One odd bit of Star Trek lore that I didn’t know about until I read one of William Shatner’s Star Trek Memories books is that, during the 1980s when the Trek movie series was in “another sequel every two years” mode, Gene Roddenberry had a pet idea that he kept trying to get Paramount to adopt for whatever the next movie happened to be. This notion had the Klingons taking over the galaxy by going back in time to Earth in 1963, and preventing President Kennedy’s assassination. In order to fix things, Kirk and company have to go back as well and make sure that JFK dies like he’s supposed to; according to this site, Spock himself is the shooter behind the grassy knoll. I’m not sure how that would have gone over – frankly, it sounds a bit dour and depressing. That worked in the episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”, when Kirk had to stand by and allow a woman with whom he’d fallen in love to die in order to preserve history, but this story, if what Roddenberry truly had in mind, somehow crosses a line. Maybe it’s by having Spock actually kill JFK. I’m glad that movie never got made.
There’s always been something compelling about the JFK assassination to alternate history types and time-travel writers. I think there’s a definite sense to JFK’s murder as one of those singular events in history that neatly separates what came before it from what came after, and as with all such moments, there’s a definite feeling that if the event could be changed, what came after would change, too – mainly for the better, I think the argument goes. Certainly the general opinion seems to hold that had JFK not died in Dallas, but gone on to reelection and a second term, the 1960s might not have been as turbulent as they turned out, with Vietnam possibly not escalating as it did, with civil rights possibly having an easier road to passage, and so on. Obviously there is no way to evaluate such beliefs, but the closest we’re able to come to doing so lies in the power of fiction.
(I wonder if 9-11-01 is going to replace the JFK assassination in the public mind as the most recent ‘focal point in time’. After all, the events of 11-22-1963 happened almost 50 years ago, well before the lifetimes of most Americans living today. I wonder if there will be time travel stories involving time travelers showing up at Logan Airport to prevent the boarding of Mohammad Atta and friends….)
This brings me to Stephen King’s latest novel, 11-22-63. This is a time-travel story, in which a man from our time travels back with the intention of preventing the Kennedy assassination.
Jake Epping is a teacher whose marriage has just ended and who is apparently emotionally damaged in some way: he tells us up front that he simply does not cry, no matter what happens. Jake never cries, he tells us (the book is in first person, from Jake’s point-of-view), and he is haunted by the various injustices of history, such as the janitor who takes his adult education course and whose term essay smacks Jake between the eyes with a first sentence that refers to when the janitor’s dad ‘murdirt my mother and two brothers and hurt me bad’. This haunts Jake, and it’s all he can think of – even as his friend Al, who owns the local diner and who is going to die very soon of cancer, tells him of his own little secret.
In the basement of the diner is a gateway through time. Walk through it, and you emerge outside a factory in Lisbon Falls, Maine, on September 9, 1958. Walk back through, and you’re back in 2011 – exactly two minutes later than when you left. And if you go back in time again, no matter how long you’ve waited to do so, you go back to that exact same moment on September 9, 1958 – which means that any changes you have made to the past are now reset.
This limiting of the time travel possibilities is one of the masterstrokes of King’s novel. There’s no ‘setting a date and then hitting 88 mph’, no ‘slingshotting your starship around the sun’. You can only go back in time to a single place, to a single time, and you can only return to a single place, to a single time. And if you are ambitious enough – as Jake soon will be – to try and change history, if you want your changes to be permanent, you can never go back again. And if, like Jake, you decide that you’re going to try and keep JFK from being killed, that means that you can go back…and then you have to spend five years living there in the past until that fateful day. November 22, 1963.
King seems less interested in the various paradoxes of time travel stories, many of which have become clichees, than he seems to be in history as a force in itself. As he makes his life in the past, Jake – now going by the alias ‘George Amberson’ – frequently discovers ways that the past seems to be trying to right itself even as he messes with things. “The past harmonizes”, he tells us, again and again, and as the book goes on, the level of uncertainty involved in Jake’s self-appointed mission grows and grows and grows. Jake has to try and figure out if Lee Harvey Oswald was part of some kind of conspiracy, or if he acted alone; he has to try and decide if he should intercede earlier or later. He takes a ‘dry run’ early on, interceding on his janitor friend’s behalf when his father shows up to kill his family, and in such ways Jake discovers things about killing – even justified killing – that are troubling.
This is not a scary novel, but it is a haunting one. King masterfully keeps us aware of the onward march of time, so that the date of the title never really fades from memory, even as Jake is living out the five years he has to live out in the past, making a life for himself in a small town in Texas where he makes friends with local teachers and, in the ultimate complication, falls in love. Still, through all this there is a constant sense of growing doom, the constant ticking of King’s time bomb growing ever more and more insistent. Will he stop Oswald? If so, how? And will it matter in the end?
The time travel aspects of the story are, initially, pretty benign in nature, and we learn that Al is using the time portal to buy ground beef at 1958 prices, which enables him to sell his burgers in his diner for significantly cheaper than anyone else can manage. Jake discovers, though, that the past has ways of resisting change, and although King never really spells out much of the mechanism behind that sort of thing, it soon becomes clear that the bigger the change one is trying to make in history, the harsher the resistance one will meet.
11/22/63 is a thrilling King page-turner, loaded with emotional resonance, King’s keen eye for detail, and a bittersweet ending that is satisfying but not in an expected way. Parts of the book read as if Stephen King had written a mash-up of Back to the Future and Oliver Stone’s JFK. In other parts, though, the feel is pure King – especially in one section, taking place in Derry, Maine, where events bring Jake Epping into contact with two of the kids from IT. King is best at suggesting dark forces at work that we cannot understand – or perhaps I should say, forces that we cannot understand whose goals and priorities do not align with ours. Is history something we influence, or is it a force all to its own? 11/22/63 explores that question, even if it may not have a definitive answer.
(One final note: Throughout the book, Jake notes that ‘the past harmonizes’ – which means, history has a way of making things even out, of settling the books. A lot of times, what we call coincidence is this ‘harmonizing of the past’. Well, maybe fiction harmonizes, too; there’s a point in the book that actually features a pie fight. I read that just a day or two before my own pieing last week. How’s that for synchronicity!)