11.22.63 by Stephen King
WHAT IF you could go back in time and change the course of history? WHAT IF the watershed moment you could change was the JFK assassination? 11/22/63, the date that Kennedy was shot – unless . . .
King takes his protagonist Jake Epping, a high school English teacher from Lisbon Falls, Maine, 2011, on a fascinating journey back to 1958 – from a world of mobile phones and iPods to a new world of Elvis and JFK, of Plymouth Fury cars and Lindy Hopping, of a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and a beautiful high school librarian named Sadie Dunhill, who becomes the love of Jake’s life – a life that transgresses all the normal rules of time.
First of all I have to admit that this is actually the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read. I know that’s probably quite a surprise for most of you, and I can’t really say why I haven’t felt the urge to pick up one of his books before. However, there was something about 11:22:63 that made me incredibly excited. I mean, how can the possibility of being able to go back into the past and change one of history’s most prominent events, not excite you? And of course the question many people have asked themselves over the years: how different would our lives be now if John F. Kennedy survived?
Our protagonist, Jake Epping, is a thirty-something high school English teacher fromMaine, who chances upon a rabbit hole through time in the back of Al’s diner. Al has been travelling back and forth through time for numerous years when he decided to set out on a mission to save JFK from his assassination in 1963. But the past doesn’t want to be changed, and when Al discovers he has terminal cancer, he must return back to 2011 with his mission incomplete. In his final few days, Al convinces Jake to finish what he started. Every time someone enters the rabbit hole it takes them straight to the exact same day in the year 1958, and to stop JFK’s assassination Jake must live his life in the past for five years. The key to the rabbit hole, and a main part of the plot, is that every time someone enters, it resets itself. Therefore, if his mission fails in any way he can return to 2011 and then re-enter 1958 once again, and everything will be as it was.
Jake is your pretty average high school teacher, recently divorced but still happily plodding along in life. The fact that he is now faced with this monumental task is certainly daunting for Jake, but too much of an opportunity for him to pass up. The fact that he has the power to effectively change the world is a gift. Let’s face it, if the rabbit hole was discovered by the FBI or the government, just how much would they exploit its power and for what purpose? It is better left in the hands of someone who has little reason to abuse it, someone who just wants to make the world a better place; someone like Jake.
It’s easy to see how much love Stephen King has for Americain the 50s and 60s. As a reader, I certainly felt like I was living there with Jake, experiencing this whole other world just as he was. King has proved himself as a masterful storyteller here, and a truly great writer for being able to bring this time back to life again. Stephen himself would have been in his teenage years during the time of JFK’s assassination, and the very idea for this novel came to him only ten years after, in 1973. However, at the time he felt it required too much research and a greater literary talent than what he possessed. In fact, it was originally going to be called Split Track – it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it does it? It’s obvious that the amount of research King had to undertake must have been phenomenal and at times frustrating when infusing the lines of fact and fiction together. I certainly don’t envy him that task, but I am left in awe of just how well it all came together, and of how it makes the reader feel, no matter what age they are; it’s as though they are witnessing this time in history for themselves.
King’s portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald, JFK’s murderer, is astonishing. We see a glimpse into his awkward relationship with his over-bearing mother, and his strained marriage with the beautiful and genteel Marina who he frequently abused. It’s almost easy to see why he turned out the way he did, with King’s portrayal of his life holding very few moments of real happiness. At times I almost felt little pangs of sympathy towards him, and I will never know if this was King’s intention or if he was simply relaying his life as it has been previously told. It’s obvious that Oswald had a rather sad childhood, one which may or may not have influenced his life as an adult and caused him to make that one decision which would not only change his life, but the lives of millions of Americans as well.
If you have read any of my reviews before you will know I often point out anything I didn’t like and this one is no different. The thing about this book is that it wasn’t quite what I expected it to be. I expected a science fiction book about time travel, a book about being able to change the world, a book about what could have been. But what I read was a book about a man living his life in the past, working as a school teacher, falling in love with a colleague and then eventually getting to the mission he had undertaken. After speaking to other readers, many of them have said this is what they loved most about it – that ultimately it is a book about a guy just living his life. But for me, I wanted nothing more than to get to the JFK assassination, after all that was the whole premise of the novel to begin with, right? So after about six hundred pages of watching Jake live his life and fall in love with Sadie, a character I didn’t really find wholly convincing as a woman of the 50s, it is only then that the JFK storyline came to the forefront. I couldn’t help but wonder why King chose for his rabbit hole to transport a person to the year of 1958, when JFK’s assassination wasn’t until 1963. Couldn’t the gap have been a little bit smaller so we could have got to the main events a bit quicker? I personally think the novel could have used a definite edit; there is simply no reason for it to be as long as it is, and I ended up becoming somewhat bored of Jake’s life. The bits that grabbed me most were the ones that gave me an insight into the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, not reading scene after scene of Jake and Sadie having sex for the umpteenth time (scenes which, I have to say, made me squirm inside a little). For some reason I found the supporting cast of characters much more interesting than Jake and Sadie, and I think that’s because characters like Miz Mimi and Deke seemed true to the time in which they were meant to be from. Jake and Sadie for me, were a little bland as leading characters. I know some readers are going to hate me for saying such a thing, but I don’t care, I’m putting it out there.
The other thing that really irritated me more than anything else was the ending. Apparently King is notorious for bad endings, and although I know many of you think King has got it right this time, I have to disagree. You can kid yourselves if you like and say that this is a novel about a man just living his life in a different decade, but it’s meant to be about what the world would be like now if JFK survived. That’s what sold this book to me more than anything else. However, after reading 700 odd pages, what we get is about a twenty-page glimpse at the result of Jake’s mission. I craved so much more than that. I felt short-changed, and I still do. Even worse is the fact that you don’t really see much of anything. Any changes that are revealed are mostly told to Jake by another character in one long conversation. In the novel’s final pages, it all becomes exceedingly predictable and certainly nothing of any originality in my opinion. I’ve seen the exact same kind of scenario in countless novels and movies before. It’s always a shame when a novel that holds so much promise fails to deliver at the most crucial of moments, but for me that’s exactly what happened. It’s interesting to note apparently that the ideas for the ending King actually used came from his son, author Joe Hill. King had originally planned another ending entirely. I can only wonder what that ending may have been…
Ultimately I enjoyed this novel very much. I can’t fault King in terms of his writing abilities and the immense amount of research he must have undertaken. I think where it all went wrong for me, was that I had different expectations, expectations that weren’t met. Don’t expect this to be a life-changing novel where you will finally get any answers you seek into how the future could have been. Don’t expect to feel like you’re reading science fiction, because more than anything else it’s about life and love. For some this will indeed be very welcome as the novel will interest readers not familiar with King, or any genre writing. Maybe in truth it has a little something for everyone – a little bit of gore for his faithful horror fans, time-travel for the science fiction buffs, and a love story for those who like romance. This is much more than a story about JFK, in fact looking back on it, JFK seems like such a small part of the novel in comparison to the other story lines weaving throughout. I certainly don’t want this review to put anyone off reading it, because it is well worth reading, but what I would like it to do is to help shape your expectations of it.
I think King did right in waiting several years to complete this novel. I think he’s proven himself as a writer that transcends genres. He doesn’t have to stick to horror all the time even if that is what he loves most of all. King has the talent and literary merit to seek something different once in a while and create something incredible, and that’s exactly what 11.22.63 is. Even though I had my issues with the novel, I still came away in awe of him as a writer. It’s certainly a novel that will make you think above all else. What would you change if you go back in time? When I consider the consequences, I’m not sure I’d change anything at all. Maybe it’s better if we never know what could have been…
A film adaptation of 11:22:63 is due to begin shooting towards the end of 2012, with Jonathan Demme writing, producing and directing, and King serving as executive producer.
11.22.63 is out now, published by Hodder & Stoughton. A huge thank you goes to the wonderful and exceedingly helpful people at Hodder & Stoughton for providing me with a copy for review.
I read this novel the same time as two other bloggers, so please do check out their brilliant reviews as well:
- 11.22.63 by Stephen King (guardian.co.uk)
- In Stephen King’s Latest, Trying to Stop Lee Harvey Oswald (entertainment.time.com)
- 11.22.63 by Stephen King – Review by Mark Lawson (gunnyg.wordpress.com)