Review Thursday: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

Originally posted on GoodReads – Nov. 2011

So, yeah. Stephen King is still the master of suspense. In case you were wondering. In this latest behemoth of a novel, the plot runs something like this:

1) Guy goes back in time.

2) Guy prevents the Kennedy assassination.

3) Profit ???

4) Yeah… Not so much on the profit.

I really liked King’s approach to time travel in this. The method of time travel is a naturally occurring portal rather than a machine or otherwise man-made thing. Al discovers it completely by accident and has no idea as to how it works. All he knows is that it does work, and in exactly the same way every time. You simply step through the invisible doorway in space-time, and boom, there you are. But there’s a hitch. (Of course) Once you step through the portal, you always come out in exactly the same time. The exact same date and time, every time. When returning through the portal to the original side, the traveler loses exactly 2 minutes from the time they initially stepped through, no matter how much time was spent in the past. In this way, every time a traveler goes through the portal, to the people they encounter on the other side… It’s the first time they’ve seen you. Interesting. But of course this also means that if you want to get to a specific date anytime in the future beyond the original starting date… You must simply wait it out. There’s no quick and easy way for time travel in this situation. This is where it gets interesting.

BEWARE! THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD!

This, I think, is probably the most realistic approach to time travel I have ever seen in fiction. From what we are beginning to understand about the nature of space-time, it is theoretically possible to travel through time using tiny wormholes that are naturally occurring all around us. Only problem is, there is no way of predicting when and where they might occur, and they are extremely unstable, only staying open for nanoseconds at a time before collapsing in on themselves again. (Laura reads too much Stephen Hawking…) In any case, it sounds like King did his Hawking homework too. The only thing I take issue with in his method, aside from the apparent stability of this particular portal (theoretically possible, but not likely) is the fact that the portal comes out in the exact same physical place on both sides. It seems to me that time travel should not be possible without travel through space as well… but I’m getting off point. It’s a pretty cool method of time travel. No TARDIS required. Moving on.

Our hero, Jake Epping, takes up the mission bestowed upon him by the portal’s original traveler, Al. After many years of traveling through the portal and eventually succumbing to old age and lung cancer, Al passes on his mission to Jake when he can no longer hope to succeed in it himself. The plan sounds simple enough. Al, and subsequently Jake, plan to prevent the Kennedy assassination in the hopes that doing so will ultimately make the world a better place. (They theorize that Kennedy would not have allowed the war in Vietnam to escalate to the point that Johnson did, etc) Only problem is there are 8 years between the other side of the portal and the now famous date: November 22, 1963. Jake will have to take up residence in the past until the fateful day arrives.

And so he does. Along the way he prevents 2 other events, including a murder and the injury of a young girl during a hunting accident. He considers these practice runs for the big event. Soon enough he discovers that “the past is obdurate.” It doesn’t want to be changed. He experiences inexplicable challenges whenever he tries to change something. His car breaks down. His gun won’t fire. He experiences random bouts of narcolepsy. Basically, weird shit starts happening to keep him from succeeding. He learns a lot from his early experiences in tampering with the past, and moves on toward his goal.

Along the way, Jake finds his place in a world he has now come to consider home, and even falls in love. As he continues tirelessly towards 1963, he begins to wonder if he will ever be able to go back to his own time, or if it will even still feel like home…

I loved this book. I literally could not put it down. It’s a biggie, even by King standards, coming in at just under 850 pages in its large hardbound version. Even so, I will freely admit I suffered several sleepless nights plowing right through it.

I’ve been really happy to see King moving away from horror and tending towards the suspense genre the last few years. And I’ve always liked his approach to the supernatural. This novel spoke a lot of The Dark Tower to me. It gave me kind of the same feeling. Also I think he has plans to write a sequel to this (?) which might be cool. I wanna know more about the Yellow Card Man.

[WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD]

Jake’s experiences throughout the novel affect drastic change in his personality. Perhaps the most noteworthy of these changes is the sharp contrast we see in him after he kills Frank Dunning, the man who was going to murder his wife and two children, leaving the third traumatized for life. Jake is a changed man, a harsher man, afterwards. He goes on with the mission ahead of him with the full knowledge that it needs to be done, but also the knowledge that he is now a cold blooded killer. Despite the fact that he knows the people he kills were going to eventually become murderers… It’s that Minority Report question of… Is it moral to punish someone for something they haven’t done yet? He’s a changed man and there’s no going back for him after this point.

The other plot point I would like to touch on specifically is the ending.

I’m gonna be honest, I was shocked by the ending of this book. I thought; wow! He’s actually going to do it! He’s actually going to kill Lee Harvey Oswald and Kennedy is going to live! But, leading up to those last few pages before the parade route, I knew Sadie was going to die. Agh, it killed me but I knew it was inevitable. I saw it coming from a mile away. I thought; okay. This is his sacrifice. This is the price he’s going to have to pay to carry out his mission. His love is going to die. I can deal with that.

But, wait! There’s more! (Cause with King it’s never that simple, is it?) Not only is your love going to die… Everything is basically screwed now. By saving Kennedy’s life, Jake has changed past events so drastically that the fabric of time is being ripped apart. CONGRATULATIONS. YOU SAVED THE PRESIDENT. AND YOU HAVE BROKEN THE UNIVERSE. Well done. You thought you could play God? HA. NOPE.

So, basically… the moral of the story is… YOU THINK YOU CAN PLAY WITH TIME? YOU DON’T KNOW SHIT. JUST STOP BEFORE YOU HURT YOURSELF. AND… YA KNOW. THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE.

Yeah. So. All that time you spent trying to change the past? It was all for nothing. The butterfly effect is a bitch and you can’t change anything without stressing the fabric of the universe. So go back, reset the clock, and KNOCK IT. OFF.

So let this be a lesson to you, dear reader. If you ever stumble across a portal in time. LEAVE IT. ALONE. You will just make a mess if you do anything otherwise.

I think that’s a pretty good message to all the would-be time travelers out there.

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2 thoughts on “Review Thursday: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

  1. I loved this book. I reviewed it too. Did you know that King doesn’t know how his books will end when he starts them? I guess he knew the main premise, but maybe he didn’t know Sadie would die, even if you did 😉

    • Oh yeah, I think I remember reading that somewhere before. I love that about his writing; it can be so surprising and I guess maybe that’s because as he’s writing it he doesn’t always know where it’s going at the end. So cool. I LOVE his book about the writing craft – “On Writing” and also the way he describes the act of writing in his novel “Misery.” How it’s like falling through a hole in the paper, or… in more modern standards, a hole in the screen. So accurate.

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