If you’ve ever looked into the eyes of a morbidly obese woman and thought ‘There’s a beautiful person inside there,’ you’ll know how I felt while reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. At 850 or so pages it’s a great 175 page novella bloated and dragged out beyond all reason.
11/22/63 is a time travel novel; a man from 2011 goes back in time to stop the Kennedy assassination. But his method of time travel - an anomaly in the pantry of a local hamburger joint - isn’t exact, and so he begins his journey in 1958. He has five years to kill until the actual assassination, and because our hero (and narrator) is a pretty good guy, he wants to be sure that Oswald acted alone before offing the weasel.
You’re back in 1958, knowing everything you know from 2011 - what do you do? Even without much time to prepare (for poor narrative reasons) you certainly would be able to get a front row to some interesting history. If you’re the hero (and narrator) of the book you spend most of your time in the past... teaching high school. Yes, huge chunks of the book involve a man from 2011 going back to 1958 and teaching school.
Shockingly these are usually the best parts of the book. Everything with the Kennedy assassination is a wash, but King tells a nice story about a good man with a shady past who falls in love with a fellow teacher in a small Texas town. He just tells it FOREVER. There are hundreds of pages of life as a high school teacher that are sweet but totally narratively slack. This stuff, thrown into a good story, might actually be worth something.
King makes a lot of huge mistakes in 11/22/63, and I think his biggest is the main character. Jake Epping goes back in time and takes on the name George Amberson; either way he’s a complete nobody in any timeline. The character is electron thin, a man without any real traits. He’s a super nice guy who sometimes has to lie because he can’t tell people he’s from the future. That’s about it.
He’s not even obsessed with the Kennedy assassination. This is one of King’s weirdest decisions - Jake/George goes back in time because a guy he knows as an acquaintance is dying and asks his help in changing the past. Basically 11/22/63 is an 800+ page book about a guy spending five years doing nothing while waiting to stop an assassination he doesn’t care about that much.
11/22/63 might have been more interesting if the book played up the culture shock that Jake/George would experience, but King has no real interest in that. Jake shows up in 1958 and more or less fits right in; there’s an interesting story in that as well, one where a man discovers he was meant to have lived 50 years in the past, but that isn’t what 11/22/63 is about. At all.
In fact Jake barely reads like a 21st century person. He is supposedly born in 1976, but he might as well be a contemporary of Kings, with his references and attitudes feeling very, very old. There’s one moment where he slips up in front of people in the past and sings The Rolling Stones’ Honkey Tonk Women - wouldn’t it have made more sense for a 35 year old to be singing something more modern? And wouldn’t a rap song have been a bigger screw up than a Stones song that was written as a throwback to raunchy music that was probably contemporaneous with the books’ setting?
Jake mentions that he misses his cell phone twice in the book. There’s this:
There was Wi-Fi. I got on the net - my heart beating so hard it sent dots flashing across my field of vision - and called up the Dallas Morning News website.
That’s how a grandfather talks about the web, not a 35 year old.
I only use that as an example of the problem at the center of 11/22/63 - King has created a Mary Sue to relive one of his favorite times in history. Sure, Jake/George runs into a “Coloreds Only” bathroom at one point, but otherwise The Land of Ago, as he calls the past, is pretty hunky dory. And Jake has little problem fitting in. Mad Men gives us more insight into what that era means to us today, and it doesn’t have the advantage of featuring a time traveler.
The big enemy in 11/22/63 is time itself; it seems that trying to change the past makes the past push back at you, leading to all sorts of Final Destination-esque sudden accidents. Except instead of decapitating you in a Rube Goldbergian series of events, your car suddenly breaks down. Drama.
11/22/63 is better written than some of King’s recent work - lately he seems to have been leaning on stream of consciousness style, with character inner monologues filled with repetitive rhyming couplets and catchphrases (usually taken from 1970s rock radio or something). But the book’s central sagginess continues in much of the writing, which is often formless and meandering. “That’s not writing,” Truman Capote said of On The Road, “That’s typing.” The same could be said for 11/22/63; King never elides events he can talk about in detail. The book could easily lose 200 pages just with ample use of the phrase “And then a few months passed and nothing much happened.”
Dialogue is also a problem in the book; everyone gives these big info dump speeches. Al, the guy with the time tunnel who gets Jake to go back to 58, spends dozens of paragraphs laying out Kennedy Assassination 101, followed by Time Travel Rules 101. Surely there was a better way to get this stuff across - perhaps by having our hero experience them! Other characters also deliver info dumps; a nurse can’t just tell Jake what he needs to do, she needs to have a three paragraph, colloquialism-filled soliloquy.
11/22/63 is a book badly in need of an editor. A huge chunk of the first third takes place in the town of Derry, from King’s It (and yes, some of the characters and locations do egregious fanwank walk ons), for no particularly good reason. The Derry interlude could have been 30 pages, tops, and still gotten across all of the necessary information. Recently I've been revisiting King's earlier work, and this bloat is not present in his best work. The Dead Zone is half the length of 11/22/63 and twice as engrossing and ten times as gripping.
I don’t particularly like the fan edit phenomenon, but it’s interesting. And it’s interesting to imagine what a fan edit of 11/22/63 would be like; maybe you would remove the dozens of pages where Jake/George spies on the Oswald family and gains no information or real insight. Maybe you would chop the Derry business to a reasonable length. Maybe you would focus more on the nicely drawn romance and less on the Kennedy stuff, which barely seems to interest King, let alone the hero.
There is a good story in here; a story about the tides of destiny and how we swim against them, a story about a man torn between true love and ultimate duty, a story about the tight connection between past and present. But 11/22/63 suffocates any interesting themes or concepts under the weight of endless paragraphs of tedious nonsense. Maybe King can find himself a time tunnel and go back into the past to convince himself that not every single book needs to be a massive tome, that sometimes shorter - and tighter -is sweeter.