Early in Stephen King’s time travel story, 11.22.63, protagonist Jake Epping has settled in to the town of Derry in the late 1950s (those familiar with King’s oeuvre will recognise Derry as the setting of one of the author’s best novels, It). Jake is an English teacher under the assumed name of George Amberson. He’s also a budding novelist, since it wouldn’t be a King novel without an author in the leading role. He’s pondering how best to narrate his experiences in the small town. Jake/George writes the following:
“How should I tell you then?
In my life as a teacher, I used to hammer away the idea of simplicity. In both fiction and nonfiction, there’s only one question and one answer. What happened? the reader asks. This is what happened, the writer responds. This … and this … and this, too. Keep it simple. It’s the only sure way home.
So I’ll try, although you must always keep in mind that in Derry, reality is a thin skim of ice over a deep lake of dark water.”
This paragraph is written from Jake’s perspective but it gives a strong insight into King’s approach to fiction. King’s writing has always been about simplicity and storytelling. This is occasionally at the expense of beautiful prose or deep characterisation, but King is more a great storyteller than a great writer, so this simplicity plays to his strengths. (He’s also not adverse to the occasional poetic turn of phrase, as seen in the final sentence.)
That simplicity lends the first two-hundred-or-so pages of 11.22.63 a compelling readability. The time travel here is less hard-sci-fi , more Back to the Future, complete with the idealized apple-pie 1950s setting and the late reveal of a serious threat to the fabric of reality. Jake finds his way to the past through a pantry in an ancient burger joint, and soon travels to Derry, where he sets about trying to save a young family from the murderous patriarch of the family. These early scenes are the novel’s strongest; King gets the nuts-and-bolts of time travel out of the way with casual briskness, and establishes the world of fifties America quickly and effectively.
11.22.63 isn’t horror, but that doesn’t stop King from using his talent for evoking a stomach-churning sense of dread in the early chapters. The aforementioned town of Derry is inundated in a choking atmosphere of dense despair, one with an unnerving lack of specificity; it’s related to the events of It (which occur right around this time period) and Jake’s plan to prevent mass-murder, but there’s something else dark brewing that is, cleverly, never fully explicated. Some of the plot points at this stage of the book are a little questionable (why exactly the mysterious stranger who stalks Jake decides to lay out his life story in detail isn’t satisfactorily explained), but it’s a great read nonetheless, simultaneously carrying a page-turning momentum alongside that sense of dread.
If things stopped there, if Stephen King was content to take his own advice and “keep it simple,” the novel would be perfectly fine. But the story of a time-travelling English teacher who saves a family from tragedy despite the machinations of an obdurate past is apparently a little too simple. The time travel story expands its scope to the titular date of 22nd November 1963: the date of JFK’s assassination. The remaining five-hundred-ish pages branch out into two additional stories within the time travel framework. In one, Jake/George observes and scrutinises the day-to-day life of one Lee Harvey Oswald, determined to ensure that he is indeed responsible for Kennedy’s death and then – assuming the history books are right about Oswald – prevent Kennedy’s assassination. The second story serves to flesh out Jake’s character with a supporting cast as he teaches at a local school and falls in love with a clumsy librarian named Sadie.
Sadly, neither of these stories is as interesting as the time travel narrative, and each have flaws at their centre. The spy-vs-Oswald plot is simply not an interesting story. It has a lot of potential to be one, and kept my interest for a long time based on that potential. However, its conclusion is exceptionally unexciting. The storyline keeps hitting the same beats over and over again, with Jake moving around the country to follow Oswald, often bugging his residence and listening in to tedious conversations. I was expecting some sort of twist – perhaps Jake accidentally becomes acquainted with Oswald, or Oswald’s wife? – but instead the same banal story cycles through barely distinguishable events again and again. It’s an inherently passive storyline, and passivity here equates to boredom.
The second story, where “George Amberson” is alternately embraced and/or viewed with suspicion by the local school community, is less problematic. It initially seems like a clichéd inspirational teacher bit, with Mr Amberson fostering the dormant thespian talents of a young football star and winning the heart of the shy young librarian. Thankfully King inserts some twists into the tale: a car accident here, a nefarious ex-husband there, not to mention people questioning Mr Amberson’s peculiar turns of phrase and habits. The flaw in this story is less obvious than the stalking of Lee Harvey Oswald: Stephen King is simply too enamoured with the America of the early 1960s.
This becomes achingly apparent whenever he tries to highlight the flaws of the past. King means well when he alludes to the racism of the era … but there’s not one significant minority character to be found in the book. He tries to indicate sympathy for outcasts, or show how a small town can be insular and prejudicial … but all the students mentioned in the book are football stars or prom queens, and he can’t help but include a groan-worthy sequence where the town comes together to support a young girl in need. King tries desperately to give the past a sense of dirty reality, but too often it comes across like a Frank Capra film.
The last few chapters of 11.22.63 redeem many of these problems by triumphantly returning to the time travel plot. The last few chapters feel dense – unlike many of the middle chapters with drag with unnecessary detail – though they also come across a little rushed due to the sheer amount of plot and explanation required. Ultimately 11.22.63 is a decent book that needed King to take his own advice and keep things simple. As it is, too much of the book is only of interest to Kennedy obsessives or people with an unhealthy level of ‘50s nostalgia.