Stephen King is not a literary writer. In fact, in literary circles, I am afraid that he may not be considered even a good writer. I am almost certain that he is not going to win the Nobel Prize for literature; even the Booker and Pulitzer also seems unlikely to come to him.
Who cares? Because King is the last of that dying breed: the storyteller. The spirit that moves in him is the same which animated the stone-age shaman as he narrated fascinating, fantastic, bloodcurdling, raunchy and sentimental stories to the group of bug-eyed listeners sitting around the campfire. Thus were myth, art, literature and drama born. This is the root, the fountainhead of everything connected with the human spirit.
“It is the tale, not he who tells it.” – Stephen King
Indeed, the tale is everything…
In 11.22.63, King moves away from his usual area of interest, and produces a time travel story which only he can deliver. This is not the first time he has dabbled in the subject: the concept of changing the past and multiple time-streams are found in The Dark Tower series (albeit in a less earth-shaking manner), and the relativity of time is dealt with to devastating effect in the brilliant short story The Jaunt. But this is the first time King has dealt with time travel itself as the subject of a full-length novel.
Jake Epping, a schoolteacher recovering from the trauma of a divorce from his alcoholic wife, is given a strange commission by his friend Al Templeton, the proprietor of Al’s Diner. There is a hole in the fabric of the space-time continuum in Al’s pantry: stepping through it, one can reach the past at September 9, 1958 – 11:58 in the morning. However much time you spend in the past, when you reach back, exactly 2 minutes would have elapsed in the current continuum.
You can change the past, but each time you go back through “the rabbit hole”, it gets reset to whatever sequence of events is present in the current continuum. And the past is stubborn. It does not like changes, and it will resist them: the more momentous the change, the greater the resistance.
Al has realised that he has found a window into an America where President John F. Kennedy is still alive. With the benefit of hindsight, a determined person could stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing the president. Al is convinced that keeping JFK alive would open up the wondrous vista of a timeline without Vietnam, escalation of cold the war and all the subsequent mess the world has got into. He is so obsessed about it that he takes a trip down the rabbit hole with the sole intention of saving the president. The trouble is, the past doesn’t like to be changed – so in the five years which he has to wait, Al Templeton is struck down with lung cancer, and the awareness sinks in that he may not be able to do the job himself and a deputy would be needed. Which is where Jake Epping steps in.
Initially, the sceptical Jake has his own reasons for going into the past – Harry Dunning, the crippled janitor of his school, whose mother and siblings were killed by his drunken and murderous father. If he can stop this from happening, he can alter Harry’s life forever. His effort proves successful, and once he understands that he can really alter the past, Jake gets caught up in Al’s idea. And Al’s suicide and the realisation that the rabbit hole may disappear at any moment harden his resolution.
However, what Jake didn’t expect was the Sunday punch the past had in store for him.
What I loved most about the book is the way Stephen King avoids the standard time travel clichés and paradoxes, and concentrates on the human aspects – and the nature of evil.
Evil in small-town America is a pet theme of King’s: we have seen it surface again and again, as vampires, rabid dogs, insane murderers and even as clowns. So also are human monsters, sometimes much more frightening than the supernatural ones (Greg Stillson and Frank Dodd of The Dead Zone, Norman Daniels of Rose Madder etc.). Here, Lee Harvey Oswald, wife-abuser and murderer, is such a monster – but King does not concentrate much on him, probably because he has been written about ad nauseum. Instead, the human monsters of this story are Frank Dunning and Johnny Clayton, and they are part of the strangely menacing past which does not want to be changed.
Frank Dunning and his family are residents of Derry, Maine – the same Derry where Pennywise the Clown went on a rampage in It – and as is usual with King’s fictional universe, the stories overlap and Jake makes the acquaintance of two of It’s protagonists, Beverly Marsh and Rich Tozier, in the interlude between the clown’s first visit and the second. Derry is the quintessential creepy town that Stephen King has introduced us to (and taught us to fear) under different names. There is “something wrong, something bad”. Consider the following passage:
Do any of these things bear on the story I am telling? The story of the janitor’s father, and of Lee Harvey Oswald (he of the smirky little I-know-a-secret smile and gray eyes that would never quite meet yours)? I don’t know for sure, but I can tell you one more thing: there was something inside the fallen chimney at the Kitchener Ironworks. I don’t know what and I don’t want to know, but at the mouth of the thing I saw a heap of gnawed bones and a tiny chewed collar with a bell on it. A collar that had surely belonged to some child’s beloved kitten. And from inside the pipe – deep in that oversized bore – something moved and shuffled.
Come in and see, that something seemed to whisper in my head. Never mind all the rest of it, Jake – come in and see. Come in and visit. Time doesn’t matter in here; in here, time just floats away. You know you want to, you know you’re curious. Maybe it’s even another rabbit-hole, another portal.
Maybe it was, but I don’t think so. I think it was Derry in there – everything that was wrong with it, everything that was askew, hiding in that pipe. Hibernating. Letting people believe the bad times were over, waiting for them to relax and forget there ever had been bad times at all.
This fallen chimney is similar the concrete tunnel in the hotel playground in The Shining, where something asks Danny Torrance to come in and play with it “forever forever forever” or the Oatley Tunnel which Jack Sawyer must brave in The Talisman; the frightening yet strangely fascinating maw of a dimension where only timeless evil exists. This is the origin of the Frank Dunnings and the Frank Dodds, from where the canker that affects America seeps out. One almost wonders how many time Steve has gazed at that hole, fighting the temptation to go in, at the same time drawing the stories out.
However, the aim of the author in this novel is not to creep the reader out, even though all the usual elements are there. The aim here is to explore the strands of time, and how the weaving together of the same creates a particular tapestry. If one could change just one strand, the whole picture will change creating an entirely new pattern: totally random and not repeatable, like the patterns created by the glass pieces in a kaleidoscope.
Jake, though he knows in advance what will happen to Harry Dunning and President Kennedy and can theoretically stop it from happening – provided the obstinate past doesn’t stop him first – does not have the same power over other events which he knows nothing about. Every small change he makes has an impact on the past and its inhabitants. This is especially true in the case of Sadie Clayton, whom he has come to love.
The doomed love affair between Jake and Sadie is, in one sense, the central thread of the novel – a love affair that is inseparably entwined with the motif of dancing. A set of moves between partners which is predetermined but created afresh every time on the stage: paralleling a past in which lives keep on intersecting and moving away, creating patterns which are reset every time someone enters the rabbit hole. As the author says on the cover page, “dancing is life”.
It is this celebration of life with a sense of menace in the background – a sense that any time, things can go wrong – that is the highlight of the story: a sense of living in the moment, forgetting the dead past and the unborn future, which is the only protection we puny humans have against the juggernaut of chance. Listen to how Jake describes it:
Here’s home: the smell of the sage and the way the hills flush orange with Indian blanket in the summer. The faint taste of tobacco on Sadie’s tongue and the squeak of the oiled wood floorboards in my homeroom…
…Other things, too. People saying howdy on the street, people giving me a wave from their cars, Al Stevens taking Sadie and me to the table at the back that he had started calling ‘our table’, playing cribbage on Friday afternoons in the teacher’s room with Danny Laverty for a penny a point, arguing with elderly miss Mayer about who gave the better newscast, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, or Walter Cronkite. My street, my shotgun house, getting used to using a typewriter again. Having a best girl and getting S&H Green Stamps with my groceries and real butter on my movie popcorn.
Home is watching the moon rise over the open, sleeping land and having someone you can call to the window, so you can look together. Home is where you dance with others, and dancing is life.
But unfortunately, most human beings cannot live in the moment permanently, least of all Jake, a man with a mission. And the story grows progressively darker as 11.22.63 draws nearer, and the past which does not want to be changed closes in on Jake… and Sadie, because of her association with him. The climax, when it comes, however, is rather tame and predictable: so is the aftermath, as Jake learns that it is better to let time flow its own way and not to try and change its course. We feel that Stephen King has let us down with a thud: until the final part of the novel turns the whole story on its head, tying up all the loose ends (The identity of the Yellow/ Orange/ Green Card Man, the terrifying entity Jimla which terrorises Jake in his dreams) and answering all the questions.
The novel, fittingly, ends with a dance, between lovers who belong to different time streams.
Dancing, indeed, is life.
In conclusion, I would like to quote a conversation between Sadie and Jake, after she has understood that he is from the future.
“Jake? Tell me one good thing about the future.”
“I’ll give you two for the price of one. The cold war is over and the president is a black man.”
Her mouth dropped open. “Are you telling me there’s a Negro in the White House?”
Yes, a lot has happened in fifty short years. Maybe King is right – this particular strand of the time stream that we are cruising on currently is the best of all possible worlds.