Friday, 28 June 2013


Note: I read 11.22.63 (note the title wasn't reordered for British audiences, yet they seemed to buy and read the book without undue perplexity) while writing an essay on the literature of the JFK assassination for BBC Radio 4's Open Book programme. It will be broadcast Sunday (30 June) at 4pm, and repeated on Thursday, which coincidentally is the 4th of July. It should be available on IPlayer. I'll also post the essay itself after the programmes have aired.

It's not surprising Stephen King should approach John Kennedy's assassination through time-travel; one of King's recurring themes is a nostalgia for a more innocent America. His use of the time travel device to alter history is not a new one; in fact, at its best 11.22.63 feels like a particularly good Twilight Zone episode, the kind the late Richard Matheson, one of King's heroes, might have written, and indeed it carries some of the same themes as Harlan Ellison's City On The Edge Of Forever from Star Trek. Having said that, inevitably as a JFK killing novel it disappoints.

Jake Epping is a recently divorced school teacher in Maine, who is recruited to time -travel by Al, the dying owner of a local diner, who has discovered a portal back to 1958, and who wants to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK five years later. Since you come back from your journey only minutes older, regardless of how long you've stayed in the past, this is possible—but because he is dying before he's become absolutely sure of Oswald's guilt, Al needs Jake, with no ties to the present, to do the job for him.

The novel is really Jake's story, not Kennedy's, and it's a very good one. I compared it to the Twilight Zone but there is one difference—at 700-plus pages, King's novel lacks the economy of a TV script. Jake's dry runs, trying to alter the history of a local killing, and his romance in the past, are King at his best—his strongest point may be in subjecting human emotions to the relentless twists of fate—and his prose, while occasionally digressive, moves forward. Because this is time travel the reader needs to allow some slack for repetition: form follows function and seeing the same story from slightly different angles reinforces our sense of time as a dimension, if not an entity of its own (which King implies as time itself seems to conspire against Jake making changes in it).

King's style, which includes setting the scene through intensive use of brand-names, references specifics of the everyday to serve as mundane contrast to the horrors he writes about. It was something adopted by the so-called 'dirty realists' in the mainstream, who used the specifics of working-class life in America as a sort of horror trope to contrast with the safety of their middle-class  academic life. I was therefore on the alert for anachronisms in 11.22.63, and spotted only a couple, the most telling being a reference to George Of The Jungle, a Jay Ward cartoon that didn't air until 1967. Being old sometimes has its advantages--but perhaps time itself was just messing with King or me.

Of course, the fabric of time is more fragile than either Jake or Al realise. There is a character whom they encounter as they go through the portal, whom I was convinced was Jake himself, in an ultimate time paradox, but turns out not to be when the final twists of fate are revealed. But King makes much of the butterfly effect, of causality, particularly in relation to JFK—his scenario of the future had Kennedy survived is one of the more fascinating parts of the book.

The Oswald story, however, is not very satisfying. King follows the Warren Report, Gerald Posner, Norman Mailer path, in characterising Oswald as a maladjusted, wife-beating, glory-seeker. That Mailer himself called Posner 'only intermittently reliable' doesn't seem to bother King, and of course, Oswald as part of a conspiracy would complicate his plot beyond measure; Jake could hardly go back in time to stop a multi-shooter assassination.

And King's characterisation of Oswald and Marina serves as an interesting counterpoint to Jake's courtship of Sadie, his fellow schoolteacher in the past. It also provides an explanation, albeit a thin one, of why George DeMohrenschildt and his white-Russian friends in Dallas might have befriended the supposed leftist Oswald—because of his wife, and despite him. Though DeMohrenschild seems to be amused by this version of Oswald, and this hints at a problem.

DeMohrenschildt is the lynch-pin of King's plot—Al tells Jake he needs to determine if George is the man behind Oswald's attempt on the right-wing Gen. Edwin Walker; if he wasn't then Oswald truly is a lone crazed assassin. The problem is, even in King's scenario, DeMohrenschildt seems more involved in that plot than not. And in reality, his apparent suicide just before Gaeton Fonzi was to interview him on behalf of the House Assassinations investigation (the 'suicide Bill O'Reilly claimed to have heard from DeMohrenschild's front porch, which was a neat trick as it was proven O'Reilly was in Flordia at that time) remains as suspicious as Johnny Roselli's dismembered body being found floating in a gas drum in Miami, just before his recall for a second round of testimony before the same committee.

For King, the question seems to be more about Kennedy, and us, than about Oswald. Do we believe that Kennedy's death ended some sort of Camelot, and do we need to believe that death was not a mere random act, by a willful malcontent? In trying to answer those questions through time-travel King actually confuses the issues, because time itself seems to be acting as if it trying to preserve the act we consider random—in other words, it is a kind of predestination-- and the Camelot we may think ended with JFK turns out to be better in many ways than the world he might have left behind had he completed his presidency. That is a paradox which renders King's own scenario of the assassination itself less important than the way time impacts on the lives of his characters, and what they are and are not able to overcome as people. So the final reveal, the wider scope of history, and the ultimate denouement, all feel rushed in relation to what's gone before. The bigger future shouldn't be a shadow of the assassination's becoming a narrower concern, but it's a broader one too. It's ultimately not very satisfying as a look at that assassination, though it makes for an entertaining, if overblown, Twilight Zone time travel story.

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