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Thursday, January 19, 2012

11/22/63: Time Travel Done Right

Sure, Stephen King's 11/22/63 is first and foremost a time-travel novel. Jake Epping, mid-30s divorcee, steps through a wormhole to 1958, and endeavors, at the behest of his dying friend Al, to stop the Kennedy assassination. But this is also a thriller of the highest order, a love story that might wring tears from even the most emotionless jerk, and a glance back to and an examination of American culture in the early '60s.

And it's all friggin' awesome!

This is the first book I've finished in 2012, but it's going to take a lot to knock it from its pedestal as a favorite of the year. Yes, it's that good.

(One second...I'm trying to get this gush under control.)

Okay. So what does Jake do in the intervening five years between when he steps out of the wormhole on a sunny, warm September day in 1958 and the late-November day that changed the world? To me, that's the most interesting part — Jake basically gets a second chance at life, just as he's hoping to provide a second chance for the last half of the 20th century not to be so horrible. (Working theory: If Jake can prevent the Kennedy assassination, by extension, it'll also prevent MLK's death, the Vietnam War, and the bring about a quicker end to the Cold War.) He goes to Texas and teaches English, and tries to shadow Lee Harvey Oswald to find out if he's really the sole shooter or not. Will history be changed as Jake and his buddy Al expect, if Jake is successful? That's the question that hangs over the novel, and gives it a huge sense of page-turning immediacy.

There is a definitive answer, and it's part of what makes this novel a huge success: A carefully crafted, wonderfully insightful ending. It's such a departure for King, who has a tendency to head off the reservation with crazy ending. (see: Under The Dome) Not so, here. You'll love it, I promise you.

The only negative thing I've heard from readers about this novel (other than that King has sold out because there are no monsters or killer clowns, criticism which is absurd to me.) is that King takes his time getting to the Kennedy part. Jake spends the first half of the novel trying to prevent a murder of one of his present-day GED students (a janitor at his high school).

Yes, on the surface, this is a bit of detour to the "meaty" Kennedy parts. But I loved this back story because it gives the reader a chance to really understand how King's time-travel "universe" works. Often, the success or failure of a novel is dependent upon how well it follows its own rules. And with time-travel, that's always tricky. And it can be boring, if the author takes up several chapters continuously discussing and reviewing the rules. But King nails it — he assumes the reader knows the basic "rules" of time-travel and only slightly tweaks those for his own purposes. And so the novel just sings right along.

It's really superb. I can't recommend it more highly. Five stars.

(Finally, if you're interested in a comparison of my two favorite time travel novels of all time — now that this one has taken one of those spots — check out my post on Book Riot today.) 

35 comments:

  1. I've only ever read two King books, and those were ages ago. I think I might read this soon. It sounds great! I could see getting frustrated that it takes so long to get to the main part of the story, but like you said if it follows its own rules and if that part is done well, it can be really good too.

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    1. Great review,Greg! I enjoyed the back story elements as well and thought the build-up to the climax was made more intense by having that in there.

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    2. Yeah, the backstory was really great for getting to know Jake, too - it's really his story, and about how time travel gives him a chance not just to reinvent the future, but also to reinvent his own life. I loved him as a character!

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  2. Yes I love this review, gushing and all! And more people need to read this so we can all talk about it. I like seeing King do a story that isn't his usual, although the writing you can still tell is all him.

    I loved King's way of setting up the rules of time travel through Harry's story. And besides, that shows you the type of stuff Jake is going to have to deal with when you get to the main Oswald story, without bogging you down with the details then. I'd hate for that part to be interrupted while Jake learns about what money to use, clothes to wear, how the past does not like to be changed, etc.

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    1. I think his writing in this one was my favorite of any his writing I've ever read - short story, non-fiction, etc. He's cut way down on the Moments of Cheesy Cliche here, and it's often clever and funny.

      Right - there's the practical aspects, but also (and I didn't want to say too much about this in the review) the "harmonizing past" and the "obdurate past", but you're right, Harry's family's story is where we learn all about that, so it doesn't so too silly when it happens in the Kennedy story, too.

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  3. I am rather picky about reading Stephen King novels. I try to stay away from the stuff that gets creepy because he is so good at working on a persons imagination! But this is one that I think that I would definitely enjoy. The whole premise of time travel and the Kennedy assassination is fantastic. I would definitely find myself absorbed in this story.

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    1. It is a very absorbing story, to be sure - especially if you have any interest in history. King takes great pains to jibe with history, and it makes the novel much better for it.

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  4. I can't wait to dive head first into this book. Soon... very soon.

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  5. Ok I read the first paragraph of your review and stopped because I want the rest of the novel to be a surprise. I'll revisit upon completion :)

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    1. Can't wait to hear what you think of it!

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  6. I have been dying to read this for months!!! What a wonderful review! I simply must read this book next!

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  7. You know, I plowed into this book and now, I'm 3/4 through it and I'm finding that the further I read, the less I want it to end... unusual of me with SK... usually I want to rush in and find out what happens next! But with this it's like eating Turkish Delight: too little and you don't get a good enough taste; too much and you feel overwhelmed. So, I've been taking my time with my wonderful copy of this SK book. And I agree with you on all counts of it: 5 stars all the way, Greg!

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    1. Yeah, I also dramatically slowed my pace the nearer the end I got, which, like you, is exactly the opposite to how I normally read King. But just wait until you get to the end - it's genius!

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  8. Brilliant review! Glad you gave King another go after "Dome." I also enjoyed the build-up of the first half of the novel; it helped to see how the time-travel rules worked and the characters develop before the "meat" of the story...

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    1. Thanks, buddy. More so than in any other King novel I can remember (but you're more of an expert on this than me), he actually DID develop three-dimensional characters here. And that really emerged in the first half of the novel.

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  9. I'm a huge SK fan and can't wait to read this. It's preposterous for someone to suggest that he has 'sold out' by not including supernatural elements, his stories 'Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption' and 'The Body' come to mind as some of his brilliant work that does not include them. Just because he doesn't do it that often doesn't mean this is a new departure for him!

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    1. I agree 100 percent - but you can never make anyone happy, right? ;) That said, I'd be perfectly fine if novels like this WERE the new norm for King!

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  10. I fell in love with this book when I read it in November. I think I gushed in my review, which was fairly embarrassing, but I just couldn't help it. Being a new King fan (I've only read 'Salem's Lot and The Colorado Kid up to that point), I was blown away by this and read it so quickly that I couldn't even believe that it was almost 900 pages. I just wish I had chosen to wait until January to read it so it would have been my first book for the project I'm hosting (The Stephen King Project) for 2012. Ah, well.

    I cried at the end. Yes. I did.

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    1. I think King is going to make a lot more new fans like you with this book. It's already a huge hit, but even some avowed King skeptics (or outright King haters) have been convinced to pick this one up.

      In a more unguarded moment than this is, I might admit to an un-dry eye at the end, too. ;)

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  11. I love King. He's the writer I've read the most (12 novels). A lot of people talk shit about him because he's sold in airport alongside Lee Child and James Patterson, but the man can craft a story like a few can. He's not the most impressive stylist, but who cares? When he hits the right notes, he's a dynamo. I'll be sure to check this one out.

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    1. You're right - as my friend JB (who is also a huge King fan) always says, the man just knows how to tell a story. You're right that he's the most elegant stylist, but you know what's crazy? In 11/22/63 there are passage evocative of, wait for it, literary writers like Philip Roth and Jonathan Lethem. Gasp! (I know...)

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  12. I have this one sitting on the coffee table right next to me, and I can't wait to read it. Clearly my enthusiasm isn't misplaced!

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    1. No, your enthusiasm is right on the mark. Hope you enjoy it!

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  13. Wow, I have not been by here in awhile. Sorry. But this just caught my eye. I just finished this one on audio a couple of weeks ago, and I will pledge here and now...in my top ten ever. So so freaking good. Honestly I would not have wanted 800 pages of Lee Harvey Oswald anyway, right? I love the male-ness of his prose, I love how he spins his yarns, and it does not bother me that we only had some small dismembering going on in this book. Uncle Stevie rules.

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    1. Welcome back! :) Top 10 ever, huh? Wow! I need to give it a few more weeks/months/years before I make that decision, but I'd say it definitely has potential for a best ever. It really does.

      Yes, Uncle Stevie does, indeed, rule. I miss him in Entertainment Weekly!

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  14. I'm so curious about this novel! I haven't ever read a King book but I really want to give this one a try!!

    Giselle
    Xpresso Reads

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    1. This would definitely be a good first one!

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  15. I had initially been a little put off because of the sheer heft of this book - given my recent issue with non-completion of perfectly good books - but this review has given me cause for reconsideration. Also the lack of weird clowns and psychotic cars is a plus for me. Thanks for yet another fun and informative review!

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    1. It's hefty, yeah, but it goes by as quickly as a 200-pager. The lack of the supernatural - well, other than time travel - was definitely a plus for me too.

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  16. I'm so glad to hear it's good! I just ordered this for my boyfriend--he's a big King fan. Hopefully he'll write a guest review for me!

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    1. If he's a big King fan, I'm sure he'll love it!

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  17. Ok so now that I'm finished and read your whole review I want to mention that even though the section leading up to the Oswald plot was quite lengthy I truly enjoyed the stories of the people Jake encountered along the way. I didn't mind that King took his time getting to the Oswald's apartment because not only did I get a better understand of his time travel rules like you mentioned, but I felt like the first half really drew me into the story as a whole, making me care about Jake as a character and giving his "project" some real depth and meaning. In my opinion, I don't think the novel would have been nearly as good without the lengthy pre-Oswald sections. (Please excuse me rambling tone, it's been a long day.)

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    1. Agreed on all counts, Brenna - glad you enjoyed the novel as much as I did!

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