Spoiler alert! But you should read ‘Libra’ by Don Delillo instead of ‘11.22.63’ anyway. So don’t be sad.
It is at least partly my fault that ’11.22.63’ by Stephen King annoyed me so much. Labouring under the misapprehension that this lengthy novel was about what might have happened if JFK hadn’t been assassinated on the eponymous date (which, by the way, is clearly a horrible title), I expected an intriguing tale of Oswald being thwarted and a utopian USA emerging as a result. Clearly, this is what happens when you don’t read the synopsis properly. Rather than the ‘counter-factual’ novel I expected, it quickly became clear that ’11.22.63’ is a time travel tale: something I really prefer to avoid altogether. I can’t think of a novel of this kind in which the logistics of time travel are satisfactorily explained, and this was no different.
The narrator, Jake Epping, is essentially a cipher for the story King wants to tell, which is not the worst criticism to throw at a work of fiction, but it makes his decision to attempt to change history and sacrifice large parts of his own life – not least, the five years he’ll have to stay in what is annoyingly referred to as ‘the Land of Ago’ – quite baffling. He doesn’t know much about American or world history and his frequent excuse of ‘I’m an English teacher’ is, frankly, stupid. I’m an English teacher too; this does not mean I don’t know anything about any other subjects (apart from physics, obviously). Jake has little holding him in the present, but this is probably because he is fundamentally too dull for anyone to want to be his friend, apart from people who are already dying and won’t have to put up with him for long. Throughout the novel, as he meets the people of the past and does stupid things like asking for medication which hasn’t been invented yet or singing the lyrics to songs yet to be written, he seems to spend the whole time with one eyebrow raised, willing someone to ask, ‘but are you from the future, Mr Amberson?’ It is rather like the time a touring musical came to York and its stars – Noel from Hearsay, one of Steps and the little one from S Club 7, if you’re wondering – walked around town in sunglasses and lowered caps, desperate for someone to recognise them and, I don’t know, do a dance routine at them or something. Jake, or George, as he calls himself in Ago-land, seems so eager for someone to notice how brilliant and special he is – why else does he drop incredibly outlandish bets with bookies who everyone else seems to know are mobsters? – that he might as well be wearing a sandwich board declaring, ‘I COME FROM 2011! ASK ME ANYTHING AS LONG AS IT’S ABOUT NOVELLAS OR SOMETHING CALLED ‘THEMES’ WHICH I AM APPARENTLY OBSESSED WITH!’
This feels very cathartic. This book has been annoying me for a whole week. Does it show?
’11.22.63’ is a very long novel. It is also, in large parts, not very interesting. Jake/George/90s pop has-been spends an annoyingly long time complaining about how crap Dallas is (the city, not the TV programme. Although, given his propensity for accidentally mentioning things that haven’t happened yet in the 1960s, it is a miracle he doesn’t start humming the theme tune and asking people who shot J.R.) and explaining how to swing dance. The romantic sub-plot soon becomes the sole plot and, charming as it is, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Jake wouldn’t have been better off, you know, actually killing Lee Harvey Oswald instead of fannying about directing the school play and using ‘poundcake’ as a really creepy euphemism. When he finally does get off his arse to do what he came to the past to do, there doesn’t seem to be enough of the novel left for things to be resolved in a non-annoying way.
And then there’s all the nonsense about the past being ‘obdurate’ and placing – or, more appropriately given the events described – launching obstacles in Jake’s not-particularly-motivated path. Ooh, a crazy ex-husband. Oh no, diarrhoea. Gasp, an angry bookie with a name that makes it quite clear he’s going to be a baddie (come on – Akiva? In a book where everyone seems to be called George? Ooh, subtle). By the time Jake can be bothered to try to stop Oswald (half an hour before he’s going to shoot the president; presumably he tells his students not to leave their assignments till the last minute, and so he is not only a tiresome procrastinator but also a hypocrite), the past is being particularly obdurate and, if any of the bystanders were also time travellers and had happened to see ‘Speed’ or the last twenty minutes of ‘Con Air,’ they would be feeling a strange sense of déjà vu. It’s a shame I was so annoyed by the book by that point, as all the transport mishaps might have bordered on exciting without all the waffling before. Okay, Stephen, we get it: stuff was really cheap in 1963. Let’s all move on now. It is also at this point that ’11.22.63’ gets really mawkish, which is understandable but something that surely must have tried the patience of other readers too.
As for the question of ‘what might have happened if JFK hadn’t died?’, the answer, according to King, is ‘every single awful thing you can imagine.’ Yes, everyone; if JFK had lived, One Direction would be even more popular. And we’d all be speaking Martian. Actually, the three pages in which Jake finds out why he appears to have returned to the fictional ‘1984’ instead of his actual 2011 are the most interesting in the whole novel. Although I do wonder what King has against Paul McCartney. And plate tectonics.
Finally, I come to the thing that annoyed me most about this novel. To get to the past, one goes through a pantry. However long you stay in the past, it is only two minutes later when you return to the present. While through the wardrobe… oops, I mean ‘pantry’… you may encounter a friendly fawn and some hospitable beavers, before a really cool lion gets involved. What’s that, Stephen King? You didn’t just rip the whole thing off from ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’? Yeah, right. Aslan would definitely have finished off Oswald and wouldn’t have got amnesia at the crucial moment either.
I was going to read ‘The Time Machine’ next, but Jake Epping and his rambling on for 600 pages has put me right off. It might be safer to read ‘The Gruffalo’ instead. I would be genuinely interested in the views of anyone else who has read ’11.22.63.’ If anyone else survived the experience…