My review of 11/22/63 (spoilers!!)

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Justin
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My review of 11/22/63 (spoilers!!)

Post by Justin » Thu Jan 23, 2014 5:23 pm

I can not talk about this book without getting into detail about the plot, and so I must say very little
before giving a spoiler warning. The book was entertaining and exhibits nicely King's usual style.
However, some of the plot bogs down in both the historical and the fictional contexts, and the ending,
while bittersweet, is unsatisfying.

7/10

BIG SPOILERS BELOW!


After SK published the "last" book in the Dark Tower series (#7 "The Dark Tower") he announced his
retirement, only to continue publishing at his normal pace soon afterwards. Real writers can't just stop
like that. But I do think that the Dark Tower took something out of him, in the rush to finish his epic
magnum opus. The accident of 1999 can not be overestimated in importance (there is even a fleeting
reference to it in 11/22/63). I still wonder what the series would have looked like without that near-
death experience that gave him a stronger motivation to finish the DT series before his death. In any
case, the ending of that series was, while interesting and certainly not forgettable, a deeply
disappointing one. Having invested many years of thought into those books, I was not at all satisfied by
the conclusion of many plot threads. There was a distinct echo when LOST ended 6 years later.

After the DT debacle, I could not bring myself to read another SK book until he decided to return to the
Dark Tower world with The Wind Through the Keyhole. Eventually, it was @lostincleveland , a LOST lowdowner
on twitter, who convinced me that I should read this 11/22/63. In the beginning, I had strong biases
against the very idea of the book. I am in no way a fan of historical fiction, bio pics, anything that
makes some attempt to dramatize real events. Putting the idea in of time travel only made things worse for
me, because that gave us a character with a modern (read "our") perspective on that era and those events.
It seems obligatory to summarize certain plot points. The set up is that the main character, Jake, an
English teacher (surprise, he makes literary references!), is presented with a time portal to September
1958, and with a mission to stop the JFK assassination. He eventually accepts this mission, but before he
does, as a test run, he goes through the portal to stop a different murder. This provides SK with the
opportunity to travel through time in his own fictional universe as Jake goes to Derry, Maine, the
location of many SK stories including, most relevantly, IT. Those of us who read IT know that the
childhood portion of the book takes place in the Summer of 1958. In this way, King cleverly avoids having
Jake be confronted by Pennywise the clown, but nonetheless gets to write new scenes for some major and
minor characters from that book. As someone who believes that IT is King's greatest work, I found this
section to be the most fun, and also the most surprising. Given where the story goes next, it creates an
odd mix of fact and fiction, Derry is a completely fictional town, and the events of the book IT are, of
course, fictional. And, of course, since the timeline resets each time one enters the portal, King also
avoids the retcon of having two main characters from IT have a conversation with Jake, a time-traveller.

So, finally Jake goes in to stop JFK's murder. He goes first to Dallas (being a Dallas-ite originally I
found this amusing) but he so detests the place that he decides instead to live in a small Texas town
called Jodie. There, he becomes a teacher at the local high school and changes some students' lives, and
of course, falls in love with the new girl in town, Sadie. These sections are handled in an oddly flat way
given King's usually lively characterization, and given the fact that the entire emotional resonance of
the book depends on the romance. As usual, we are never given any great insight into why they love each
other, other than that they find each other attractive.

Eventually, as the date approaches, Jake has to leave and go live in Dallas (and Ft. Worth) to spy on the
Oswalds. These sections are more interesting from a character point of view, but also more troubling for
me, because obviously King is inventing personalities and dialogue for these real historical figures. He
also turns Marina Oswald into a sort of a sex object, while Lee is a frustrated loser with delusions of
grandeur.

I have not yet mentioned two important aspects of the plot.

First, when Jake goes through the portal originally (and he is warned about this by another character, the
one who originally discovered the portal) that there is a drunk homeless man there, who will ask for money
when he emerges, but who also seems to be aware on some level that things have changed, in spite of the
supposed "reset" each time the portal is used. This man is called the "yellow card man" because he carries
a yellow card in his hat, whose purpose remains a mystery. A mystery that takes on greater significance
when he returns the second time and the card has turned orange, and finally reaches peak intrigue when he
returns for the JFK mission and the guy has cut his own throat with a bottle...and the card is black.

Second, we come to learn that when you try to change events that happened, the universe fights against
you. It will make your car break down, or make some accident befall you. It will do anything it can to
destract you or prevent you from carrying out the change. This manifests itself early on, but only becomes
more pronounced as the JFK mission gets closer to completion. The universe's interventions always take the
form of something that has a plausible "naturalistic" explanation, and I was strongly reminded of how LOST
liked to handle the concept of fate.

These two aspects create an extra layer of mystery, suspense, and conflict that take the story to a more
interesting level, that is definitively a SK signature. Throughout the book I was asking myself what the
ultimate answers would be to these mysteries....

Which was a mistake.

Eventually Jake does stop the JFK assassination attempt, but he realizes that this basically leads to a
global apocalypse. He meets a new man, a "green card man" by the portal who explains that by changing the
past, he has set in motion the end of existence. So, naturally, he decides (even though it means giving up
Sadie) to do another reset and make things right again. The "card men" turn out to be time travel
guardians of a sort, and the color of the card indicates their mental state, apparently an occupational
hazard is a slow mental breakdown. Questions are left unanswered here as we learn that these guardians are
indeed human, but not where they come from, or who put them there.

So, I suppose that answer wasn't so bad, but I think the intrigue of the mystery was much stronger. I
suppose that's always a problem with such stories. But I couldn't help the feeling of disappointment as I
read the exposition.

In the end Jake goes and meets Sadie (now 80 years old) briefly and laments what could have been and what
was. It's a nice ending, but not a particularly strong one. I like the fact that it didn't work out in the
end (there are many teases for a happier conclusion, that I expected to be realized). But, on the other
hand, I was not invested enough in the romance for the ending to have the appropriate impact. Furthermore,
this followed on the heals of the final revelations I just mentioned, and so the air of disappointment was
still haunting me. I put the book down with a half-sigh.

All in all, I'm glad I read it, it was worth reading, but it was not much more than that for me. There is
now a sequel to The Shining and I'm thinking about reading that next. If anything, this book broke the
seal on reading King post-DT.

Stephen
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Re: My review of 11/22/63 (spoilers!!)

Post by Stephen » Tue Aug 05, 2014 6:49 pm

For someone who has never read any Stephen King, what are some good intro novels to his work?

Justin
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Re: My review of 11/22/63 (spoilers!!)

Post by Justin » Fri Aug 08, 2014 4:31 pm

That's a tough one since his best work is mostly in the form of extremely long novels, or extremely longs series of novels...
In general the best stuff is the earlier stuff : 70s and 80s.
Maybe The Shining (though personally in that case I prefer the movie, Kubrick is just too good), or Misery.
If you want to dive in head first, my favorite is IT followed by The Stand, but above all The Dark Tower series.

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