around–all the while, he starts making a life for himself in the past, waiting for 11/22/63–the date of JFK’s assassination.
I loved the uncertainty throughout this book–the uncertainty of the mechanism of time travel, the uncertainty of who really killed JFK, and the uncertainty that the future will even benefit if Jake succeeds. We share Jake’s agony from undertaking such a confusing and dangerous mission. But we also share Jake’s bliss in traveling back to a simpler time. King’s description of Jake’s first sip of a 1958 home-brewed root beer is such bliss. And so is the relationship he begins with a young librarian named Sadie, who would be as old as his grandmother up in the 21st century.
One problem I found, though, was the way King cornified Jake and Sadie’s sex-life. Their code word for sex was “poundcake,” complete with dinner parties where Jake would show up at Sadie’s door and she’d welcome him saying, “Come in! I’ve made some dessert–poundcake of course” (Not an actual quote, but you get the idea). I still cringe. Also, Jake and Sadie dance together a lot. So there is this idea of dancing and “dancing is life” running throughout the book. I get it, I mean, why shouldn’t dancing be an important theme in the story? But it just didn’t do it for me. It didn’t fit (maybe it’s because I’m not an avid dancer). I did like that Jake’s love for Sadie and their relationship becomes an important component of the plot, but at times it made the story too sappy.
I’ve heard that some think the novel isn’t paced right, that it takes too long to get to 11/22/63. While it is true that 11/22/63 happens at the very latter part of the book, I don’t think the pace was wrong. I think it makes sense to take a while to get there. Jake has to live in the past for about five years before the date even occurs, and all the while he has a lot of preparation to do–namely spying on Lee Harvey Oswald to be sure he acted alone, if he acted at all. Jake basically has to debunk JFK conspiracy theories to be sure he’s going after the right person. I think as readers, we needed that time to explore the past with Jake. It gives him time to develop as a character–Jake becomes more than just an accidental vigilante time traveler. This pace also allowed King to incorporate some inter-textuality between 11/22/63 and one of his other novels that takes place in Maine during the late 1950s–It. I was pretty excited to see characters I had read about a long time ago (I read It in high school) and was happy to be reminded about such a creepy story, while seeing it from Jake’s perspective as an outsider. Good choice there, King.
This review has been pretty hard to write because 11/22/63 just has so much going on. If you have a large chunk of time ahead of you, I recommend picking up this book, especially if you aren’t looking for a really scary novel. 11/22/63 is a complex science fiction thriller as opposed to a horror novel you might expect.
This is a story King has been waiting a long time to write, and I think it’s something we’ve been waiting a long time to read.
Rating (out of 5):
Favorite Quote: “For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamlock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark” (616).