11/22/63, by Stephen King

The first question anybody asks upon finding out that I finished Stephen King’s newest novel is some version of inquiry implying that what they really want to know is whether I would recommend they read it themselves.

Unlike with Unbroken, I could not give it a sweeping recommendation. Nor could I give a sweeping, neon-flashing-lights warning not to read it, as I did with the Twilight series. The best I can do is the same type of qualified recommendation I gave for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (book 2 of which I’m currently reading), although I’m willing to be a little more liberal with 11/22/63. (By the way, I’ve had a few questions about the pronunciation of the title, stemming mostly from what I assume to be people’s ignorance [mine included, at first] of what the title actually references. As far as I’m concerned, you can pronounce it Eleven Twenty-Two Sixty-Three or November 22, 1963 or whatever makes you feel comfortable. It is a reference to a historical date, however, and I prefer the former pronunciation.)

If you’re new to Stephen King, 11/22/63 is possibly both the best and worst book for you to cut your teeth on; best because, as far as I’m concerned, this is his magnum opus and by a large margin his easiest read, even trumping some of his shorter ones, such as Cujo and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon; worst because, when it comes to getting a good feel for King’s narrative style, this book isn’t going to do it for you. If you’ve never read Stephen King before because of a preconceived notion you have about his typically well-known genre, cast aside your assumptions and pick up 11/22/63. If you love it, do not assume, however, that his other books will be so enjoyable (they might be; but in a very different way).

If you are a Stephen King fanatic, you’ve probably already read the book and therefore don’t need a recommendation, but just in case you’re looking for one, my advice is to be careful. I hesitate to say King loyalists will love this book, only because there is very little in it that makes it similar to all he’s done before. Of course, I’m not an expert and certainly haven’t read the King Canon in its entirety, but I’ve read my share and can speak with a fair amount of confident authority on the matter. I’m not saying loyal King readers won’t love it; I’m just saying it probably won’t be for the same reasons they love all his other stuff, unless a principal reason is his demonstration of diverse talent and skill, which this book certainly reveals.

In an attempt to sum up without actually spoiling the plot (sometimes I care about this and sometimes not; this time I apparently do), those who haven’t already figured it out should know that 11/22/63 is the date in history of JFK’s assassination. The premise of King’s novel, therefore, is a basic (ha! or, rather, anything but basic) time-travel scenario in which protagonist Jake Epping uses a portal to travel to a specific day in 1958. He lives from 1958 to 1963 as George Amberson, a (literally) prescient but basically ordinary-seeming high school English teacher. His aim in spending five years in the past (which, in true Narnia style, always amounts to a mere two minutes of passed time in present-day 2011) is to research and prevent the president’s assassination – a mission that Jake/George isn’t even all that passionate about. He has agreed to attempt to finish the job a friend of his started and died trying to accomplish.

What follows is a delightfully page-turning account of his progress in this endeavor, which is chock full of misadventures spanning a wide range of reader interest, such as politics and plenty of historical context for the poli-sci geeks and history buffs; baseball, horse racing, and boxing recaps for the sports lovers; mafia-related action and violence for the thrill seekers; and a good-ol’-fashioned love story for the hopeless romantics.

For those who are looking for a little bit of consistency, 11/22/63 includes all the Kingian elements that make his writing so unique. The book contains a strongly masculine (and sometimes cynical) narrator; a feel of the mystical, that otherworldly yet absurdly realist quality that is King’s trademark specialty; a dry and brilliant wit; references to his other works (most notably It, in this case); and – book-ending the main character’s stint(s) in Dallas – a Maine geographic setting that includes Derry and the Barrens, those memorable landmarks that show up so frequently in King’s work.

On the other hand, despite all these familiar elements, King has also proven that he isn’t too old to try something new, adding experimental pieces that give the book that special punch – like the obviously well-researched historical backdrop, a romance that takes center stage (not something I’ve ever experienced in a King novel or short story), and a plot that never. slows. down (thereby transforming a monstrous tome into an unbelievably quick read).

The end is predictable in some ways yet somehow still fully satisfying. The book as a whole is a testament both to the largeness and the smallness of humanity. On one hand, it makes the point that one person can have a singular and life-changing effect on history and the world just by performing one small act. On the other hand, there is what I would consider to be an even more significant message that it’s ridiculously arrogant and small minded for one person to presume his opinions and puny existence could leave any lasting impression on the world whatsoever. The thread that reconciles this dichotomy is that you never know which case it will be or when. One person in history will change the world forever while another who stands right next to him will be blurred out of the world’s collective memory forever.

The believability of King’s time-travel scenario is downright eerie and is probably the skill that impressed me most in this novel. Of course, as with any novel that pushes boundaries of reality or borders on magical realism, there are inconsistencies and holes in the plot, some of which finally get explained in the end and some of which do not. But then, I’m not positive that any author has ever been able to cover all the holes and gaps in a given plot. If I had been SK’s editor, there are a few more details I would have pushed him to hammer out, but as they say, writing can be finished but never complete… In any case, King has crafted a commendably better and more compelling read than Audrey Niffenegger did with Time Traveler’s Wife (which was ragingly popular a couple years ago), so for that, he is to be, at the very least, applauded.

So are you convinced to pick it up? If so, let me leave you with this caution: I began this book on a night I intended to turn in early. I crawled into bed, bringing the book with me, and said out loud (ask my dog if you don’t believe me), “I’ll only read for five minutes unless the first page can somehow manage to hook me completely.” Famous last words because that’s exactly what the first page did, and I groaned when I reluctantly turned out the light an hour and a half later. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “11/22/63, by Stephen King

  1. This was a superb review (and that isn’t just my recent bout of vomit talking). It was interesting to find both similarities and differences when comparing this to the review I just posted–the main difference being your ability to compare 11/22/63 to other works by SK. I enjoyed your views on the topic (I didn’t catch the *It* reference, for one thing) and think King fans will appreciate the distinction.

    Your statement “The end is predictable in some ways yet somehow still fully satisfying” was *exactly* my conclusion.

    I disagree that you didn’t actually talk about the book. I guess I’d say instead that you talked more about this in context of his canon than the specific plot details, but I get the feeling that ultimately a plot exposition was not the type of review you were going for, so I’m glad you didn’t change anything.

    The *only* thing I’m slightly confused about is your initial statement that you can’t give it a sweeping recommendation. It seemed (to me, at least) that your conclusion was definitely pointing toward reading it, and I can’t see any reason NOT to. But that’s probably because I liked it so much. In any case, I great review, as always. And thanks for the recommendation (as always).

    -A

    • Reese,

      The *It* references are made primarily during the Derry chapters, when he keeps referring to the recent round of murders over the past year and alluding to a guy in a clown suit. He words it in such a way that it sounds like a metaphor so that, if you don’t know what he’s referencing, you just think he’s using the term “guy in a clown suit” to mean someone you would normally trust. But readers familiar with the story of *It* will recognize it as a literal reference to a serial killer in one of Stephen King’s books who dresses up like a clown and kills children.

      Thanks for your compliments, and to clarify your confusion, I would recommend the book to almost anyone, except that, when talking to Stephen King fans, I would give the qualifiers I did in the paragraph where I discuss his departure from his usual style. Glad you liked the review. Even more glad you liked the book too! I intend to keep my reputation as a good recommender intact!

  2. b longfellow

    I thoroughly enjoyed this review, and I think it provides me with lots of context that I can use in various ways. For example, knowing some of the specific content and historical references (baseball, horse-racing, etc.) piques my interest in reading, and the list is so diverse that I should find the read an educational experience as well.

    Additionally, you’ve articulately expressed the aspects and themes of 11/22/63 that make it distinctly a work from Stephen King. Great job with this list. It both piques my interest and sends me back into memories of reading other King novels as I recognize the elements you’ve identified.

    This brings me to the one point of yours I would consider challenging. You seem to suggest King fans may or may not like this based on the idea that it is different from his other works. But in my experience (admittedly, I do not consider myself a fan), I have yet to read a King novel that was just like another one except in the ways you mention, the most notable consistency being what you identify as “a feel of the mystical, that otherworldly yet absurdly realist quality” (perfectly expressed, by the way). When I run through the King list I’ve read in my head (The Green Mile, Eyes of the Dragon, It, Insomnia, The Stand, and Different Seasons, which includes “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” as well as three other novellas), each story contains this element, no matter how grounded or un-grounded in reality the rest of the setting may be. But the plot details and the characters’ unique situations are so starkly different in each King book I’ve read that I’ve long-believed it is unjust to put him within the bounds of a particular genre. He’s a fiction writer, and his narrative creativity is impressive in scope, and (not being a fan) I doubt I will be either surprised by 11/22/63 or less likely to enjoy this most recent work. (Sorry, I didn’t mean my criticism to be the longest paragraph. What a jerk.)

    Your whole review is excellent; it informs readers efficiently and manages to be both broad and detailed at the same time.
    I particularly appreciate the paragraph where you explain the major theme you perceive King to be exploring in 11/22/63, the idea, as you put it, of “both the largeness and the smallness of humanity.” It is an insight into what King has to say about our life in the real world, and one that I may or may not have picked up on when reading the book myself. Knowing this ahead of time, I think, can only enrich my experience when I do get a chance to read this one.

    • LF,

      Thanks for the unexpected comment. Wasn’t expecting you to add your two cents to this one, so that was a treat! I am glad you want to read the book; I am sad that you probably won’t for many months. After all, you said this same thing a year ago, after my *Unbroken *review, and though you’ve purchased it and gifted it, you have yet to read it yourself.

      I think your challenge is a valid one. After all, neither do I consider myself a Stephen King fan. I’ve only read a few (none of which you have read, except *The Green Mile *and a partial reading of *It*). I think your assessment is complimentary to King and that he would appreciate it, but I am also betting that our experiences with King have been different in terms of *when* we each read the tomes we have. For instance, am I right to guess that you did not read all your King books one after another, in a row, each just within a few days of the other? Because that is how I have gotten almost all of my King exposure (*11/22/63* being the notable exception), and I think that is why I make such a caution to King fans because fans, after all, are likely to read them more in succession than an occasional admirer such as yourself. If you read three or four of his books in a row, I daresay you would be more inclined to agree with me than you are now. There are unmistakable nuances (even beyond the ones I listed out in my post) in every King book that can get tiring and old when you’re finishing your sixth book of his in a row. This, of course, is the same reason I got burned out on Mary Higgins Clark after so many years of reading every single book she wrote. There’s a latent formula – perhaps not obvious if you’re doing anything but reading them all one after another – and it’s true of King’s work too, in my opinion.

      Tell me this – if I bought the book (for myself), would you be more likely to move it up on your list? I so badly want to discuss its details with you before I forget them all!

      • b longfellow

        I don’t think your purchase would influence my list except for the fact that the book might be more accessible to me. As of now my fiction reading list is Gone with the Wind and then The Bell. These are non-negotiable, but I think I can easily place 11/22/63 next in line.

        You are certainly right, of course, that I did not go on a Stephen King streak at any time, and my readings have been spread out over several years. You suggest his books have more in common with each other than I realize, which I’m willing to believe, and that this common factor/formula eventually makes them feel stale, or like re-runs (my interpretation of your idea). But I still don’t understand why your recommendation to King fans is a cautious one. I guess I’m not qualified to argue with much credibility until I’ve read 11/22/63 myself.

        • Qualified because this book did not feel stale or like a re-run to me. Because it is so very different from everything else has done that made me feel that way. Therefore, people who are die-hard King readers might not appreciate its severe departure from convention. Then again, they might. Perhaps he has a more intelligent and diverse fan base than I’m giving him credit for and my qualifications are unfair.

  3. Bruce Nuffer

    Nice review. As a long-time King reader, I just started this one today. Nice coincidence to find your review tonight. The only King books I read back to back were the Dark Tower series–my opinion of his magnum opus. And of course those were the same. But I also see a pretty solid division between his early work–titles written before the Hearts in Atlantis/Deolores Claiborne years–and his later work. Cujo, Christine, Salem’s Lot are very different from The Green Mile, Lisey’s Story (his most powerful piece) or Under the Dome. Perhaps it’s just his life stage and skill that I am perceiving.

  4. Bruce Nuffer

    Also, regarding your reference to the Time Travelers Wife–I’m a sucker for time travel stories. I think the most fun one I’ve ever read was from the 70’s or 80’s called Replay. Hard to find these days, and that’s too bad, I found it at the library when i couldn’t buy one.

    • Bruce,

      Thanks for the comment(s)! Maybe it IS a life stage thing, who knows. And I do realize I’m not actually qualified to comment on the magnum opus, considering I haven’t read enough of his canon. I certainly haven’t read the Dark Tower series, though it has been recommended to me a time or two before. Guess I will have to search it out and see how it stands up against 11/22/63. I’ll be interested to hear how you like the latter, by the way! Let me know when you’ve finished!

  5. Keef

    I’ve had a busy few weeks and didn’t have a chance to read this until now. Stephen King is not really my thing; he scared the bejesus out of me when I was younger and I have since boycotted him. If anything had a chance to change that, this review would be the best shot.

    Second best would be the fact that the story is about time travel. I do love me some causality conundrums. The description of the story reminded me of this short-lived TV show that I really loved. It was called Journeyman. I think you can still watch it on Hulu. During one of the story arcs, the protagonist leaves something in the past and accidentally turns his son into a daughter (along with changing a plethora of other things). He begins to accept and love his newly gained daughter and is tormented by the fact that to set things right he must effectively erase his daughter to regain his son. Heavy stuff. It would be interesting to see King’s treatment of time travel, but I think I’ll still stay away.

    I really liked the part at the end about crawling into bed and starting the book. A couple I know had once told me they were having trouble with their eldest son. The mom had caught him sneaking to bed with a flashlight to read past his bedtime. He’s one of the sweetest kids that I know who just devours books. The idea of him getting in trouble for it made me chuckle. You reminded me of him a little bit.

    • Keef,

      I guess it’s cool that I got you to *almost* consider picking up the book. That seems like a good thing, in any case. I never watched Journeyman, but I do remember seeing ads for it when it was on. And yes, I was definitely the child who got in trouble for reading when I was supposed to be doing other things (like sleeping, or schoolwork, or chores, or whatever).

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