If only we could change some of the things that happened in the past, some of the things we did or did not do, then life would be different / better… If only. Science fiction uses this idea of moving back and forth in the fourth dimension – all it needs is a time machine or some kind of magic entrance or power to enter a future or past world. Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is based on this ‘what if’ idea – what if we could prevent Kennedy’s murder in 1963, then the world would be a so much better place – or would it?
As well as the idea of time travel this also rests on the concept of the ‘butterfly effect’, that is that a small (or large) change in one part of a system can have the effect of a large change later on in that system. The two go hand in hand really, the idea that you move back in time in order to effect a change in the present or the future.
There are other theories of course about alternative worlds, which don’t really rest on this concept of chaos theory (the butterfly effect), rather philosophers have debated theories of knowledge about what we can know independent of experience vs what we can only be known empirically, through experience. This turns around the idea of what is true in every possible world vs what could have been otherwise. I used to like these thought games, theories of truth and knowledge when I did my philosophy degree and Saul Kripke‘s theory of knowledge and possible worlds was what fired us up, a long time ago now.
Of course, 11.22.63 is not about this philosophical theory, it’s fiction that goes wider, however, than science fiction, it’s a conspiracy thriller as well, and also about a man, Jake Epping, who has just been through a divorce and who comes across as a very believable mainstream character who loves teaching and all the gadgets and music and culture of the 50s and 60s. When Al, the owner of Al’s Diner, who is dying from lung cancer, beseeches him to take up the mission he has taken on of preventing the killing of JFK, we as well as Jake are required to suspend our disbelief and accept that by stepping down a couple of steps in Al’s pantry room, closing his eyes, Jake can step into 1958. And we with Jake believe that this is what happens, because Jake is such an ordinary likeable guy, who is for real and surely he would not have made up this story, he is definitely relating what happened to him.
Jake is a school teacher in Maine. who is the only one of his colleagues to frequent Al’s Diner, simply because he likes Al and he likes his food. Al made the discovery of the secret steps to the past by accident and although he has made a couple of visits to 1958 he is unable to complete his mission of preventing Lee Harvey Oswald killing the President because of his cancer and he has had to return to the present (which is only a few minutes away, even though his sojourn in the past has lasted nearly five years thus ageing him terribly in two minutes).
It is a whopping story and as I said, you quite believe this is what actually happens (in the same way you belief any good fiction book!) because Jake is such a believable character. To make it even more believable he actually has a few tries at time travelling, undoing one or two murders, to test the outcomes in the present. He reflects to Al that
‘The only thing I want is a better example of what happens when you change a watershed moment. I need that before I go monkeying with something as big as the Kennedy assassination…‘
When after a few trials of changing events int he past they realise the different outcomes in the present (and not all necessarily in a happy way) Jake then finally takes on the mission you might expect the story could be over and done with in a couple of pages, but of course, there is the snag that we in the present don’t actually know for sure that it was in fact Lee Oswald who killed the president, there have been and still are a number of conspiracy theories that claim it was not Oswald but that there was someone else on that fateful day who in fact pulled the trigger.
This means that Jake, George Amberson in the past, has to establish first of all that Oswald was indeed the killer. This gives the meat around the plot of the story, the opportunity to build in a romance and living in the late 1950s and early 1960s with all that entails; with George being a teacher / writer who is also undercover tracing all Oswald’s moves to find out if he really did kill the president. And he tells us the full story, giving King the opportunity to reflect amongst other things on his own attitude to teaching and writing:
‘In my life as a teacher, I used to hammer away at the idea of simplicity. In both fiction and nonfiction, there’s only one question and one answer. What happened? the reader asks. This is what happened, the writer responds. This…and this…and this,too. Keep it simple. It’s the only sure way home.
So I’ll try, although you must always keep in mind that in Derry, reality is a thin skim of ice over a deep lake of dark water. But still: what happened? This happened. And this. And this, too’ (p.150 – location 2604 on Kindle).
The trouble is that King does not really keep to his own advice (to keep it simple): although I loved the story and the concept and found it all very believable (King does know how to write a good story!) the book was too long. King wants to cram in everything that he knows and loves about the 50s and 60s, every car, the music, the way people behave and dress, the Mob, betting on games that he now knows (in the present time) the outcome of, everything under the sun gets elaborated on. The kids and their stories in George’s / Jake’s class all get their own histories spelled out, dances are elaborated on. All fascinating stuff, but…
When we finally get to page 822 (!) Jake realises that all he has effected has not been for the best (‘the future was on strings. Like a puppet.’) and he needs to go back one more time to undo everything. By then, all I wanted to know was whether or not he managed to do that and how he reconciled his love relationship with Sadie now that he is back in the future.
I won’t tell what does happen during Jake’s / George’s time in the past and what happens ultimately. It is too good a book to spoil the fun. My only criticism is that it is too long and could easily have been cut by a third, if not half. A good editor would surely have made sure of this.