For the third consecutive year I got the new Stephen King novel for Christmas from my brother, and for the third consecutive year I read it in 2 days, thus causing him all kinds of frustration. This year, the book was 11/22/63
, which is about a man that travels to the past in hopes of preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and, theoretically, a whole slew of awful things that followed after. I love time travel, and I really love speculative history, so I was guaranteed to enjoy this book, and I very much did...but not without some reservations.
King made an interesting choice in giving us a protagonist who is not a student of history, and who has no ideological investment in the idea that preventing JFK's death would change history for the better. It creates a certain apolitical POV that allows for more investigation into the effects of time travel on the person than on the world, which lets us get to know and care about Jake and prevents romanticization of JFK or of the time period more generally. At the same time, though, that means that the central quest of the novel is not sufficiently motivated, especially given that one of the central conflicts throughout a large part of the novel is whether he is willing to give up his new life in the past in order to carry out the mission. He has a really compelling motive for his trial run with regard to changing the past, and the section of the novel spent in Derry in 1958 is the strongest part of the book as a result (and because Derry in 1958 is really exciting familiar ground), but the main mission he's carrying out because he was recruited by a dying friend, and we get little sense that their relationship was important or strong enough to make him follow through. There are little suggestions early in the story about his curiosity and about his sense of obligation if his friend is really right about the good he would be doing, but it isn't enough, especially after he gets a big hint that it may not work out the way he wants.
The other big problem is my lack of investment in the romantic subplot, but in order to really explain that, I have to approach it in a roundabout way by discussing King's "ending problem," which I've seen mentioned repeatedly in the last few years. I actually think King's endings are satisfying much more often than not; in fact, though there are endings I would say fall down on the character or plot front, I don't think there's ever been an ending that wasn't thematically fitting enough to make up for it. Under the Dome
, for instance,
had a frustrating final act, plot-wise, and didn't give us terribly striking protagonists in the first place, but the ending--"Wear it home, it'll look like a dress"--completely bowled me over, anyway. I immediately went back and re-read the last 40 pages or so, and I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks. The real issue is often not with the actual endings, but with the way that King goes about executing the Earn Your Happy Ending
trope. In order to make sure the protagonists pay the necessary price to be allowed a happy ending, King has to fuck with their plans, sometimes in a series of unfortunate events, and sometimes in one big cataclysm. Sometimes that means he builds toward something with no proper pay off, or fundamentally changes the nature of the story from that point on, resulting in disappointment or frustration with the plot. Sometimes that means he kills off the characters we really care about, or destroys certain relationship dynamics. And often, the new context in which the characters find themselves for their happy ending is too far removed from the context in which we came to enjoy seeing them for the ending to really be satisfying.
I mention that because 11/22/63
doesn't fit the pattern, and ends up being all the more frustrating because of it. There's no way King could have really altered the direction of the story without seriously betraying and pissing off his readers; the mission has to be carried out, and we have to see the effects. What that means, though, is that the emotional conflict surrounding the romantic subplot feels really false. Having Jake get attached to his life in the past works; having him fall in love works less. The former explores an interesting aspect of time travel that's often neglected, and highlights the sadness of Jake's position as an interloper. The latter puts the reader in an impossible position: we cannot invest in the relationship when it's an obstacle to Jake's mission, because it will either have to end, so who cares, or it isn't going to be a conflict at all, so who cares. And this lack of investment is justified when King maintains the integrity of his plot and shifts the question from whether Jake can/will change the past to whether or not he should. Plot-wise, the ending is a tremendous pay-off, and a nice, fresh look at time travel mechanics, but it's also kind of nihilistic, unless we believe in the transcendent power of Jake and Sadie's love, which we have no reason to do...so the very end feels tacked on, but not having it would be worse.
All the same, I did like the characters and enjoy them together,even if, as usual, I cared much more about the friendships than the romantic relationships. I get sappy and even kind of squealy about a lot of King's friendship dynamics, and especially his team dynamics, but I don't know that I've ever gotten as invested in a romantic relationship as I was supposed to, despite the fact that I often really love both of the characters as individuals.
And I loved the actual story. I read a couple reviews that suggested that the parts dealing with Oswald as a character were boring or went on too long, but I found it absolutely fascinating, and of course that kind of stuff plays to King's strengths. He's great at humanizing people who horrify us. (He's also really great at humanizing people we admire. There's a couple of tiny moments dealing with JFK and Jackie [and, indirectly, their children] as actual people that made me bawl my stupid eyes out--even if I've never been as invested in the idea of them as I have always been in the idea of what could have been if Bobby had lived--partly, I admit, because it resonated so much with how I feel about the Obamas.) Plus, it was great to revisit Derry, which helped add some creepiness to the proceedings, the story of the Dunnings was just perfectly executed, and I thought King's version of time travel was really cool. All in all, definitely worth reading.