Monday, October 8, 2012

11/22/63: Review

I'm sure everybody knows what Stephen King's 11/22/63 is about.  But for those of you who have been out of touch and the title isn't enough of a we go:

First off, we have Jake Epping, who is just your average high school English teacher--plugging along, grading horrible essays, getting over a divorce, preparing to be a time traveler.  (What? You say you're an English teacher and you don't get be a time traveler.  What's up with that?)  His buddy (well, actually, acquaintance, but let's not quibble) Al who owns the local diner has just revealed to him that he has this time portal in the diner's pantry.  You know, go in the back room for a loaf of bread and if you're not careful you'll step right into 1958.  Always.  It's a wacky time portal like that--no variation, 1958, same day, same time. 

So....Al has decided that it would be the best thing in the world to go back in time and hang out for about five years until President John F. Kennedy can be saved from assassination.  He tried to do that, but got diagnosed with cancer before he could complete his mission and returned to the present to recruit somebody younger and healthier--that would be Jake.  Now Jake is an English teacher who doesn't seem to know a whole heaping lot about history. Al gives him the goods in a nutshell and provides him with a handy-dandy timeline on all the important players (as well as the winners of every sporting event between 1958 and 1963--the better to make 1950s money with) and convinces him to give this a try.  Of course, it takes a few trial runs (to convince Jake that this thing is real and that he really can affect the past) before Jake is set, but in the end he decides to do it.  He's off to save the President of the United States.

There are also a couple of side stories going on: Jake is interested in saving the lives of Harry Dunniing's family as well.  Harry is a janitor at the school where Jake teaches and has been enrolled in Jake's Adult English class.  When asked to write about an event that changed his life, Harry tells about the murder of his mother, sister and brother at the hands of his father.  Jake is determined to set that right.  There's also a young woman that Al wants saved from a terrible accident.  And then there's Sadie.  The woman Jake falls in love with while waiting for November 1963.  What happens with Sadie....and with President Kennedy will have to wait until you read it. And you'll find out if traveling through time was really such a good idea after all....
My take:  There are going to be spoilers, I'm just telling you now.

OMG.  Almost 900 pages!  That's what I thought when I received 11/22/63 for Christmas from my husband.  Not that I hadn't asked for it, mind you, because I had. And I knew it was a big book--but not THAT big.  And now that I've read it (but, I have to admit, not every single word--yeah, um, I skimmed a bit)....OMG. Almost 900 pages! That's the overwhelming thought that I have.

This was my first King novel.  And my thoughts aren't any of the following: Hey, Stephen King is a wonderful storyteller.  OR Boy, am I glad I finally gave Stephen King a try. OR What a terrific time travel story.  Nope.  It's: What a god-awful long book that was.  Somehow, I don't think that was the reaction King was looking for when he sat down to write this.  The thing is, King doesn't even have the excuse of the conventions and style of the time the way a George Eliot does with MiddlemarchMiddlemarch is another god-awful long book--but Victorian writers tended to produce those. And, if you're the type who occasionally (or more than occasionally) likes to settle into a nice classic, then you expect to be settling into a different pace.  It's part of the deal and you work with it.

But King is a modern writer.  He's writing for a modern audience.  The modern audience has a whole lot of people in it who are used to texting and get impatient because email takes too long.  So, he decides to take 900 pages to tell a story that could easily have been told in half that.  Did we really need to go back in time several times just to make sure things work?  Does that really matter?  After all, we still don't know why they work and we have no idea what will happen if we manage to save JFK's life. And by the time Jake Epping is done messing around in the past I'm not sure if saving JFK is what made the world go you-know-where in a handbasket or if it was all the "little" things he did over the course of five years or both together.  We'll never know. Jake will never know.  So, why did we have to take over 700 pages to get to the whole point of the story--stopping the assassination?

The really sad thing for me is this wasn't the book I expected.  This is more about getting to the assassination attempt than it is about what happens if the President is saved.  I had hoped for a real look at what would happen if JFK didn't die in 1963.  But that part is really glossed over.  We are given a 2-3 page run-down of life after Dallas, but as far as results go, the concentration is on how Jake saving JFK has caused world catastrophes--not people-catastrophes, but earthquakes and freak tornadoes and geez-louise the world is falling apart. And some strange guy who "guards" the time portal is wanting Jake to fix things.  I tried really hard to buy into the whole "Al and Jake went back in time and messed with too many things and that caused all these 'strings' of history that somehow got all tangled up and that will cause everything to explode" thing but I've read too many other science fiction/time travel stories where messing with history causes alternate time lines (that, generally speaking, do not affect one another) to put any money down.  'Cause you see, if each time they went back only tangled things up more, then I don't see how Jake going back one more time is going to wipe the slate clean.  Wouldn't that just add one more twist to the tangled "strings"?  If the world is that close to exploding (imploding?) then I'd think one more trip would set the whole thing off.  But I guess nobody said it had to make sense.

I managed to make it all the way to 43 without reading any Stephen King...I'm kind of wishing that I had kept that record going.  I just don't think that he's for me.  I did enjoy slipping back into a less complicated era--the feel of the late 50s and early 60s is so much different from today.  And I also really liked Jake's relationship with Sadie--that's the part of the book that makes this a two-star read rather than a one-star read.  As the quote below states, it evoked a response.  I wanted them to have a good life together.  I was sad when it didn't happen.  King touched me there.  It's a shame he didn't hook me with the main story line as well.


I stroked a big red A on top of his paper. Looked at it for a moment or two, then added a big red +. Because it was good, and because his pain had evoked an emotional response in me, his reader. And isn't that what A+ writing is supposed to do? Evoke a response? [about Harry's theme written in the Adult English class, p. 5]

 Oh, and by the way, that completes my Stephen King Project challenge.  I signed up as a King Novice--read one book.  Mission accomplished!  [I am going in fear and trembling to post my link though.  I haven't read every single review posted there....but I didn't see any reviews as low as mine among what I have read.  I hope the posse doesn't come searching for me. :-)]


Donna Alexander said...

I enjoyed the book. But I must admit I agree that some parts could have been cut down a bit. I also would have liked more info about what life would have been like if JFK had lived. I also enjoyed the simplicity of the protagonist's life in the 50s and 60s. Thanks for an interesting review!

Man of la Book said...

I haven't read this one yet, for 900 pages I have to make room on my reading calendar (and I have a few of those on my nightstand). I saw a show once where scholars attempted to foresee what would have happened if JFK lived and they agreed that he would not be remembered as a "great" president or legislature at all.