Wednesday 3 January 2024

Stephen King's Nostalgic Bloat: 11.22.63

Spoilers below.

Stephen King's 11.22.63 is unnecessarily long. Jake Epping, this novel's Maine everyman drops down a rabbit hole in time that spits him out in September 1958, and under pressure from his dying friend decides to hang around to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John F Kennedy. This would change a few things about the present day to say the least. The problem is in a 734-page novel, we don't get to the thwarted assassination until page 659 and it's 700 before we get back to the future to see the repercussions. King's novel is so bloated it could have wrapped The Hindenburg with some to spare.

This doesn't matter commercially. King could put out a compendium of his shopping lists and it would sell. What editor would ever say no? And the fans are not going to complain. His pacey and seductive prose makes his worlds convincing and relatable. The bulk of the novel takes place in Derry, which happens to be the setting of It (and features a couple of its characters and references sightings of a murderous clown), and Jodie, near Dallas. Both are fictionalised emblems of small town America. Derry is insular, unfriendly, suspicious of outsiders, and is pervaded by an undercurrent of threat. Jodie is the opposite. The people live in each others' pockets and pull together in times of tragedy. Its wholesomeness typifies boomer nostalgia: everyone knew their place, everyone was happy, and everyone was white. And it's here, at length, that Epping lives out his life under an assumed identity. In Derry he changes history by saving a girl from a lifetime in a wheelchair and prevents a family from getting murdered by their estranged father. And in Jodie, he becomes a respected teacher and community pillar. He falls in love and begins a relationship, and finds the time to keep Lee Harvey Oswald under surveillance in Dallas.

The vast majority of 11.22.63 is a mainstream novel of neatly mown lawns interspersed with will-they-won't-they romance, heart-stopping action, stalkerly obsession, and flashes of violence. And despite its length, it doesn't seem like a long book. Crafting page turners is a real talent, and to keep this up when nothing happens is indicative of King's power as a storyteller. But just because he can doesn't mean he should stretch everything to the size of a breeze block. I can't help but suspect that its thickness has something to do with pandering to a kind of reader interpellated by the commercial book trade. Someone who wants a lot of content for their money, and takes the page count as a marker of erudition. In terms of the SF element, it doesn't do anything that a thousand other time travel/alternative histories haven't done before. By the end, Epping is compelled to go back and reset the timeline as the fabric of reality - King's multiverse - is fraying toward disintegration. The problem with paradoxes is explained away via threads of time and the effect of the rabbit hole. Those who use it can remember life before they dabbled in time. Handy.

The most surprising thing about the book is King's projection of how poorly a full JFK presidency might have gone. He surmises that he would have downgraded Vietnam and not committed to Saigon in the way Lyndon B Johnson did. Instead he expends most of his energy and political capital addressing desegregation, but was ultimately successful. After his disappointing second term, he was succeeded by George Wallace - the pro-Jim Crow governor of Alabama - who nuked Hanoi to show who was boss. And from there the world descended into chaos with nuclear weapons lobbed around because presidents and prime ministers got out of the wrong side of bed that morning. Today's pin up for liberal constitutionalism and responsible realpolitik becomes unwittingly responsible for its dissolution. This was a surprising conclusion for a liberal/centre left writer like King to arrive at because the imagined consequences are worse than what LBJ oversaw, while conceding ground to rightist arguments that the pursuit of well-meaning policy paves the progressive roads to hell. I'm sure this was not what King intended to convey.

The book focuses in some detail on Oswald's movements, his abusive relationship with his Marina, his wife, and conveying a sense of his character. At one point it's noted that for all his radical and anti-imperialist rantings, he was much more likely to pick up the works of Zane Grey than of Karl Marx. In the afterword, King says his scrutinising of the evidence leaves him 98-99% convinced that the assassination was the confluence of opportunity and the unstable personality of a Walter Mitty character. He can't completely rule out the possibility of conspiracy, but in King's studied reconstruction through Epping's eyes there are no gaps for one to exist.

King is an entertainer, and there is no doubting his standing as one. He serves up the customary thrills and spills, but one that does not use the opportunity of his SF conceit to offer anything more than a romp through the golden age of Middle America. More's the pity.

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