Monday, January 23, 2012
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books. We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“11.22.63” Stephen King (Hodder and Stoughton/Hachette $39:99)
“11.22.63” as Americans would say.
Or as most of the world would say “22.11.63”.
It’s that curious American habit of putting the month before the day, instead of working logically from the smallest to the greatest unit – day then month then year. That’s why they say “9/11” (which I read as the 9th of November) when what they mean is the 11th of September.
Anyway, “11.22.63” refers to the 22nd of November, 1963, the day JFK was assassinated. This massively long novel (738 pages before the author’s six-page Afterword) is a time-travel story. To summarise in a sentence, a man travels back from 2011 to try to prevent Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. But there’s much more to it than this. There has to be, because it was written by Stephen King, and he is a master at spinning a yarn.
Let me make clear what I mean by a yarn. “Yarn”. It’s one of the deep metaphors of the English language. So deep that we hardly think of it as a metaphor when we use if to refer to a story. Like the yarn spun from wool (or spun by a spider) the story yarn is judged by its length and strength. How long can it be spun and how strong is it? i.e. how long can it be spun while continuing to hold the reader’s attention? The literary yarn is concerned with driving events along by suspense, foreshadowing and any other device that will keep readers turning pages. Characterisation needn’t be too detailed and probability can sometimes be set aside, so long as those pages keep turning. This is not intended as a haughty put-down. It takes incredible skill to write a good yarn and King has that skill. I do not know whether to thank him or to curse him for the three full days he took out of my life while I read this blockbuster and kept turning the pages, just as he hoped I would.
Anyway, being a yarn-spinner, King was never going to whisk his time-travelling hero back to the scene of the Kennedy assassination and get it over with. There had to be complications, twists, false trails and ominous portents.
Jake Epping, high-school teacher separated from an alcoholic wife in 2011, is introduced by an old coot to a “portal” that takes him back to 1958. At least the first 300 pages or so have nothing to do with JFK. Instead Jake is attempting to forestall another more obscure tragedy, in order to test whether altering the past will actually have beneficial effects. This allows King to deal with some of the more obvious questions that spring to mind once we think of past-altering time travel. Will altering the past necessarily improve things for the better? If the past were altered before the date of the hero’s birth, isn’t there the possibility that the hero may never be born – in which case altering the past becomes doubly impossible? What about unforeseen consequences, the “butterfly effect” etc etc? King tests out all these ideas in the form of suspense thriller as Jake Epping – who adopts the name George Amberson in the past (magnificent!) – makes two separate journeys back through his portal to 1958. In effect, King is setting up the “rules” for time travel in his fictional universe, so that we can accept what follows.
Please note that in attempting to prevent the Kennedy assassination Jake/George is “95% sure” that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, just as is the old coot who advises him on what to look for in the past. Note too that by landing in 1958 he has to live through five years of the past before the date of the assassination comes around. From these premises come two consequences.
The first is Jake/George’s obsession with removing his 5% of doubt about Oswald acting alone. He has to stalk Oswald for months just to ensure that Oswald is not in cahoots with others.
The second is the long tale of Jake/George’s life in the past – finding a job, having to live as if he knows nothing about the future, and falling in love. This last complication troubles me a bit because it becomes a major focus of the book and leads the hero to do things that really defy probability. But then who am I to complain about improbability if I’m willing to accept the premise of past-altering time travel?
And that is a much as I’ll say about the plot because it is of the essence of a yarn that it surprises readers with its twists. To give away any more would be as unmannerly as revealing the culprit in a whodunit.
King has worked hard to get the period details right. There are times when the novel feels like the pretext for a story about the feel of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
King revels in big-finned cars; and milkshakes that really taste like dairy-milk; and the fact that nobody has to count calories when they buy a steak or hamburger and order additional fries and just love that taste; and the fact that people tend to be polite to one another; and the fact that the things high-school kids get up to are just the mildest delinquency in comparison with the tsunami of surliness and sense of “entitlement” that were to become the high-school norms after the 1960s.
On the other hand, King is aware that fifty years ago nobody gave a stuff about pollution in industrial towns where the skies were acid. In parts of the USA there was still routine racial segregation with “Coloureds Only” public lavatories consisting of a hole in the ground. Racist jokes didn’t cause an eyelid to be batted. Many men mistreated women as a matter of course. Once he has his hero stalking Lee Harvey Oswald, the urban Texan setting is appropriately seedy and disgusting. Oswald himself, by the way, is presented as a pathetic loser and fantasist. His marriage and impoverished family circumstances are dramatised in detail.
I have established that this is a “yarn” which I will not ruin by giving away too much of the plot. But I am allowed to say that Stephen King apparently believes in some concept of the Zeitgeist (not that he ever uses the term) – a “spirit of the age” which objects to being altered. As Jake/George attempts to forestall the assassination of JFK, he is constantly hindered by happenstance, and comes to the conclusion that the past resists being changed. I guess this is as close as we can come to the concept of predestination in a secular age.
Stephen King is a very clever popular novelist. His sales figures show his appeal (I believe he is currently the best-selling American novelist of all time). I knew what I was getting into when I picked up a novel with his name on the cover, and I’m not going to pretend I was disappointed. He spins a very good yarn.