So, having read my first Stephen King novel, I can confidently say that it was NOT at all what I was expecting. And what was I expecting, I hear you cry? Well, something darker, harder, edgier, fiercer. I never imagined Stephen King with this sentimental marshmallow side, although in retrospect I can see how that works – if you have the forces of evil ranged against you, then you probably need something sweet and tender and good to protect. It may be that 11.22.63 is a very different sort of book to the kind King normally writes, but underlying its baggy, meandering 700+ pages there’s a classic mythic quest going on, in which Everyman is pitted against the forces of the cosmos as he tries to alter the course of history. And around that there’s a story that sails within inches of being pure soap opera. I’m not saying for a moment there’s anything wrong with either of these narrative formats, in fact both are long-standing staples of entertainment; I just hadn’t realised how close they were to one another in terms of genetic structure until Stephen King pointed it out to me.
So, the novel’s main protagonist is Jake Epping, an ordinary good guy, an English teacher recently divorced from an alcoholic wife, and a man who feels his ethics deeply, even if he’s not one to cry. He’s contacted at the end of a school day by his acquaintance Al Templeton who runs the diner he frequents. Al seems to have aged overnight and suddenly come down with lung cancer. It’s because he’s just spent five years living in the past, though only been away two minutes in the present. Access to the ‘Land of Ago’ he discovered through a ‘rabbit hole’ out the back of the diner that transports him into 1958, where he’s been trying to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. Note to other novelists: if you have a great deal of crazy plot to sell to the reader, don’t choke over it, just get it right out there with the minimum amount of fuss. Well, Jake wants to try this out before he’ll commit to something as huge as five years of his life as the guard dog of history. So he sets out to right the wrongs committed to the family of the school janitor, a man with a permanent disability gained the night his father ran amok and killed his entire family with a hammer. Jake assumes the identity that Al has already prepared for him of George Amberson, and with money Al’s won from placing bets and a little authentic 1958 kit, off he trots to a world where food tastes better, communities are friendly and more trusting, but there are still a few issues around pollution, feminism and race.
But who are we kidding? The late 1950s in King’s representation are wonderful. Jake/George falls in love with his car, not to mention the price of petrol, indeed the prices of everything. He doesn’t fall in love with Derry, though, a grim mill town where he sets up a watch over the janitor’s family. And he discovers that the past is obdurate – the course of events really does not wish to be diverted. Before long, this quaint and charming book was bathing in a bloodbath and I remembered who had written it. This first, well, lengthy prologue really, seems irrelevant initially, but it will turn out not to be. Because when Jake decides he will take on the mission of saving Kennedy, he discovers that ‘the past harmonises’ as he puts it, or to say it another way, history repeats itself. Al has told him that every time he goes through the rabbit hole he arrives in September 1958 and the past has been reset. But Jake discovers that things are not that simple and that events will reappear in different permutations, like variations on a theme. And there’s also the issue of what happens to the future when the past has been altered. He will come to discover that changing the course of history is a very dangerous thing to do.
So all this is what I would call the mythic part of the narrative. It’s one man, armed with his wits and his English degree, set out on a modern(ish) day labours of Hercules, engaged in mortal combat with the random force of time and the unremitting violence of mad men, embodying the eternal struggle of good against evil. No kidding. There’s a moment when King lets himself off the realist leash and describes the world of his imaginary universe thus:
For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life. Behind it? Below it and around it? Chaos, storms. Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.
It’s a sort of gothic romanticism beloved of the comic book world and the thriller and it bookends the novel. In the middle, 500 pages tinged with sentiment about Jake/George’s years between 1958 and 1963 as he falls in love with a small town named Jodie, and in love with a woman called Sadie, librarian at the school where he picks up some teaching work, oh and trails Lee Harvey Oswald from time to time. This is essentially because the narrative is about to play another familiar game: our hero has on his to-do list 1) save the President 2) bring down Lee Harvey Oswald and 3) get the girl he loves, but he will only be permitted to accomplish two of these items – which will it be? This was the part where my belief that no novel needs EVER to be more than 500 pages long was reinforced. I confess I wilted a bit in this section.
He ends it in high style, however, bringing together in apocalyptic fashion the gentle everyday world with the mad chaos and storms earlier predicted. It’s a real blockbuster finale, and you’ll need hankies at the ready. So, all in all, what did I think? King’s world is basically a paranoid one, in which the surface charm does mask horror and violence and I, well, I can’t quite get behind that. I think that life for most of us is just not that exciting and it will be chronic sufferings that get to us, not life-or-death acute ones. For me, it was a little too melodramatic. But he’s clearly a clever plotter with a rich imagination and a powerful ability to evoke time and place. I don’t expect I’ll read him again, but I was glad to have read him the once.