Some would consider Stephen King one of the greatest authors of our time. I don’t buy into hyperbole that much, so I’ll say that he’s certainly a very talented writer. I loved reading through his book On Writing and it was in that spirit of good vibes and curiosity that I decided to try reading one of his novels.
Naturally, I went to the one about time travel.
11/22/63 is a very long story about an English teacher in Maine, Jake Epping, who comes across a wondrous discovery: a portal in his friend Al’s diner that sends people back through time to the year 1958. While he tries to fix the tragic childhood of a janitor at his school, Jake soon sets his sights on a much larger goal: stopping the JFK assassination and forever changing the course of history. Of course, this is a tall order and comes with all sorts of terrible consequences, both for Jake and the world.
For some stories, the use of time travel can make or break the whole narrative. What King does well in this story is show off the research he’s done that brings the past to life. He’s not content with just telling you it’s an older time with no Internet and different race relations. Through the eyes of Jake Epping, we see the world of 1958 in all its glories and warts, with better-tasting food and subtle touches of anti-Semitism, with Cold War paranoia and small town comforts. I really felt like I was back in the Fifties and Sixties myself.
However, this can also lead to a major problem that I had with this book: namely, the pacing. As much as I got lost in each setting because of Mr. King’s details, I also lost track of the overall plot. The main focus is on one man’s quest to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting JFK, but there’s a good chunk of the novel devoted to his early attempt to fix a janitor’s life by stopping his father from going on a murderous rampage. Not to mention Jake’s romance with a woman in the Fifties, and how this complicates his travels. They’re not the worst elements in a story, but it was hard to care so much about the JFK plot with all these digressions.
It’s a funny coincidence (or maybe not) that I happened to start reading this novel around the same time that I started watching an anime called Steins;Gate, which also has to do with time travel. In fact, both stories follow a similar premise about a bold man experimenting with time travel, only to try to reverse the changes he’s made to save the life of someone he loves. But if I had to pick, Steins;Gate did a much better job of making me care about the main characters and revealing the time travel crisis at a much more dramatic pace.
It should go without saying that none of this is a slam against Stephen King. He can write good dialogue, his characters are all passionate, and he’s no slouch when it comes to getting the facts straight and building in the details to his own little worlds—even if some of those worlds keep resembling the same small town somewhere in Maine.
Bibliography: King, Stephen. 11/22/63. New York, Scribner, 2011.