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Diane Awerbuck

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Wandering About: A Review of Stephen King’s 11.22.63

My sister used to have a saying: I don’t chew my cabbage twice. She would use it when she didn’t feel like repeating herself. Stephen King’s latest novel, 11.22.63 (the day Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F Kennedy), feels like a lot of mastication.

That is, in part, deliberate. The plot deals with Jake Epping, a high school teacher in 2011, who finds himself on a mission to prevent the assassination in 1963.

He travels through a portal in his dying friend Al’s diner to 1958, and then acclimatises in a number of small towns for a few years. The other 740 pages cover his comparisons of the two time periods and the inevitable setting up of a love interest which necessarily culminates in an agonising choice – to save his lady love, the unlikely Sadie, or to save the world.

King addresses the science of the time travel unsatisfactorily: every trip through the portal is a complete reset, except it’s not, and every trip also leaves a residue, so that multiple future “strings” co-exist.

When a reader finds their attention wandering to the finer details, you know you’ve lost them. This is disappointing but not unexpected, given King’s occupation of the scene since the 1970s (11.22.63 is book number 54).

His name gets bandied about a lot – usually disparagingly, as if massive commercial success precludes a sensibility.

But he’s a smart guy: he makes a distinction between “literary” and “genre” writing (a debate that’s pretty hot on the South African scene) by saying that literary fiction is about extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances.

Genre writing – the kind he claims to do – examines ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The distinction is not very useful. King easily produces prose that belongs in Salinger or Roth: “Beautiful young presidents lived and beautiful young presidents died, beautiful young women lived and then they died, but the broken sewer pipe beneath the courtyard of the old Worumbo mill was apparently eternal.”

Essentially, King is all about story. He writes across genres: he may differentiate them (somewhat disingenuously) as fright, terror and gross-out, saying that if he can’t get to the reader through the first two channels, he’ll settle happily for the third.

Since he first appeared, King has also produced seven books in the Dark Tower saga, a kind of world-bending cowboy opera – and 11.22.63 fits most comfortably alongside these.

The novel is a kind of love song to the small towns of King’s youth, with all their good folk and good eats and good cars (and also their knee-jerk racism and – by God! – cigarettes).

But it has the sense about it of gramps settled back in the La-Z-Boy, saying, “When I was your age.”

The evocation of scene just doesn’t work: the characters walk and talk, but they could do that anywhere.

In summary, it’s hard to feel passionately one way or another about 11.22.63, and this is its failing: the lukewarm nature of revisionism, especially of something that was such a public experience as the death of Kennedy and the mourning into which the killing plunged his family and, by extension, the US.

The novel revisits themes common to King’s work – the protagonist’s initial isolation from the community, the imperative to do the right thing, the redeeming power of love – even across time, it seems. There is nothing wrong with those themes, but this book doesn’t do anything new or impressive.

This review is brought to you by Books LIVE Wire. Books LIVE Wire books sponsored by Exclusive Books.

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    February 7th, 2012 @22:56 #
     
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    Okay, so I won't read it then. IMHO, the best thing King EVER wrote was his book on writing. I prod all my authors to read it.

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