Ask anyone where they were on November 22, 1963, and I’m sure they can tell you. To date, I have you to meet anyone who was alive that day who didn’t know exactly where they were and what they were doing. The only similar experiences I can draw upon from my own lifetime were the death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997 and the horrible sequence of events that ended in the tragedy of September 11, 2011. I feel the second of these is far more akin to the assassination of President Kennedy: horrible tragedy, worldwide effects, and, sadly, a hotbed of conspiracy theories.
In Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63, King takes hold of Occam’s Razor: pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate (plurarity should not be posited without necessity). The burden of proof is on the quacks; the odds that Oswald acted alone are highly favourable, and yes, the magic bullet is possible, as ridiculous as it may seem at first (and we can thank Oliver Stone for this). I raise this because Oswald is the focus of 11/22/63’s protagonist: he is the man Jake Epping wishes to kill so he can change the future.
Epping is from our time, and he is from my generation: a 30-something teacher in a school in Maine (of course! What King novel wouldn’t be complete without our ever-loved New England state?). He is recruited on a mission that he first believes to be insane and, more importantly, impossible by a local businessman. This man’s business is a diner, and its pantry is a doorway to the late 1950s. Actually, it’s a doorway to a very specific moment in time: 11:58 a.m. on September 9, 1958. And it’s always this time when he walks through it, and every trip only takes two minutes of our own time. This is a key element to the story, and it’s best to remember it; it’s the same world, our world, and anything that might have happened since walking through it is effectively erased. It hits the reset button on the obdurate past (get used to that phrase – it’s used a lot in the book, and to great effect), and the past goes on its regular trajectory. Still, as Epping discovers, the past can change, even if it doesn’t want to. I couldn’t help but think of King’s other Jake: “Go, then. There are other worlds than these.”
The novel varies from King’s other novels in one massive way: the sheer amount of research and background information. The exposition is muted and masterfully crafted, it’s crucial to both the story and its characters. You have to believe in King’s late 1950s and early 1960s, and he does a wonderful job of creating the American past. Yes, admittedly, I never lived then, and my own solid memories only stretch back as far as the early 1980s, but one feels post-World War II America in this story; one breathes its air. King’s other stories set in the past capture his youth (oh, and there’s a wonderful nod to It in the first act, by the way); he relies on his own memories of the past to convey versimilitude, and it’s no surprise that those stories involve children and their interaction with their surroundings. Here, he’s in adult territory, and this is not a world he lived in; he was alive at the time, yes, but the adult world carries with it its own trials and tribulations, to use a trite phrase. The impending loss of childhood is a constant theme in King’s books, and while this novel is no exception, it is explored through secondary characters; here we’re looking at a man in a foreign and familiar world.
So what does Epping want to do? He wants to kill Lee Harvey Oswald before he has a chance to commit the most notorious assassination in American history. Simple in premise, difficult in execution. The past abhors change; it seeks to continue along its own trajectory. Yes, Oswald was one man amongst billions, but his act is a watershed moment, one that could, in theory, alter the future forever. Epping, at first, is unsure if he can kill a man in cold blood, a theory that is put to the test twice with the same man early in the book when Epping wonders, and tests, if he can change the past. Does it make sense? Will it cause more harm than good? Can a murder be utilitarian? King asks all of this through Epping. I’m not sure every answer is clear-cut, but then what is when you’re talking about the world?
Time and its effect on people is a constant theme in the novel. Lines in time and reality are blurred, and it’s unsettling. There’s also violence aplenty: slashed throats, bullet-holes, caved-in skulls, fire-bombs. Changing the past is not without consequence, even if it is an attempt rather than the act itself. Characters drift in and out with wonderful and horrible things happening to them throughout, all spiraling around this man out of time. There are also deep elements of terror in the book, beyond the violence. The world Jake travels through, though familiar, is unsettling and horrifying in places (and times). There are few books that have unnerved me as much as this novel; everything seems out of place and off. Perhaps this is because we know what happens in Dealey Plaza, the motorcarde, and the textbook depository, or maybe it’s because we don’t know what would really happen if that moment were to change forever.