Stephen King: 11.22.63 (review)

If you could go back in time and change something that would make the world better, would you? If it involved killing someone, would you still do it? Would you dare to do something that would change history? Change everything we know?

This is what Stephen King asks in this book. And it’s not the first time he has asked this. Back in 1979, he asked the same question in The Dead Zone. Probably inspired by the same thoughts that made him write this book since he first thought of writing this back in 1972 – but couldn’t because the wound was still to fresh.

In The Dead Zone, the main protagonists shakes hands with a politician and realizes that he will become president and be responsible for a worldwide nuclear conflict. This is compared with whether one would kill Hitler in 1932, if given the chance. The protagonist decides that it’s worth risking one’s life to stop someone like this. In 11.22.63, the question is of course if one should go back in time to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The  premise is that this would change the world so much that fewer American soldiers would be killed in Vietnam and so there is a chance that both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King would survive as well.

In this novel, there is a opening to the USA of 1958 in a diner. The owner of the diner intended to rescue Kennedy himself but got ill and therefore had to give up the endeavor. Now he turns the task over to the main protagonist, Jake Epping. Jake doesn’t fully understand how the time traveling works but after a bit of persuasion he is willing to take his chances and go back in time. He has nothing that keeps him in the present so nothing to loose.

Since this hole into the past supposedly resets itself when one exits it, Jake has the chance of trying out what happens if he goes back and changes something. He goes back and rescues a family from being killed by the father but when he exits, the consequences hasn’t been quite as he wanted them to be. But now he’s ready to play in the big league so once more, he goes back to ’58, to not only rescue the same family once more and to try to do a better job of it but also to investigate whether Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman and if he was, make sure he doesn’t assassinate Kennedy.

But 5 years is a long time to spend in the past and Jake – or George Amberson as he calls himself – can’t just spend them watching Lee Harvey Oswald. So he does what he has to do first and fixes two situations – one in Derry which allows King to throw out some hints to previous novels that took place in Derry like It (always enjoyable to see a reference to Pennywise). But the most important thing Jake/George does is to move to Jodie … and fall in love. Jake/George’s relationship with Sadie and his entire existence in Jodie is a huge part of what makes this novel a success. It shows that there are more at stake than the rescuing of Kennedy since Jake/George manages to build a life in the Land of Ago, and even a quite successful one at that. A life, he doesn’t want to let go.

King’s concept of the past in this novel is a past that can be changed but which fights being changed. Whenever someone goes back to the past, they’re ‘greeted’ by a Yellow Card Man who does not exactly seem pleased – but since he’s just a crazy drunk, Jake/George doesn’t really care. At first. But the Yellow Card Man is more important than he seems.

As Jake/George gets closer and closer to 11.22.63, the past really start working against him and just making it to the date is a challenge in itself. So while he’s trying to save Kennedy, he’a also trying to prevent anyone else from getting hurt – especially the woman he loves. And that’s the brilliance of the love story. It makes the past truly real for Jack/George. It gives him something to loose.

But how do you save a president in the 60s, keeping your woman safe while not revealing that you come from the future? Well, if someone can figure it out, it’s Stephen King.

As (almost) always, King manages to hook you in and keep you entertained and engaged. But this isn’t a normal Stephen King novel. There’s no horror for one thing – instead, this is a time traveling novel and a historical fiction novel. A first from King. Which also earned him a spot on New York Times Book Review’s list of the 10 Best Books of 2011.

This is King’s take on what really happened that day in Dallas that day in 63. And it’s highly recommendable both for longtime King fans and for newcomers. King has done his homework and have managed to create a persuasive story of what could happen if someone  from our present travelled back. He has all the huge differences between now and ten – as well as the small details in place – my favorite was how the protagonist had to get used to not wearing boxers anymore. Things like that makes King a great writer. And it makes you willing to overlook that maybe there are some flaws in his idea of time traveling and this whole idea of the past consisting of strings while at the same time being completely deterministic. There’s no question about whether the same changes will always derive from certain events – when Jake/George realized on his first trip back that some of the outcomes wasn’t quite what he wanted, he goes back and once again saves the same family but in a different way, thereby making sure that another string is played, so to speak. So if you perform an action in one way, there’s one result – but if you perform it in another way, there’s another result. Or so it is at least at the beginning of the novel.

King hasn’t always been known for making excellent endings. His last novel, Under the Dome, for instance, had a terrible ending that basically ruined the novel for me. In this one however, he writes a believable ending which is very impressive, given the topic. He manages to get all the various strings together and not only making it cohesive, but making it just right. And who cares about the time traveling philosophy maybe not being quite consistent all the way through, when you get a great well-written book with characters you care for, a plausible plot – just an all out exciting book?

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 perfect balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock 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. (p. 540)

Read more:

Stephen King goes to the rescue of JFK – Book Review by Errol Morris for New York Times

The 10 Best Books of 2011 – from New York Times (Including 11.22.63)

11.22.63 by Stephen King – Book Review by Mark Lawson for the Guardian

  • Title: 11.22.63
  • Author: Stephen King
  • Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
  • Year: 2011
  • Pages: 740 pages
  • Stars: 4 out of 5 stars

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