Thursday, December 22, 2011

11.22.63 by Stephen King

"The past is obdurate" says Jake Epping (aka George Amberson) repeatedly in Stephen King's 750 page time travel novel. Its a phrase that could apply to writers, when faced with "watershed" moments in history, such as the JFK assassination. The big subject requires the big book, as Elroy's "American Tabloid", Mailer's "Oswald's Tale" and now this make clear. King takes a literal approach to this literary time travel, and Epping, following the prompts of a dying man who has been doing this for years as it is, pops down the "rabbit hole" into a particular space and time in the past. This simple device gives a structure to the otherwise torturous business that writers have when negotiating time travel. King, though always aware of the paradoxes about time travel, doesn't want to write a SF novel as such. He's also not that interested in highlighting those differences between then and now, though highlight them he does. For though Epping has stepped back before he was born, the smalltown America of 1950s America (1958 in fact) has always been a touchstone for King. You could argue that most of his early novels were sat in a pretty unchanging version of this landscape. There's not a single McDonalds or other chain restaurant, the cars are like those lined up like the Boston Aquarium in Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" and people habitually leave their back doors open or trust a written reference from an unknown college. But there's also segregated toilets, and even the smalltown people of Jodie, near Dallas, where Epping makes his home, think a woman's place in the home even when she's being beaten up by her husband. There's almost as much violence against women in the novel as in a James Elroy, but in Epping/Amberson King has a defending angel who has come back to stop it happening. He has also come to stop that other wifebeater Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK, but that's another story.

Though we begin in the present, and there's an obligatory 9/11 reference or two, King's world is not the one we currently inhabit. The distance from here to the 1970s when he first was published is a longer one than between then and 1958 after all, albeit with the sixties revolution in the middle. Going back in the past Epping becomes Amberson, a name taken from a gravestone, and - importantly - given that he is going back to finish another mans task (the dying Al), he has his own quest, to right the wrong that happened to one of his students. The sense of dread, that he so often turned into a physical supernatural horror in his earlier novels, is here from the start, but the horror is a human one - albeit, because it is a past event that the narrator already knows about, one that can be changed. But what is the consequence?

Structurally the novel is superb, with the chance to repeat the past like a video game offering a second chance if things go wrong. You can stop, pause, start again. The paradox is that you are getting older. Also, as George Amberson begins to live a life in the past, he begins to see that it is not immune to his presence. How do you write about such a vast subject as the Kennedy assassination? King is not a political writer, and the journey to Dallas is a long one, punctuated by more typical King fare. Jake Epping was a good schoolteacher and George Amberson becomes one. That he can also face the dark challenge of murdering another man, even to save lives, is a sign of his own moral complexity. Even though he knows the big things that are going to happen, he doesn't know the things that will take place in his own new life, and he creates one with the lovely Sadie. As Amberson is our narrator we're able to take on board his uncertainties as he weighs up his own happiness against the reason he is there, to "stop Oswald." But before he does so he has to be sure the conspiracy theorists were wrong, and that Oswald was a lone shooter.

There are contrivances here, but in many ways, the book's strength is its willingness to address them. All King's storytelling skills are here, and the long preambles in earlier books before the horror shows itself, are reflected here. For the horror is here a very human one. That if we know what is going to happen then our attempts to change it will bring consequences. In this alternative past that Amberson is creating, things keep repeating or stopping his progress, as if it is a dream he is living through. King, the arch chronicler of smalltown dread, manages to turn the whole of 50s America into a series of smalltowns. He reimagines Oswald's tale as primarily a family saga. The political conspiracy you get in Elroy is hardly hinted at. In all of America Amberson can't use his foreknowledge to put a bet on without coming into contact with the same Mafia-connected group of bookmakers. But isn't this always the way? Even as we change our lives - our location - our name - we then recreate what we have before. Sometimes better, sometimes worse.

The weakest part of the book is when Amberson begins to reconaissance Oswald. After all he is not an all-seeing-narrator and he has with him only those tools that you can buy from an electronics shop in 1958. Though one applauds King's ingenuity, Oswald and his family seen from afar seem almost invisible, and, of course, there is no motive. But again, these scenes are to set-the-scene, rather than anything deeper. Amberson's motive for getting rid of Oswald is as much about him being a wifebeater as him killing the President.

As you'd expect from King, there is plenty of action, but the length of the novel provides many other pleasures. King's 1958 is meticulous, and his narrator is a winning, if sometimes emotionally distant, guide through those years. There is more than getting up close to history in the book, rather, King has used the device to talk to us about the fundamentals in our life - the chance moment that means you get caught by a stray bullet, or meet the woman you love. The novel could be called "chance and consequence" for the latter is never far away - every action, after all,creating another reaction.

Though there's nothing in the novel strikingly original - the time travel motif is well worn; the Kennedy assination more so - King has crafted a remarkably compelling novel about the 20th century, which as we begin to see the chance and consequence of the 21st, gives us pause for thought - as well as a superb read.

1 comment:

Nick said...

I like the review. I agree with the part about the surveillance of Oswald being the weakest part, and yet I find it hard to call it weak (this whole book AMAZED me). King's message is a powerful one, that's for sure.