Everyman vs. The Cosmos

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.




25 thoughts on “Everyman vs. The Cosmos

  1. I don’t read much Stephen King either, but I did enjoy this one a lot. I never even thought about the epic quest aspect – I think I was just entranced by the historical detail, which was superb. And I was reading it in Dallas, and took a side trip down to Dealy Plaza and wandered around the museum in the book depository building, which added a lot to the experience.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    • It would be fantastic to be able to actually see where the events took place. I think if he’d recreated the 70s in a way that really struck home with me, then I’d have been more seduced by the historical detail. But I can see why lots of readers love him!

  2. I’ve read several of King’s books, the not really scary ones, and enjoyed them. Bookman has read everything the man has ever written except for his book on baseball. I have this one on my TBR shelf and will get to it eventually which will make Bookman very very happy.

    • And I bet whatever happens you’ll love it for Bookman’s sake, won’t you? You’re that sort of kind person. Well, there’s lots to enjoy in this one and I feel sure you’ll like the time travel bits.

  3. I;m waiting for this come out in softcover so I can read it. I’ve read most everything he has ever written, so can hardly wait until I can read this. I can’t carry hardcovers any more, so there’s not much point in getting it, even though I was tempted.

    Very interesting review, and you have pointed out themes that I know from all I’ve read by him, have been present in many of his books – that mythic quest.

    I have to ask how did you find his characters? I’ve always thought that no one does characters like he does – they are so real, the dialogue is like no one else I’ve encountered – so pitch-perfect. I’m glad you enjoyed it, though sad you won’t read any more, though I understand and appreciate your honesty. Not everything he writes is perfect, even I couldn’t read a couple of his later books (Gerald’s Game, Dolores Claiborne, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon come to mind).

    • Susan, you could do with some wrist supports even for the softcover version! Mine got weary sometimes holding it up! Yes, I can quite see what you mean about his characters as they are wholly plausible and the dialogue is wonderfully smooth. I’m just finishing an Anne Tyler novel and she’s my Queen of Dialogue, probably because I just love her characters so. But Stephen King is clearly excellent in this respect. I would like to read On Writing at some point, so who knows, maybe I’ll end up a converted fan!

  4. I’m glad to hear that you liked this. I’ve been on tenterhooks since you said you had started it! I think a lot of people are surprised at how sentimental King can be. It’s one of the things I like about his books. He really goes for it in depicting both the good and the evil. I don’t think his stories would work if he leaned too hard on one or the other. And most of the time, he lets the good side win, even if the victory is Pyrrhic, and that’s reassuring to know when the darkness gets unbearable.

    I can understand not caring for the melodrama, though. I’m a sucker for melodrama, when it’s done well, so I don’t mind it.

    • Aw bless! I thought of you while I was reading! and I quite agree – horror wouldn’t work if you didn’t have something tender and lovable to balance it out. This novel absolutely has a Pyrrhic victory at the end, and I appreciated that, made for a good ending, I felt. And loads of people love melodrama – it’s just me that can’t get behind it!

  5. Paranoia is an important motor in all of King’s writing, I think. I’ve only read “Carrie” and “On Writing” thought it was very interesting.
    After having read your review I think I’ll rather read one of thsoe – if ever – which is labbelled “horror”.
    His book on writing is excellent. I was quite suprised. Much better than his fiction, I thought.

    • I’d also be interested to read his book on writing. I love it when good fiction writers turn to non-fiction. It always seems to work really well. Alas, I never could read horror, but it’s good to have that option!

  6. I haven’t read any King so I can’t comment on how this fits into his works but I wish this had been around last year when the Summer School was looking at novels set in the present and a time past. It would have fitted in well, especially with du Maurier’s ‘The House on the Strand’.

    As for the links between soap operas and myth, well just think of how many times you meet the Gorgon in another guise:)

    • Ha yes! Gorgons and Medusas, and the Furies are often involved implicitly if not explicitly. The King novel would have been excellent for that dual time location thing – but take heart. 700+ pages is a lot to get through for a summer school. You remind me I’ve never read The House on the Strand, though, and would like to one of these fine days.

  7. You mean to say you haven’t read The Shining? The most chill-inducing, heart-squeezing-in-fear novel? Oh, please, please read. You will go days on end clutching your chest in fright every time the curtains billow in the wind. He builds up the narrative beautifully.

    • It sounds like a wonderfully chilling horror story, but alas, I am no fan of shadow boxing and my nerves are in shreds usually as it is! But I love your enthusiasm for the novel and it may well encourage others to give the novel a try.

  8. I agree with you that no novel should be over 500 pages. And while I’m interested to see how he evokes 1950s America, I think I would find the paranoia a little depressing. Will to have to skip this one. But I also agree that SK is one of those authors worth reading. Sounds like “On Writing” would be a good place to start.

    • Yes, Pete, On Writing sounds better and better, doesn’t it? And how nice to find another supporter for the ‘less is more’ camp. I read bigger books these days than I ever used to, but I find I still have my limits. The 1950s is an era that I’m really fascinated by, and it was one of the reasons I was drawn to the book. However, the 50s in America were clearly very different to the 50s in the UK, which was a time of austerity for us, whereas King paints a very idyllic picture. Oddly enough, I’m more intrigued by the austerity.

  9. Heh, ever since you first mentioned that you were reading this you’ve been the canary in the cage for me, because I’ve never read any SK either (TOO squeamish) and am curious. My conclusion is that I’d rather read litlove writing about Stephen King than Stephen King himself, sorry Mr K.

    Nilofer Ansherf – you have summed up beautifully EXACTLY why I’d never read such a novel. The terror would kill me!

    • ‘the canary in the cage’ – LOL!! That really made me laugh. And yes, based on the gorgeous reviews I’ve read on your site, I probably wouldn’t suggest King as top of your must-read pile. The darkness is not so interestingly dark. I’m right behind you on the fatal nature of fictional terror – and I mean right behind, cowering. 🙂

  10. I’ve read only one Stephen King book, a non-fiction, and that’s On Writing which is exceptional. And from it, I can tell this is a wonderful writer who can do more than just dark and scary stuff. From the myriad of movies based on his books, I greatly admire him albeit haven’t read any of the novels on which they are based. Yes, you can say I admire him through the movies, many of which are now modern classics… The Shining, Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me. BTW, he has over 140 movies/tv titles to his name. Thanks for your thorough review of 11.22.63 I know it’s another greatly intriguing work. But maybe a bit too formidable for me. Guess I’ll wait for the movie. 😉

    • There IS going to be a movie of this one? I felt sure there would be as I was reading it. I can see that he adapts well because he’s a visual writer and often has a neat, clear concept that provides the underlying principle or structure of the piece. So in other words, lots of surface detail, but relatively easy to transpose to the time and space limits of the cinema screen. In a word, good hooks. I see no reason why you couldn’t admire him through the films, as not many writers do manage to think up such clear, enticing, hooky hooks!

  11. I read a few of his books when I was in my 20s and then they got too scary for me. This one sounds like classic King from what I remember. I enjoyed the review, more than I think I’d like the book at this stage of my life.

  12. This sounds quite ambitious, but if anyone can pull it off, I think SK can! I read a few of his books back in my college days but nothing since (though earlier in the summer I did buy a reissue of one of his books at the supermarket!). I like stories of quests, though in its way this one certainly seems epic. I don’t think I would have picked this one up, but you do make it sound tempting. I think what stops me reading his books these days (aside from them being such huge books) is the idea of an unbearable sort of tension and anxiety the story seems to have (especially when we’re talking about horror).

  13. I’m currently reading The Stand by King which is another of his that is not a horror fiction. The Stand is an epic novel that is part fantasy, part quest, part…well it’s a wild ride that is what I can tell you. King definitely writes about the forces of good vs. evil over and over again. He’s an interesting writer to hear speak about his process and On Writing is excellent and I do think you would enjoy it, even if you are not a wholly converted King fan after reading this latest of his work!

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