I have complained in the past that Stephen King never uses one word if he can use forty pages of digression, but 11/22/63 still takes the biscuit. Ostensibly a novel about travelling back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination, it’s instead a novel about travelling back in time to wallow in nostalgia about small town life in the late fifties. The assassination-thwarting - and the time paradoxes which then threaten to unravel well, everything, ever, take up about the last fifty pages of the book. Which would have been fine if the book had been some kind of sane length like John Varley’ Millennium, but this is Stephen King we’re talking about, so there’s some 800 pages in front of that all about anything BUT thwarting the assassination.
I’d been sitting on the book for ages; I bought my copy - I think - in the Hidden City Sainsbury’s because it was cheap, and then it got put on hold because there was always something more inviting which wasn’t going to take so long to get through. I started reading it this year. I got through the first part, which is about 100 pages of set up for the time travel mechanism and its inevitable rules, and I could see that the second part was going to be some kind of small town schmaltz-o-drama that I wasn’t in the mood for, so I put the book to one side for a couple of months.
But here’s the thing; when I picked it up again, I could pick up from where I’d left off. King’s like that; you’re not feeling impressed by the writing, but it sticks with you; you remember his people and their predicaments. So I started back in. A couple of dozen pages every couple of days, dipping in on my lunch breaks; the book sat there like a big doorstop for months in my office, in among the books of rules and the computer manuals. I never really felt like rushing to the end, but I kept plodding on. And last week I finally finished it.
I don’t think it really works. Of course, that depends on what you think King thought he was trying to do. If he was trying to write a book about the past, with some strong relatable characters in it; well it probably works. If he was trying to write a book about the Kennedy assassination - no, it completely fails. It feels like an afterthought, for all that it’s the title of the book and supposed driver of the whole operation. If he was trying to write a book about time travel - no. A book about living in the past is not a book about time travel. If he was trying to write a book about a man who has to choose between the woman he loves and destroying the whole world; well; he aces the whole love story bit, but there’s not enough time given to the choice, and the crisis falls completely flat. Also, the destruction of the whole world includes, you know, everything, including you and the woman you love, so it’s not even a choice.
Better time travel books you can read for fun and profit:
Millennium by John Varley; even Varley’s worst book is better than most people’s best efforts, but it is his worst book, an expansion for screen play purposes of a tight little short story called Air Raid. Also, it’s less than 200 pages and has about five times as many ideas in it as all of 11/22/63
Any of Connie Willis’ time travel books, but obviously Doomsday Book
Time and Again by Jack Finney, which would probably be the best time travel book ever if it weren’t for, well Connie Willis.
Better Kennedy assassination books? Well, I’m reading a terrible one right now. Watch this space.