Having been sufficiently intrigued by way of a couple of very complimentary Guardian reviews, I’ve just finished my first Stephen King since I read his ‘Gerald’s Game’ in 1992 (I read his ‘Needful Things’ the year before – that was the last one I really enjoyed).
Catching up on his activity in the press, it seems that over the course of the last few years, King has broadened his palate slightly with long, somewhat portentous concept-novels which serve to satirise and philosophise rather more than they need to thrill. 2009’s ‘Under The Dome’ was a vast tract primarily concerned with ecological trauma and authoritarian government, and had its origins in a novel which King started and abandoned in the 1970s. His latest, ‘11.22.63’, interestingly, comes from the same place. In 1971, eight years after the assassination of JFK, King visualised a time-travel novel which saw a ordinary American travel back and battle with an obdurate, stubborn past to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from carrying out his dreadful actions. He wrote Carrie, instead (good move).
Now he has finally written this book, a vast exercise in time-travel sci-fi, late 1950s nostalgia and historical fiction, and it’s hard to believe that, had he written it 41 years ago, it would have been as self-indulgent and plodding as his 2011 effort. By the same token it’s possible, on the evidence of the first couple of hundred pages here, that a fresher King might have produced something rather great, because for all that much of ‘11.22.63’ is saggy, schmaltzy, slow and oddly unrevealing, King’s ingenious talent for plotting often shines through.
The problem’s with this novel are largely King’s. His recent interest in state-of-the-nation writing means that early in the process of structuring this novel, he clearly made the decision to give over at least 50% of the plot of his grand concept to irrelevant riffing – sentimental nostalgia, a horribly dull love story which nearly breaks the middle of the book, and, somewhat misleadingly, a very decent, Maine-based sub-plot which, placed near the beginning of the book reads like a completely superior practice run for the main section.
The start of the book, you see, really is terrific. Pacy, taut, urgent and playful, the arrival of Jake Epping, through a ‘rabbit-hole’ in time, in a sun-kissed 1958 and his subsequent investigations into the obstinacy of reality reads brilliantly. Where the novel falls apart, sadly, is at the point where Epping heads to Dallas to stop Oswald and then decides, er, not to. Not for a few years anyway. Instead he (or rather King) luxuriates in some sentimentalised nostalgia in the fictional town of ‘Jodie’ and gets laid a bit by a hot librarian. He works on a school play. He works on a crime novel.
I shit you not. For a couple of hundred pages in the middle of this huge book, nothing happens – but maddeningly King, now so deep into his plotless sub-plot, seems to forget that nostalgia must evoke, whether directly or through insinuation, the feeling of a bygone age. But once his protagonist heads South, King stops describing things, people and places and instead meanders through the inner thoughts of his rather dull narrator. The long passages describing high school life in 50s America could be transposed onto a classroom in the 1990s or 2000s with the minimum of effort. There are precious few allusions to race or civil rights – King spends more time bemoaning how inconvenient it was having to rent a motel in the 50s to get a shag. (Incidentally, King was 11 in 1958 – I like to think this section of the book is autobiographical and he was already taking librarians to motel rooms on school nights).
As you’d expect, the book picks up pace towards the story’s dénouement, and King is skilled enough to write in such a way as to drive the reader inexorably forward. With good thrillers I often race through paragraphs, only half-reading, so desperate am I to find out the ending. Such activity is quite possible with ‘11.22.63’, because there’s nothing in the paragraphs towards the end. When King eventually gets us to the sniper’s nest, it’s described so casually it might be any room in any building in any decade of the twentieth century. It seems extraordinary that a location so central to the American Story does not elicit more poetry.
The problem isn’t that King can’t write. There are plenty of great moments in this book, but it’s overlong, desperately uneven and curiously lacking in original thought, given that it’s a concept that has been cooking in King’s brain for over 40 years. One can only assume it got overcooked, dried out like a mistimed turkey – which is, of course, exactly what it is.
Shame, because I really wanted to like this. Grab it from the library and read the first couple of hundred pages, if the concept interests you, and stop when Jake heads down to Dallas.
Bit of advice, there.