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Bookends Don’t Try and Change the Past June 3, 2013

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends Don’t Try and Change the Past

King 11:22:63

By Dan Davidson

December 26, 2012

 

11/22/63

by Stephen King

Scribner

849 pages

$39.99

 

Some generational markers are fixed at specific ages. I neither know nor really care to mark the death dates of Elvis (embarrassing way to go) or John Lennon (a tragedy). However, I was 12 years old when Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy. I learned about it while riding home from school on my bicycle, having stopped to talk to someone at the foot of the cenotaph commemorating William Hall, the first Afro-Canadian to win the Victoria Cross. It was located just down the street from the house where I grew up.

That’s the one that sticks in my memory, that other dates tend to pivot around. The other historical event with the same impact for me is 9/11. Stephen King’s a few years ahead of me in the queue, but he’s more driven to write than I am, and while I was still in college he made his first attempt at writing this book with the unwieldy title back in 1972.

Like Under the Dome, his previous doorstop of a novel, he gave this one up after a couple of attempts, seeing it as too big for the writer he was at the time. The afterword to the book suggests the delay in getting back to it was partly a matter of research and time. He was still a high school English teacher at that point in his life. He credits a friend named Russ Dorr with providing the research for both Dome and this book. The first task would have been technical in nature. This one involved historical research.

Jake Epping is a 35 year old English teacher with a failed marriage behind him when his friend Al, who owns a local diner and sells the best and cheapest burgers anywhere (there’s a trick to that), introduces him to the time tunnel at the bottom of the pantry stairs in the diner. Al is dying. A few days ago he spent four years in the past, beginning in 1958, and developed cancer while he was back there. His obsession is about changing history and he is determined that the world might have turned out a lot better if JFK had not been killed on that November Day in 1963.

Al has researched the event to the last detail and is convinced that it was Oswald alone who did the deed. Stop him and a whole succession of other dominoes fall differently, including the deaths of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and the American adventure in Viet Nam. He can’t do the deed, because he won’t live that long, so he wants Jake to do it.

The trick to the wormhole in the basement is that you always exit on the same day in 1958, and when you come back again it’s always two minutes after you left.  No other explanation is given: no time machine, no complex pseudo-physics. As we get nearer to the end of the book it develops that another trope of time travel, the time patrol police, does exist, but the task is rather hard on the agents and they tend to go crazy.

Jake takes on the quest and establishes himself in 1958 under the name George Amberson (referencing a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Booth Tarkington). On his first trip, just to test the waters, he tries to change the life of one of his adult education students, whose family was murdered before his eyes by his father in 1958. This marks King’s return to the town of Derry, where we meet a couple of charming characters from the novel IT, who have just had their first successful confrontation with the Lovecraftian monster that masquerades as Pennywise the clown.

Having established that the trick works, Jake goes downtime again and begins the process of integrating himself into the world of the late 1950s and early 1960s, putting himself into a position to stalk and stop Oswald. This is the thriller meat of the story and, no surprise, time exacts a bit of revenge when you try to fiddle with it, especially when you try to make big changes.

The Oswald strand is not, to my mind, what the novel is really about, however. 11/22/63 is a love story, plain and simple. Jake meets and falls in love with Sadie Dunhill, who is in hiding from her ex-spouse and recovering from a disastrous marriage. The relationship is not without its ups and downs and this part of the story was of more interest to me than the other part, but the two strands do play off each other well.

As with every novel since his hit and run accident, King’s narrator suffers considerable physical distress as a result of his quest and recovers only just in time to carry out his plan, which works, but at great cost to both Jake and the world, for it turns out that the universe will overcompensate if you try to mess with it on too grand a scale. The 2011 that Jake returns to is not one you or I would wish to live in.

Fortunately there is a sort of reset button option. Every time you go from now to 1958, everything you did last time is nullified. A time patrol agent suggests to Jake that this isn’t exactly what happens, that instead you begin a different time line option with the same starting point. You remember all of the ones that you were personally involved in, which is confusing enough, but the time agents remember all of them, which is why they go bonkers after a few overlapping years in service.

Time travel is, of course, one of the oldest of science-fiction sub-genres, beginning with H.G. Wells and moving on through nearly every major SF writer. The late Jack Finney, who is perhaps best known for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (filmed several times now) came up with a blend of time travel and historical fiction in his novel Time and Again and its sequel From Time to Time. King freely admits to borrowing the notion of blending the two types of story from Finney. I also see touches of Fritz Leiber (the Time War stories, particularly “Try and Change the Past”) and both Andre Norton and Poul Anderson, who wrote some good time patrol stories. Movies such as Timecop (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and The One (with Jet Li) have played with similar ideas, but with more bluster and less feeling.

 

-30-

 

 

 

 

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