The OF Blog: 2012 World Fantasy Award finalist for Best Novel: Stephen King, 11/22/63

Monday, October 29, 2012

2012 World Fantasy Award finalist for Best Novel: Stephen King, 11/22/63

"If I asked you who starred in The Graduate, I'm sure you could tell me.  But if I asked you to tell me who Lee Oswald tried to assassinate only a few months before gunning Kennedy down, you'd go 'Huh?' Because somehow all that stuff has gotten lost."

"Oswald tried to kill someone before Kennedy?"  This was news to me, but most of my knowledge of the Kennedy assassination came form an Oliver Stone movie.  In any case, Al didn't answer.  Al was on a roll.

"Or what about Vietnam?  Johnson was the one who started all the insane escalation.  Kennedy was a cold warrior, no doubt about it, but Johnson took it to the next level.  He had the same my-balls-are-bigger-than-yours complex that Dubya showed off when he stood in front of the cameras and said 'Bring it on.'  Kennedy might have changed his mind.  Johnson and Nixon were incapable of that.  Thanks to them, we lost almost sixty thousand American soldiers in Nam.  The Vietnamese, North and South, lost millions.  Is the butcher's bill that high if Kennedy doesn't die in Dallas?" (Ch. 3)

Time travel stories have long fascinated writers and readers alike.  What if one could go back to _____ and change what happened?  Would the world be a better place?  Would we even exist as we are now?  What would change and how so?   These alternate histories (alt-histories) have been a staple of American SF for decades now, usually focusing on events such as the failed assassination of Adolf Hitler, the course of the American Civil War, and the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas by Lee Harvey Oswald (or insert your favorite conspiracy theory actor(s) here).  In his 2011 novel, 11/22/63, Stephen King tackles the Kennedy assassination and its antecedents in a sprawling 800-plus page novel that is in turns fascinating and pure dross.

The premise is relatively straightforward:  a mid-30s high school teacher in 2011 Derry (the setting for It), Jake Epping, is being prepped to be sent back in time via an anomaly in a local restaurant pantry.  Relatively uninterested in the Kennedy assassination or even in the social/political affairs of that time, Jake is coached up on the events of Oswald's life leading up to the Kennedy assassination by a local named Al, who for certain reasons is not able himself to make the trip back in time to 1958.  As ends up being the case for much of the novel, King devotes several pages worth of exposition toward laying out the nature of the time travel and the possible dangers involved.  It would not be the last time that he would describe things minutely at some considerable length.

11/22/63's strongest writing occurs in the middle of the novel, as Jake, now going by the pseudonym of George Amberson, has moved to a small Texas town three hours' drive south of Dallas and become a schoolteacher of this era.  Although Jake/George is rather sketchy for a character (there is virtually no development in his personality or character outside of strict plot demands), the small-town school life that King describes here is very vivid and life-like.  The budding romance between Jake/George and a soon-to-be-divorced young librarian, Sadie, is treated at some length and at times is interesting.

But even here, the excellent moments and scenes are swamped by pages upon pages of extraneous detail.  King has five years to wast...err, develop the events leading up to Jake's attempt to stop Oswald and this necessitated certain subplots, including Sadie's crazed ex-husband, that detract from the overall narrative arc.  By the time the final days leading up to the assassination have arrived, it is hard to tell if 11/22/63's main story is the romance, the stalking of Sadie, or the prelude to assassination itself.  Yet even when the fateful 11/22/63 arrives, the prose is rather bland, in part due to the lack of development of place and atmosphere.  Thus what could have been a suspense-filled moment instead comes across more as a sluggish, turgid affair, mostly devoid of narrative tension and intrigue.  In addition, the events that transpire after Jake's intervention feels half-baked and ill-conceived, as there is nothing in the events leading up to the assassination attempt that indicate the dangers of Jake's act to change history.

11/22/63's component parts could have made for two or three very good-to-excellent 300 page novels.  Yet when viewed as a whole, its narrative focus meanders too much, the characterizations are uneven, and ultimately the story is devoid of true value as a literary work.  It is doubtful that a re-reading would accentuate the book's positive; the negatives, however, might be even clearer after a second reading.  Out of the five novel finalists for the 2012 World Fantasy Award, it perhaps is one of the two weakest in what appears to be a rather mediocre year for eligible novels.

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