Let's kill Oswald
What a shame we don’t do little pie charts with our reviews any more, because the one for 11.22.63 would have been a doozy: 35% The Time Traveler’s Wife ; 20% The Shawshank Redemption ; 15% Star Trek ’s “The City On The Edge Of Forever”; 15% Glee (we kid you not); 10% It; and 5% those bits in Terminator when you get glimpses of the future and it looks like it’s been done slightly on the cheap (that may be an odd thing to say about a novel, but Stephen King almost seems to have written the apocalyptic scenes herein with a miniseries budget in mind).
Considering King’s obvious love of writing about the ’50s and ’60s America of his youth, it’s a surprise he hasn’t written a time travel epic before – and one featuring a lead character like Jake Epping. An English teacher and wannabe novelist (right, anyone won a bet?) from Maine (anyone else?), Epping has to be one of the most blatant cases of Mary Sue-ism in fiction.
As the title suggests (if you recall that Americans write dates the wrong way around) the Kennedy assassination is the MacGuffin here. It’s what drives the plot, but it’s not what the plot’s about. Instead, this is a love story, both a literal one – Jake does indeed fall in love – and a metaphorical one: he also falls for “the Land Of Ago” (as he calls it). Indeed, King creates a past so beguiling and enticing that you might find yourself willing to give up your iPod for a gramophone too.
Jake is introduced to a time portal in a diner by a mate, Al, who’s suddenly grown very old overnight. The portal always leads to 1958 no matter how many times you go through it; and no matter how long you stay in the past, only two minutes will have passed back in the present. There’s another clever twist to the time travel rules, but we’ll leave you to discover that yourself, as it becomes a major issue – not so much in a timey-wimey way, as in the way it affects Jake’s decisions.
It turns out that Al has been living in the past for a few years, waiting for the Kennedy assassination in the hope that he can prevent it. Unfortunately, Al has become terminally ill, and has to abandon his plans, passing the task onto an initially reluctant Jake instead.
Amazingly for a book this thick, 11.22.63 is pretty thin on actual plot. The Kennedy/Oswald thread often feels little more than a chance to infodump some meticulous research, and often feels like it exists in a reality bubble separate from the more personal tale. It’s a bubble King seems reluctant to burst until the climactic events force him to. The other aspects of the story are far more compelling, as Jake learns to love, learns how to fit in with the past and learns how far he can push altering timelines. King vividly evokes the past as a Norman Rockwell painting in words, and the characters have more life, energy and charisma to them than in any King novel since It.
There are shocking moments and gutwrenching twists, and there’s some good old-fashioned gore, but there’s more in the way of lindyhopping and amateur dramatics to be honest. There are also some fan-pleasing crossovers with past King novels, in a kind of literary “harmonisation” that reflects a mysterious temporal “harmonisation” effect which occurs sporadically in the story itself.
As is all too often the case with King, after an incredibly enjoyable yarn – which you often feel like you’re living through rather than reading – the ending feels a little thin and perfunctory. The resolution – both emotionally and in terms of SF – is nothing that hasn’t been attempted in umpteen Trek episodes. But with King, it’s usually about the journey. Judged on those terms, this hep trip into the cool, crazy past is outta this world, daddy-o.
Buy 11.22.63 for less than half the RRP with our print-out voucher from WH Smith .