Marty McFly: Listen, Doc, about the future…
Dr. Emmett Brown: NO! Marty, we’ve already agreed that having information about the future can have disastrous consequences. Even if you’re intentions are good, it can backfire drastically!
That snippet of dialogue, from one of the best movies of all time, is the most obvious premise of Stephen King’s new novel, “11-22-63.” But, at 800+ pages, King’s novel is much more “heavy” than “Back to the Future” ever was. King has delivered a science fiction novel, a love story, and a historical fiction mystery all rolled into one. After reading it, I wasn’t surprised to see that this book ended up on the NY Times Top Ten of 2011 list. It’s terrific.
I’m no King expert. Other than his last tour de force, “Under the Dome,” I’ve avoided his work. I’ve always been under the assumption that King is a horror writer, yet what I’ve read so far proves me incorrect. “11-22-63” is a supernatural story, but not scary. It’s suspenseful and at times a bit violent, but no more so than your average $6.99 paperback mystery novel. It can also be unnerving, which is King’s strongest skill—tingling readers’ spines so effortlessly.
As someone without a lot of King experience, I’m constantly impressed by the way he can weave together a complex plot. I’ve been told a helpful way to analyze writing is to map out each scene of a book in one column, and in the next column, note the relevance of that scene to the overall story. To do that with “11-22-63” would take months. This is meticulous writing and plotting. King deftly weaves together coincidences, characters, and plot points to force readers to pay attention.
The story, in short: Jake Epping, a schoolteacher, discovers that his friend’s restaurant has a door that transports him back to 1958. He’s urged to use the time warp to go save John F. Kennedy from being assassinated, which requires Jake to live in the past as George Amberson for more than five years. The bulk of the story centers on his time in the late fifties and early sixties in small-town Texas. Jake/George is the perfect time traveler for this novel—not particularly unique, but he’s easy to relate to—a real “Mr. Anybody.” The book is written as Jake’s memoir, and by the end of the book, you feel as if you know him as a friend.
In Texas, while waiting for the right moment to stop Oswald (a well-developed character in his own right), Jake falls in love with Sadie. (I’m skipping major plot points here, obviously.) And this is where the story shows that it is much deeper than time travel science fiction. This was a truly sweet love story. I didn’t expect it at all. At points, I was irritated that King was spending so much time developing the relationships Jake had in small-town Texas. But ultimately the novel would have been a dud if it had not been for the story of Jake and Sadie. Their romance was like that of Jack and Rose in the movie “Titanic,” right down to the book’s final poignant scene. (Yeah, go ahead. Make fun all you want. I liked “Titanic.”)
Equally absorbing is King’s consideration of the time period. I surmise that one of the reasons this book is so lengthy is that King was enjoying himself too much back in the fifties, and like Jake, he wasn’t ready to come “home” from the past. From cars to dancing to the lingo, Epping is having the time of his life in the fifties. So is King. The best writers end up living with their characters and in their time periods, right? Epping is a bit of an old soul. Like Gil in “Midnight in Paris,” he comes to believe he was born in the wrong decade and wants desperately to stay put in the past, though it isn’t meant to be.
There are plenty of references to the present-day setting of 2011-2012. Despite this attention to pop culture, King almost wills himself to avoid the inevitable comparisons to that well-known adventure in a DeLorean. Certainly, Epping would have compared himself to Marty McFly as he first felt his way around the nuances of time travel, right? Late in the novel, King deliberately tinkers with a phrase Epping uses when he refers to disrupting the “time-space” continuum. Come on, everyone knows the correct description is the “space-time” continuum. (And, alas, no flux capacitor. Or corny humor about manure and density.) It’s the right call for him to make this a “different” story, but comparisons are to be expected.
There is pure entertainment value in this book. Sure, there are some life lessons offered, but this is just a fun story to read. Don’t be discouraged if it drags a bit in the late-middle, it’s all done for a reason. (A favorite phrase of Epping is that “the past is obdurate.” At times, I thought the same of the book.) The conclusion is spectacularly bittersweet and sounds the perfect note for those who have invested so much time in reading the book.
King is typical of many baby boomers who were young and impressionable when Kennedy was murdered. King centers on that terrible day in Dallas as the moment when our country’s course changed and we went off the rails. But ultimately Epping concludes that “the changes are never for the better. No matter how good your intentions are.” Everyone wishes that Oswald was stopped, but the point is to not dwell on how to change the past. The book’s repeated allusions to the butterfly theory (that when a butterfly flaps its wings, it can cause a storm on the other side of the world) reminds us of an appropriate approach to life: That every single moment in time is connected to those that preceded it and to those that follow, and that our actions, no matter how small, will undoubtedly influence the future.
So even though there aren’t any scary clowns or possessed semi-trucks, King does what he always does: play deviously clever little tricks with our minds.
Thanks for reading.
P.S. I must apologize for the cheap title to this post. It’s impossible for me to consider anything about time travel without yelling: “1.21 Gigawatts!” And now, I’ll go watch “Back to the Future” for the 3,423th time.