Imagine that time travel is not a network of highways, going anywhere you desire, but a tunnel between two specific spots. No matter how many times you take the tunnel, you’ll always wind up in October, 1958. Too late to assassinate Hitler. But there might be another way you could change things for the better.
This is the choice that faces Jake Epping in Stephen King’s novel, 11/22/63. Yes, the past is obdurate (a phrase that recurs many times), but he can change it if he tries. What if went back to 1958, got a job, lived quietly for five years, and found a way to save John F. Kennedy from Oswald’s bullet? Might that not create a ripple effect that would also save Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and millions of men who went to Vietnam? Could Jake save the world?
Jenny: I’m going to say immediately that I loved this book. Most of our readers must know that we’re both King fans, but this has got to rate among the top five novels of his I’ve read. One of the things I loved about it was the way he made it exciting and suspenseful, right up to the end, even though you pretty much knew from the start that Jake’s effort had to be doomed — because here we are, and JFK really was assassinated.
Teresa: I agree wholeheartedly that this stands among King’s very best. Right from the start, with Jake’s first attempt to change the past, I was hooked. What impressed me was that despite ostensibly being about JFK’s assassination, King makes you care as much, if not more, about the fate of other characters. Because he returns to 1958, Jake has time to build a life and to come to love the people in it. His students, his colleagues and friends, and his new love matter to him, and to us. I’ve read enough books and seen enough movies about time travel to know that the outcome of his quest is doubtful at best, so I wasn’t sure I wanted him to succeed. I did know, however, that I wanted him and Sadie to be happy and safe.
Jenny: Absolutely. The characters were engaging and believable, from relatively minor ones like the high-school jock-turned-theater-star to Sadie herself. It was so much fun to get to know the whole town of Jodie. And yet I kept wondering: what is this changing in the future? If Mike doesn’t become a football player, will that make something else different? Can you just assume that this is a good thing, just because it seems like a good-hearted action? And naturally, on a smaller scale, that’s the question of the whole book.
Another thing I absolutely loved was watching the past fight back. During the first part of the novel, when Jake is trying to save Harry Dunning’s family, so many things conspire to prevent him from doing so that I was biting my nails to the quick with tension. It was so cleverly done: one twist after another. You’re rooting for him all the way. But then I had to ask myself: what kind of a person perseveres through those odds in order to commit a murder? Because that’s what Jake did, if you boil it down. And once again, that’s one of the ethical questions the book poses.
Teresa: I wondered about all those changes, too. And the ethical question about murder reminds me of The Dead Zone.
Personally, I think I would have gone right back up that rabbit hole the moment I saw that the yellow-card man’s card had turned orange. Jake was relying on the idea that he could reset any changes he made by returning to the present and then going back, but that one small change, which he saw almost at the start, showed it wasn’t that simple and cast an uneasy shadow over everything else that happened. He has every reason to stop, the past is fighting him so hard, but he chooses not to.
Jenny: He saw before he got there that it couldn’t be a perfect reset, because of the way he could bring things back from the past and they’d be there again the next time. Paradoxes and harmonies. He sees what he wants to see, though, because he thinks it’s important to save first Harry, then JFK, then Sadie. But the past has a reason for what it’s doing: he’s not just changing the future, he’s changing himself. You’re right about The Dead Zone. That George/Jake duality made me really nervous.
I really enjoyed the nods to other books in the Stephen King universe. I saw references to It (Jake’s time in Derry takes place right after the events of that book, and Richie and Bevvie are from It), Pet Sematary, Christine, and others. But maybe most of all, I saw lots of references to the world of Roland’s Dark Tower. You know he always says that JFK was the last gunslinger.
Teresa: I am going to have to read It now, aren’t I? Killer clowns and all. And yes, I saw lots of references to the Dark Tower. The mentions of a turtle (which was also an It reference, correct?), and the fact that Jake kept talking about chimes when the past was fighting back made me think of todash chimes. The rabbit hole itself seemed to me like a giant thinny, which made me question whether this is time travel or something else.
What did you think about the JFK and Oswald storyline? I’m surprised at how little the outcome mattered to me. Some of my reaction has to do with my concern about the implications, as I’ve already discussed. However, I also think the book shows how strong the tension is between our desire for the happiness of those around us and the good of the world at large. Setting aside the whole time travel element, Jake’s intent to stop the assassination puts all his relationships at risk. When faced with losing a job he loves and people he cares about, is it worth it?
Jenny: Ha ha! I’ve been wanting you to read It for a long time now. It might be my very favorite of King’s — certainly in the top three. And the Turtle gets mentioned there, too! I wondered about the rabbit-hole being a thinny, too. And I wondered about walk-ins. If time travel creates branches, that would explain a lot (the Takuro Spirit, for instance.)
I agree with you about the strong sense, at times, that Jake’s mission just isn’t worth it. Yet Oswald and Marina are people, too, caught up in events, and their storyline is almost equally compelling. The knowledge that people we care about, like Harry, will be caught in the cogs of Vietnam makes a difference, too. On the whole, I thought the two elements balanced well. And of course, the ending shows us a whole different side of things.
Teresa: I’ve watched enough Dr. Who to know that if Jake succeeded, he might regret it. For example, I’ve heard others suggest that LBJ was able to accomplish more for Civil Rights than Kennedy could have, and King touches on that, among other things.
But then there are the consequences of the time travel itself. All that unease created in the early chapters with the yellow-card man paid off. I was left with some questions about the mechanics of this kind of time travel. I wondered, for example, how Jake would even know about the rabbit hole if Harry had died in Vietnam, when Jake says his friendship with Harry led him to the rabbit hole. Inconsistency in plotting or a sign that reality is cracking? I think it’s the latter — a plot can’t hold together when the past keeps changing, and so the whole reality falls apart. I kept thinking of Doctor Who and the crack in the universe or of beam-quakes in Mid-World.
Jenny: Exactly. Very early in the novel, I asked myself, is this a plot problem or something deliberate, that’s meant to increase suspense? When Jake remembers everything he’s done, is it a cop-out or the uneasy feeling that something is wrong? When you change reality (and who knows? maybe our reality is one that has already been changed!) all bets are off. Ha ha, little betting joke there for those who have read the novel…
Occasionally, King comes up with great ideas that fizzle toward the end, or lack something in the execution. But when he’s hitting on all cylinders, he delivers superb entertainment, and something to think about as well. 11/22/63 is just that: a humdinger of a novel, one that is suspenseful, romantic, mysterious, touching, and often dryly funny as well. King’s worldbuilding is second to none, even when he’s building a world that really (mostly) existed. Lose yourself in it for a few days.