By Jake Taber
Steven King’s latest novel, “11/22/63” is a surprisingly rich take on the oft-explored subject of time travel. King, known popularly as a horror writer, has drawn away from the genre somewhat in this work, as he did with his last full-length novel, “Under the Dome”. This time travel story is, nonetheless, heavily steeped in the supernatural. Alternate histories cross over each other, entire cities harbor dark, secret personalities, and the past itself consciously resists unwanted change. It all makes for a book that, without doing anything revolutionary, provides an absorbing read that’s hard to tear yourself from.
11/22/63 does away with conventional time travel methods, opting simply for a “rabbit hole” method, as described in the book – an invisible, natural portal between present day and the year 1958. Al Templeton, the owner of the diner in which spacetime has been inexplicably ripped asunder reveals the portal to Jake Epping (a local high school English teacher) early in the book, explaining that “every trip is a reset”. That is to say, should you enter the portal twice, your actions during the previous visit are annulled, and you return to the same spot on the morning of September 9th, 53 years ago. The strangest detail: each trip to the past, no matter how long, lasts just two minutes on the other side.
Templeton, a man dying of lung cancer, enlists Jake to perform a daunting task, one he himself doesn’t have the strength to complete. Al wants Jake to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an event five years from the date at the other end of the portal. Doing this would require but two minutes in 2011; at the same time, however, it would require five years of Epping’s life, as well as the serious gambles of altering history. Epping, just out of a bad relationship and mired in a thankless job, accepts the proposition. He leaves for the past right after Al finally passes away, armed with an envelope of cash, some clothes, and a stack of papers titled ‘sporting outcomes, 1958-1963’.
From here the story could have been shortened considerably, skimming over or skipping altogether the years between 1958 and the assassination. King, however, makes the most of them, choosing to focus on Epping’s newfound life in another time, one he seems to enjoy far more than that in the present. Here is where the book might lose some readers, especially those used to more traditional time travel or mystery fare. Descriptive moments in these sections are often long-winded and gratuitous, and there are long droughts in the action as Jake explores his new environment, drifting between cities and eventually finding love (one can only imagine the possibilities for paradox here).
Over time, however, it gradually becomes clear that the past is not a passive timeline but an active force. Certain events begin to “harmonize” in an eerie, ever-prevalent form of deja vu, as various versions of the past cross over each other. Time itself resists Jake’s efforts to change it by throwing obstacles in his path; Jake faces inexplicable accidents, sickness, and delays each time he seeks to alter history. These concepts are what ultimately define this as a Steven King novel. While King, as always, gives us a realistic, historically accurate setting and atmosphere, he also continuously throws in episodes of strangeness that serve, if anything, to distort the picture for just a moment and allow us a glimpse at the unfathomable that lurks behind everything.
In short, I found this book incredibly engaging – the 740 pages go by quickly, and I was constantly wondering what moth hole in the fabric of reality would throw our hero next. I’m a long-time reader of King’s work, so maybe my familiarity with his writing has given me a little bias. Indeed, there are plenty of overly explicit descriptive sections that are a little too long-winded: in my opinion, 400 pages would have suited the story just as well. Overall, though, King definitely doesn’t disappoint. And besides – haven’t you always wondered about the Vietnam war had JFK lived? No spoilers here though…