Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Review of 11.22.83 by Stephen King

The fantasy of time travel has always intrigued us. In modern times, perhaps beginning with Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwards, to HG Wells’ The Time Machine, on to Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, we have read fictions that explore the weird but familiar world of time travel. Similarly, the popular medium of television, through such shows as Star Trek, have explored the imaginative possibilities of this fantasy. Stephen King praises writer Jack Finney for his book Time After Time as an outstanding example of a time travel novel. In 11.22.63, Stephen King tries his hand at the genre with excellent results.

Probably anyone old enough to be in school on November 22, 1963 has indelible images from that day seared into their brain. This is the date that John F Kennedy was assassinated. It was a national trauma in my lifetime matched only by the trauma of 9/11 for traumatizing our collective and individual psyches. I remember vividly my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Handley, coming in and saying to us “I have some bad news. The president has been shot." That was all the information we received at first, and when the bell rang, we were sent to different rooms for our reading groups. Mine was on the main floor of the old fifth and sixth grade building, where a large old-fashioned radio sat in a small room. The volume on the old radio was turned up probably as loud as it could go. I recall the announcer saying “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States is dead." The station then immediately played the national anthem. My own reaction was one of shocked disbelief. Some of my classmates cried. I don't remember if I did, or if I prayed, but probably both. I think all were stunned. The following days were filled with a national grief and a ritual funeral that attempted to grasp the gravity of what happened.

What had happened, was that a lone, misfit of an individual by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald, had shot the president with a high-powered rifle. Oswald was later arrested only to be shot and killed himself a couple of days later by another misfit. This account of a lone gunmen acting out a deranged fantasy didn't seem to fit with what ought to have happened, that some deep conspiracy of great power must have been necessary to create so momentous an event. Thus, up sprung conspiracy theories that have spun almost endlessly since that date. Oliver Stone's JFK gave cinematic voice to those theories, but in the end, the conspiracy theories don't jibe with reality.

In an interview about writing this book, Stephen King says he initially started the draft in 1973, ten years after the assassination, but he reports that he put it away because of the demands on his time and the freshness of the wound that he was attempting to address. Now, a couple of years short of the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, he came out with a book that deals with this momentous date, the issues of time travel and what might have been, and the differences between the world of the late 1950s and early 1960s. In it attempting to address all of these different concerns, King has done a masterful job creating a sense of time and place in the recent—and to some of us, remembered—past. King does this in large measure through characters that we come to know and care about. I have to admit this is the first work of fiction by Stephen King that I've read (earlier listened to his book On Writing), and I must say ability as a story teller is well displayed here. (I have seen some movies based on his work, such as The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, and Stand by Me, all of which I found compelling.) I'd avoided King because I had always thought of them as a horror writer, but I see now that this does not do justice to the scope of his abilities.

The conceit of the book surrounds the discovery of a time warp in a small Maine town in 2011. An owner of a diner discovered the time warp some time ago and visited the past (always the same date and time in 1958), going back and forth in time. He eventually decides that his mission should be to avoid the assassination of JFK, and thereby avoid the national trauma that the Vietnam War visited upon the nation. (I think him terribly optimistic about this prospect.) However, he cannot get himself to the time and place necessary to confidently intervene to stop Oswald, so he recruits the main character, Jake Epping, to go back in his place. Jake Epping, a high school English teacher, reluctantly agrees to go back in time to try to derail this horrific event and other tragedies. In doing so, he travels to what in to us is now the strange world of the late 1950s and early 1960s in America. Epping’s self-imposed mission is made much more difficult by the fact that he falls in love with a woman who has her own past to deal with.

King doesn't dwell on weird theories of physics in support of his time travel conceit, but he does provide some common sense observations on what it might be like, such as the conclusion that the past doesn't want to be changed. No doubt true, but that doesn’t stop us from pondering the possibilities. Besides being a topic of interest for fiction writers, the “what if's” of history have tantalized serious historians and social scientists as well as fiction writers. What if Winston Churchill had not become prime minister in Great Britain in 1940? What if Hitler had successfully invaded? The number of possibilities are nearly endless once you crack open the past with an eye to changing it or imagining it happening differently. When we think philosophically and analytically about the past, we come up against the cold fact that the past is closed and fixed, while the future is open and uncertain (at least to some degree). When we try on mentally changing the past, we find, as the protagonist Jake Epping does, that things don't fit easily. The waves of consequence that emanate from any single fact disburse through the past creating a butterfly effect that can have nearly infinite repercussions.

I’m very glad I read this book because I found a thoroughly enjoyable and engrossing. As we approach the anniversary of the assassination of JFK, there some other books I want to read as we try (continually, as with all good history) to assess JFK, the man and his presidency. Because his life and presidency were cut short at a time of such great change and trauma that we know came to pass in the United States during the period of about 15 years after his death, we wonder what would have happened had the assassin's bullet not struck. The fact is, we can never know, but we can wonder and ponder and argue these possibilities. It's not something worth doing because we can change anything in the past, but by casting the strongest possible light on the past, we can use the reflection to see a bit further where we might be going—and want to go—in the future.

By the way, if you are interested, the initial character who discovers the time warp and decides to look into the Kennedy assassination in the hope of avoiding it, thought there was a "95% chance" that Oswald acted alone. King, in an interview, opines, after having researched the matter very thoroughly, that that probability is close to 98 or 99%. History sometimes lurches in unforeseeable ways based on the acts of the least formidable of individuals or the random events of nature. This event seems to be such an instance.

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