Matt Thorne says that the legendary novelist has created his most elegant and artful work yet
BY STEPHEN KING HODDER & STOUGHTON, £19.99
While the conceit for Stephen King’s new novel, 11/22/63, is not especially original – a schoolteacher discovers a portal in time that allows him to travel back in an attempt to prevent the assassination of John F Kennedy – the sheer glee with which he tells the story is a delight. The opening sections of the novel, in which the rules of the concept are clearly laid out, serve a double purpose: as well as establishing the narrative structure of the book they also reveal that King is fully aware of every other book and film in this territory, from Ray Bradbury to Philip K Dick to Groundhog Day, and is going to plunder the best bits of all of them for his own mammoth tale. This section is reassuring. King’s protagonist, 35-year-old schoolteacher Jake Epping, is introduced to the portal by Al, a cook at his local diner, and we get explanations of what we should care about and what King is going to gloss over by merely admitting “it’s a paradox” (though he does tie up most of the loose ends by the conclusion of the novel and what initially seems like sloppy plotting reveals itself to be King laying the dynamite for the narrative explosions to come).
There’s something about this depiction of time travel that feels wonderfully alive. Unlike most hard sci-fi treatments of the subject, King’s is solely interested in what might serve his story. His protagonist needs money to survive and a depiction of him gaining this would be boring, so Al starts him off by giving him era-specific cash that can somehow be brought back through the portal to the 1950s.
King wants to keep his storytelling straight and doesn’t want to get too involved in parallel reality stuff (at least until he needs it for plot purposes) so he works in a narrative circuit-breaker – every time anyone goes back to the past again, all the changes they made in their previous visit are lost. He also doesn’t want to worry about running two different time-frames, so no matter how long Jake is in the past, only two minutes pass in the present.
King is trafficking in nostalgia here; the most enjoyable section in the first 100 pages is a long account of how much better root beer used to taste in the 1950s (I defy anyone to read the account of drinking a root beer in a diner and not wish they had a time travel machine of their own). But the novel also has a clear and serious moral purpose. What King is really addressing here is theodicy. His ruling power may be Father Time instead of God, but his concern is still whether the universe needs its dark moments. (There are some interesting thoughts on Catholicism to be found in the book as well, such as a reference to the restrictions of diet. His protagonist’s thoughts on religion, however, are agnostic, though he does pretend to be a Methodist in order to avoid arguments with a racist Baptist.) King also includes references to 9/11 and killing Hitler, making the book’s subtext immediately clear.
Before going on his mission to kill Lee Harvey Oswald, Jake goes on a trial run, heading back in time to kill a man who murdered his family before he gets to them. There are shades of The Shining here (a sequel to that novel is in the works, due to follow after a new Dark Tower book), as well as a return of what can be seen as King’s feminist perspective: his career-long exploration of the evil that men can do to those weaker than themselves, whether through adolescent bullying, wife-beating, or homicide. King devotes over 230 pages to this narrative, and it will be interesting to see how much time Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, who was attached to the film of the book before it was even published, devotes to this section, which – though very enjoyable – is essentially a distraction before the book truly begins.
The trial run does have some significance, however, asthings go wrong and King lays hints that when you change the past it doesn’t always work out the way you want it to – a common theme of the horror/sci-fi films The Butterfly Effect and Final Destination – though King’s references and in-jokes are classier. King’s English teacher is a fan of Paul Bowles’s novels, for example, although there’s also the usual reverence for other writers who might be considered pulp, including Ed McBain, John D McDonald and Chester Himes.
King has fun with politics too (and there are some trenchant observations about Dallas in the afterword), noting that the Tea Party existed in the 1950s too. I have long maintained that King’s best novels – The Shining, Misery, Bag of Bones and Lisey’s Story, among many others – are those concerned with the plight of the writer. I thought for a moment I would have to revise this theory in light of the evident quality of 11/22/63, but back in the past it turns out that King’s schoolteacher protagonist is an author too, using the dead time between 1958 and 1963 to work on a crime novel called The Murder Place (Epping is less adept with his titles than King, and less persistent too; his novel lies unwritten for much of King’s book).
The quality dips slightly when Oswald and Kennedy finally show up in the narrative, though I was never quite certain whether this was due to the difficulty of creating a narrative in which real people mingle with imaginary ones or because the JFK killing is the McGuffin that allows King to do what he really wants to do: relive the late 1950s and early 1960s. Disarmingly, King suggests that he ditched his original ending in favour of one his son came up with. Without knowing the original ending, it’s hard to know if he made the right decision, but maybe not, as the conclusion is the weakest part of an otherwise superlative novel: Stephen King’s most sophisticated, elegant and best-written book.