Monday, July 23, 2012

11/22/63

There was a short-lived TV show called Journeyman a few years back that dealt often with the impracticality of time travel. The show's hero, played by Rome's Kevin McKidd (my girlfriend Hillary still had a crush on him from his tenure as Lucius Vorenus, which is the chief reason we watched this new show) fell victim to a seemingly random, and decidedly inconvenient, form of temporal displacement--he was always being whisked away into another time zone at the most inopportune moment, and as such was always finding himself without the proper currency of said zone, or the proper clothing, or the proper knowledge of the area's geography, or what have you. There was more to the show, of course--a larger conspiracy involving the mysterious forces that kept sending this poor guy bouncing around through time--but it did spend a lot of each episode showing McKidd's character having to adapt by doing things like accumulating big wads of money from years past in the event that he was suddenly sucked back to 1969 or something. Stephen King's 2011 novel 11/22/63 deals with time travel in a similar way. The book's protagonist can't just hop into a souped-up DeLorean and zoom back to Dealey Plaza just in time to save President Kennedy from Lee Harvey Oswald--he's at the mercy of time travel itself. This means he has to play by the phenomenon's peculiar rules, which include the notion that he can only travel to one particular point in time, then wait around to accomplish his chosen mission to save JFK. Depending on your temperament as a reader, this approach to time travel may be either tedious or fascinating, but that's the game King is playing here. Recently-divorced English teacher Jake Epping is stunned to discover that the owner & proprietor of his favourite diner, who only yesterday was perfectly healthy, is now suddenly in the final stages of lung cancer. Jake learns that Al, the diner owner, discovered an unusual naturally-occurring phenomenon in his pantry years ago: a portal that leads always to the same sunny morning in 1958. For the longest time, Al used this portal--which always returns the user to a mere two minutes after they left their own time--to buy deli meats at 1958 prices (leading to lots of local speculation that the only way he could charge so little for his food was to serve roadkill sandwiches). However, after awhile, Al decided to use the portal for a much nobler purpose: he would make his home in the past for the five years required to locate and kill Lee Harvey Oswald before he could assassinate John F. Kennedy. After all, once the deed was done, he could return to 2011 as though only two minutes had passed, and see the (hopefully positive) changes his heroic act had wrought. Unfortunately, while he was waiting around for that fateful November afternoon, Al contracted lung cancer, and no choice but to return to 2011 and pass his mission on to someone else. Which is where Jake Epping comes in. After a few test runs, where we learn some other rules of time travel (for example, each new trip through the portal is a hard reset, undoing the work of any previous jaunts), Jake is ready. Armed with a nest egg of 1958 money and a sports almanacs with which he can place winning bets on any number of World Series and Superbowls to accumulate further funds (shades of Back To The Future II here), Jake kisses 2011 goodbye and sets up shop in the past. Along the way, he undertakes a few other altruistic missions of personal significance, which brings him to the town of Derry only a few years after the in-flashback events of King's 1986 novel It (and allows for a welcome cameo by the now-teenaged Beverly Marsh and Richie Tozier). As he closes in on Oswald, trying to determine if he really was the lone gunman in Dallas that day, Jake resumes teaching, falls in love with a school librarian, and draws the ire of a vengeful bookie who can't help wondering why this mysterious stranger always bets so successfully on such long shots. 11/22/63 isn't a horror novel, as you may have guessed by now. It falls into a more unique category of suspense ringed with science fiction. The SF angle merely provides the What If? scenario, while the suspense comes from wondering how Jake will actually survive long enough in the past to achieve his objective (since he narrates in his own tale, the odds are pretty good). The past, it seems, doesn't want to be changed, and keeps throwing obstacles in Jake's way. There's also the possibility that if Jake does succeed, the world of the future may actually be changed for the worse by his actions. And there's the larger question of what effect all this tinkering is having on the fragile tissue of the space-time continuum. At nearly 900 pages, readers will have lots of chances to discover for themselves if King's approach to time travel is their cup of tea--like Jake, the reader may start to feel like years really are going by. Jake is problematic as well. He's little more than a cipher for the reader in this particular "what would YOU do?" type of problem, and as such, he's not particularly interesting. But his predicament is, and as November 22, 1963 got closer, I found myself turning the pages faster and faster. Time flies when you're having fun, I suppose. 

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