So, it was about time that I read Stephen King's new book about time, 11/22/63.
First, a confession. I am one of the few people on the face of the earth who had never read a Stephen King anything. Maybe it is my abhorrence of the horror genre or maybe it is because my literary taste finds me eschewing most books that make the best seller list. So why turn to King, later in his career and late in my life?
It took one of our habitual long summer Florida/Connecticut commutes to change my mind. We usually pick up a few books on tape (well, now, on CD), swapping our used ones for "new" used ones at a local used-book store (yes, they still exist, thankfully). On a whim, as I am interested in the art of writing, I picked up Stephen King's On Writing. It was good, in fact spellbinding, King being able to weave memoir with mentoring -- a no nonsense guide to being a good writer (simply put, hard work). I thought it fascinating, maybe because I was a captive audience driving along I95 for hours and hours, but thinking, hey, if I had instead invested those mega hours of my publishing career into King's prescription for becoming a published writer....what if? It got me thinking about the past. But I've always lived with nostalgia on my brain (witness many entries in this blog).
A slight detour in King's usual genre finally brought me to his fiction. I liked science fiction as a kid. In high school, before my senior year when I discovered Thomas Hardy, I had thought, as a nascent reader, that the epitome of fiction was H. G. Well's Time Machine. So, after hearing King's On Writing, I thought I'd like to read something of his if only he would depart his horror / suspense thing. And as if my wishes were granted by a paranormal power, along came King's 11/22/63, more historical and science fiction than anything else.
I ordered it from Amazon so Ann could give it to me for Christmas, but it arrived on the 48th anniversary of 11/22/63, soon after I had just posted a brief piece recounting my dark memory of Kennedy's assassination.
One of King's themes is that the past is harmonic -- that there are events that seem to reflect one another, or rhyme, in one's own life when juxtaposed to others. I guess I took the arrival of the book on that very day as a providential sign, an harmonic event, it was meant to be that I should start it immediately, even though I was in the middle of another book.
I will not dwell on plot here other than to say what any reader of the legion of book reviews already knows -- that the main character goes back in time with the intention of preventing Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating President Kennedy and thus (he thinks) change history for the better. And I am not going to go into detail concerning the conceit he uses to rationalize the mechanics of Jake / George travelling back and forth from the present to sometime in 1958. Let's just call it a time portal.
King's writing is all about his characters and in 11/22/63 the tale is told as a first person account by our stalwart hero, Jake Epping (as he is named in the "Land of Ahead") AKA George Amberson (in the "Land of Ago"). It is as if Jake/George pulled up a chair and tapped the reader on the shoulder and said "I have a fascinating -- no unbelievable -- story to tell you, but it's true, so listen to every word" and you, the reader, feel thoroughly compelled to do so. King's tale is a page turner, moving along with an alacrity that makes the 900 or so pages fly by.
And while much of the book is almost conversational, there are those moments when King shows his mastery of suspense and horror, such as when George first returns to the past and decides, as an experiment which will ultimately lead to his main purpose of changing history, to prevent a murder that he knows is going to happen in the late 1950's. For me the most engaging invention of the novel was the invitation to live in the past once again. The scenes King paints are familiar ones, a land without cell phones, computers, color TVs (or any TVs at all in my case, remembering our first TV, a Dumont the size of Asia with a tiny screen, that arrived sometime in the late 40s in our household), seat belts, and when lyrics like "wop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom" and "itsy, bitsy, teenie, weenie, yellow polka-dot bikini" wafted the radio airwaves. Or to put it another way, gas that was 20 cents a gallon, and a pack of cigarettes costing about the same.
When George first goes to 1958, he has to board a bus: ."I let the working Joes go ahead of me, so I could watch how much money they put in the pole-mounted coin receptacle next to the driver's seat. I felt like an alien in a science fiction move, one who's trying to masquerade as an earthling. It was stupid -- I wanted to ride the city bus, not blow up the White House with a death-ray -- but that didn't change the feeling."
While King's supernatural / horror themes may be more latent in this book, they are nonetheless subliminally there, reminding us that we're all in this ship of time together and none will get out alive. There is a foreboding feeling to 11/22/63, all those moments of the past, all the choices that lead to the present, with the future becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of all of our lives.
King deals with several elements of what he thinks time travel might have involved, all interesting and plausible. Among these is his theory that time's "resistance to change is proportional to how much the future might be altered by any given act," something he mentions earlier in the novel and sort of foreshadows what eliminating Oswald might mean.
He also deals with the "butterfly effect." As his fellow time traveler, Al, puts it, "It means small events can have large, whatchamdingit, ramifications. The idea is that if some guy kills a butterfly in China, maybe forty years later -- or four hundred -- there's an earthquake in Peru." (More foreshadowing.)
And the butterfly effect is the reason why, as George stalks Oswald, he decides to do nothing to even cross his path before it is time to act (that is, if he does act -- no spoiler here): "If there's a stupider metaphor than a chain of events in the English language, I don't know what it is. Chains...are strong. We use them to pull engine blocks out of trucks and to bind the arms and legs of dangerous prisoners. That was no longer reality as I understood it. Events are flimsy, I tell you, they are houses of cards, and by approaching Oswald -- let alone trying to warn him off a crime which he had not even conceived -- I would be giving away my only advantage. The butterfly would spread its wings, and Oswald's course would change. Little changes at first, maybe, but as the Bruce Springsteen song tells us, from small things, baby, big things one day come. They might be good changes, ones that would save the man who was now the junior senator from Massachusetts. But I didn't believe that. Because the past is obdurate."
At his most eloquent, King philosophizes about the "harmonics" of time watching as Jake/George - teachers both past and present - observe two students, Mike and Bobbi, dance the Lindy as had George and Sadie (the gal he falls in love with in the past): "The night's harmonic came during the encore...It's all of a piece, I thought. It's an echo so close to perfect you can't tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost-voice returning. 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 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."
It is also a well researched historical novel, with King mostly playing down the conspiracy theories while nonetheless providing for the remote possibility. He makes his historical characters real -- this is a Lee Harvey Oswald you get to know as a flesh and blood person (not someone most would want to know, but a real person). One especially feels sympathy for his wife, Marina, an abused woman in a strange land. In fact George draws a parallel (harmonics again) to his love, Sadie, thinking about taking Sadie to the future with him: "I could see her lost in 2011, eyeing every low-riding pair of pants and computer screen with awe and unease. I would never beat her or shout at her -- no not Sadie -- but she might still become my Marina Prusakova, living in a strange place and exiled from her homeland forever."
And it was satisfying to hold the book itself, an impressive tome with a fabulous jacket, one side depicting the past as we know it and the other the past that might have been. In On Writing, King insists that writers must be readers. 11/22/63 is a book to be read.