As I sat down to write this I thought who am I to review Stephen King a modern master of the novel?
As a writer, no one was the first answer. As a writer I study him for some of the best example of modern description. Short quick phrases that set the scene and help keep the action moving. He’s a master at it. I’ve heard it called Blitzkrieg characterization. How he moves from type of tone and genres in 11/22/63 is masterful. As a writer I’ve not got a leg to stand on and offer any judgement.
As a reader, I stand upon a mountain of books read over a lifetime of loving story. I’m in a strong position as a reader to comment on what I like and don’t like. I read multiple books at a time across multiple genres of fiction and non-fiction. So I figure I’m in a good place as a reader to offer my comments on King’s latest novel 11-22-63. It’ll be on that stance I’ll make comments.
11-22-63 left me in an odd place as a reader – I wanted more or less story. When I finished I was very unsatisfied despite it being a long 849 pages. This story blends genres. It’s publicized to be about going back in time to attempt to stop the assassination of Kennedy. Along the way to the point of the story it visits the territories of sci-fi, horror, alternate history, and romance. I’m not against blending genres but the only one I thought that got a full story arc was the romance, the other aspects of the story were left feeling unfinished for me.
I’ll be the first to admit as a reader the genre of this blend I like the least is romance. I loved it as a teenager but my taste changed. So during the pages of romance and lyrical waxing on the two lovebirds jitterbugging – I was bored, bored, bored and wondered when the heck were we going to return to the sci-fi of time travel, or the horror of the It creature, or start the alternate history of interfering with Oswald? Instead I was stuck in an overly sentimentalized non-existent Texas town reading a romance.
As for the sci-fi part I wanted to know more about Al, the man who discovered time travel and developed the mission the main character Jake/George carries out. I wanted to see how the rules were figured out by Al. I wanted to know more about his diner’s relationship with the phenomena he found. I was frustrated because King broke the first rule – don’t tell show. We were told the rules of time travel and I wanted to see how they were discovered.
As for the horror part I liked the references to the It creature by starting the story out in the middle of the It story. Having read the novel long ago I recognized Pennywise and a few of the characters in the town. Carrying Pennywise forward in the story and linking him with the assassination by suggestion was great! I wanted to know how this dark force was related to Oswald! But alas that thread was never completed. I liked how it was going but once the event of interfering with the assassination started that was pushed aside and forgotten. I closed the book thinking – so what the hell did Pennywise have to do with it? Was it just pages and pages of a distraction?
Then there’s one of my favorites – alternate history! I thought surely with a book about time travel to stop with the Kennedy assassination I’d get some alternate history either way the mission went. If Jake/George is successful or not he’s change history in many ways waiting out the years to get to the event, just like Al had to change it in his discoveries. Just like the green card man explained to Jake/George (a second case of telling NOT showing). As a reader I got a glimpse of what the mission did to the future but not HOW it did it in the third case of telling not showing. The bulk of the book was eaten up by getting to the assassination and the ending was rushed. The alternate history was short changed. I didn’t get to live the world after the interference with the main event, the whole thrust of the plot – instead I glimpsed it and was told the payoff that I’d waded through 100s of pages of romance to see.
Finally the fatal flaw for me was Jake/George’s supposed worry about effecting history before the event? Heck you are setting out to change a lynch pin event in history who cares if you start that change a few years earlier? You are changing ALL OF TIME AFTER THE INTERFERENCE FOR ALL ETERNITY what does a few years, heck decades, heck even centuries matter? There’s eternity on the other side of the mission! Unknown-illions of lives from 1963 to the end of time shifted – what’s a few billion changed for less than a decade matter in balance with that? His reasoning doesn’t make sense. Sure it’s fun to stalk about the edges of Oswald’s life for years but that’s not why I picked up the book. I picked up the book on the promise of time-travel interfering with the Kennedy assassination and for me what happens after that.
I also didn’t pick up the book to read an idyllic look at small town America in the late 50s early 60s. I felt the touching on the social ills was there just to give a nod to the modern reader. Yeah I know it was a time when women weren’t liberated, black were segregated, and domestic abuse wasn’t seen as a police but rather a family matter. After a few periphery nods he goes on with the almost “Leave It To Beaver” tone of the story. Sure there are dark events but they all pull together, have a talent show, and deal with them as a white happy community! I choked back my barf and pressed on hoping for more time travel mission.
When I closed the book I spent a long time thinking about why I felt disappointed as a reader. What would have made me happier with the story – the answer was an odd one. Either make it a series of books covering Al’s adventures through Jake/George through the alternate history and end with Jake/George telling us how it ended. So one answer was give me more so I’m not left hanging on these issues that felt unfinished. Second sell it as a romance with some time travel mission to it and cut down the first part of the book. Third keep it as a time travel book cut Pennywise, romance, and tighten the focus. Fourth make it a pure genre not a blend. King’s best books have been that way in my opinion as a King reader.
So as a reader I walked away with too many questions to call it a great read, it was a good read. As a writer I’ve learned look for plot holes have beta readers look for unanswered questions, know when to cut threads out if you can’t tie them up at the end. I think my biggest lesson as a writer is that genres exist to satisfy the reader – so that the book has focus and the reader can get the full story. Successful blending of genres means you answer all the plot elements you raise be they sci-fi, horror, alternate history, or romance.
In the end I’d quiz someone about what are they looking for in a read before I’d recommend they open this book. It has a lot to offer as most stories by masterful writers do – but it’s not perfect.