My life in outer space

11/22/63 – Stephen King (2011)


Americans have the irritating custom of putting the month first in numerical dates such as in the title of this novel. This is both confusing and highly annoying. British publishers should surely have renamed it 22/11/63 which makes more sense (not just to the British) as the time periods are incremental sequentially in order of size.
OK. Sorry for rambling on. I only do so because it’s a phrase which Stephen King would do well to sellotape above his computer screen.
Back in the day, King wrote concise and well-crafted small jewels of books like ‘Carrie’ and ‘Salem’s Lot’. Gradually, the books began to put on weight. By the time ‘It’ arrived I had give up King for the sake of my bookshelves’ health. This is no exception to the rule, weighing in at a hefty eight hundred and forty nine pages.
The basic premise is this: Jake Epping is a teacher, a friend of Al who runs a kind of burger van / diner nearby with burgers so cheap that folk are suspicious of the meat’s origin. One night Al rings to ask Jake to come round.
Al looks years older and has lost around thirty pounds seemingly overnight. It turns out that the burger van pantry contains a time portal leading to a specific day and time in September 1958. Al has known about this for some time and has been buying prime beef from the past and bringing it back to sell as cheap burgers in 2011. One can spend as much time as one wants in the past. When you return, two minutes has elapsed.
However, Al’s final plan had been to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JF Kennedy. He had returned to the past and would have had to wait five years until the date of the assassination. Al, however, had been diagnosed with cancer and realised that he would not live to complete his mission. So he returns and recruits Jake to take over.
One can, it seems, change the past but every time one returns to 1958, the world’s history is reset and your changes are lost.
Al has already provided Jake with a fake driving licence in the name of George Amberson, along with some currency of the time, a list of sporting results of the time to place bets on in order to obtain more cash, and some other identity papers.
And so Jake Epping sets off to spend five years in the past and change history.
One could look at this as the nearest King has come to writing a mainstream novel. Apart from the literary device of the time portal it is a portrait of the US from 1958 to 1963, in many ways a far more idyllic US than that of 2011. This is no Clifford D Simak pastoral paradise however. The US had its dark side from mobsters to child-murderers and the borderline insane. There are also, from our present perspective, some quite shocking truths about racial segregation. The hero at one point asks to use a restroom and is directed toward some outside conveniences. There are two buildings, designated male and female while a sign saying ‘coloureds’ points down a path to a plank over a stream.
Such distinctions are legally a thing of the past and although the old prejudices still remain in many parts it is a bit of a culture shock to realise that this was once a mainstream cultural norm.
Although the novel is very enjoyable it does have its flaws. I have criticised King in the past for his forays into the world of Science Fiction which have been mercifully few. His natural genre in which he excels, is Horror, and at least his early work, ‘Salem’s Lot’, ‘Carrie’, Christine’ and ‘The Shining’ for instance are classics of the genre.
With SF, however, he has never really succeeded very well. King does not, I feel, understand that there are certain conventions within the genre that need to be observed if one is going to be successful. He may well have finally learnt his lesson in this respect as he’s avoided the potential danger of buggering up any scientific explanations by the simple expedient of ignoring them altogether.
We have the time portal as a convenient literary device. Neither he nor Al raises the question of why there should be a time tunnel leading out of the back of a burger van complete with convenient invisible steps which always leads to the same point in 1958. On the one hand the concept of the burger van time portal is so ludicrous that it somehow works, for a while. In a more light-hearted work it might continue to do so, but in a serious Stephen King doorstop of a novel one expects at least some hint at some point as to why it is there.
It is the sort of cheap trick Edgar Rice Burroughs used extensively in his novels at least a century ago to explain (for instance) how John Carter got to Mars (He was somehow spiritually transported while his Earth body lay comatose in a cave)
Even though Jake has proven to himself that the time portal exists and has visited the past briefly, would he really agree to give up five years of his life in order to try and prevent Kennedy being assassinated?
Having said that, Jake’s life as George Amberson at a cultural turning point in time for the Western World is a marvellous tale, veering between his life as a teacher and his secret life as a burgeoning assassin, stalking Lee Harvey Oswald as he follows his predestinate journey to Dallas and the infamous book depository.
King produces a marvellous cast of characters, combining his own creations with real-life grotesques such as Oswald’s overbearing and odious mother.
There is a section where Jake/George (having gotten a job at a school) persuades one of the beefy stars of the school football team to play the lumbering lead in a school production of ‘Of Mice and Men’. That was a bit of a revelation, being an immensely moving piece of writing which brought a tear to my eye.
Overall, it seems like a new departure for King. The supernatural – or at least the power behind the attempts made to keep the timeline from changing – made itself felt once or twice but briefly and unobtrusively so.
It has always been my view (at least since ‘It’) that King should trim his novels by at least fifty percent, and honestly, this is no exception.
Get back to the days of ‘Carrie’, Stephen, to the brief, elegantly plotted, not-a-word-wasted, novels that you used to write.
We’re all running out of time to read these new ones.


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