Our wedding anniversary (#6) is coming in three days. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might know this date has been, well, sort of a hit-or-miss thing.
Year 1, Ana and I were on opposite sides of the globe. (Oops.) Year 2, we were in the middle of travels but converged at home for that one day. (Whew.) Year 3, missed again. (Dang.) Year 4, together! (Hey, two outta four.) Year 5 … you won’t believe this, but: apart. (Oy!)
Now it’s year 6. And on Friday the 8th we’ll be on a plane (together) flying out west to attend my nephew Jon’s wedding. Auspicious for all Jo(h)ns involved.
So in honor of anniversaries and weddings and love, I thought I’d share a book review I just wrote for HugDug, Seth Godin’s cool new review/charity site.
I plan to write one of these a month. So far I’ve reviewed Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Benjamin Black’s Philip Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde. And yesterday, I wrote this one.
Wait — Stephen King?! A love story? Yep. As you get to the end of the review, you’ll see why the title fits.
A review of 11/22/63, by Stephen King
What if you could go back in time? And what if you could go back to Dealy Plaza in Dallas in the early sixties?
Time travel stories typically have a sort of surgical, sterile feel to them, the characters dropping out of our time and showing up in another, like in Star Trek’s transporter. Sure, they inevitably mess something up (“an encounter that could create a time paradox the results of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe!” as the good Doctor Emmet Brown puts it), causing the hero to jump through hoops to put things right.
But the actual movement in time, from one era to another, happens as cleanly as an expert dive through water: time seems to part for the hero’s passage with barely a ripple. And the fabric of time itself is a pretty bland thing, like a very long roll of blank paper, blindly accepting whatever gets written on it.
Not here. In 11/22/63 time reacts, becoming almost a character itself.
King describes it as “the obdurate past,” a phrase that becomes the narrator’s thoughtful mantra. (Obdurate. What a great word.) The past is changeable, but it doesn’t seem to want to be changed, and it pushes back. The bigger the change and its worldwide implications, the bigger the resistance. At times it even seems to hatch elaborate plots in its efforts to thwart the hero’s actions. In a way, the story’s central antagonist is not JFK’s would-be killer but the fabric of history itself.
Or is it?
Is it an antagonist? Is history fighting back just because it’s obdurate by nature, or does it know something we don’t?
You start getting the sense that the fabric of time, or events, or existence, or whatever the nature of this fabric is, is wiser than we are. That it may be better for all in the long run if things happen the way they do, or did. What emerges almost feels like a theological statement: that there is a force guiding events, even seemingly random events, toward the ideal outcome for the larger good. Even if the only evidence of this is that, as tragic and awful as things sometimes are, if they went any differently it would all end up worse.
(I very much doubt Mr. King would describe his own intentions in such lofty terms as “theological statement.” Then again, this is the guy who wrote, “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”)
Which brings me to Philip Roth.
King and Roth are not two four-letter words you often hear in the same sentence, but it’s interesting to compare the what-if-we-mess-with-famous-events scenarios of 11/22/63 and Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America.
In King’s book, someone travels back in time in order to change a key historical event. In Roth’s there is no time travel, he simply writes an alternate history by changing the key event himself.
King’s premise: “What if JFK survived Dallas?”
Roth’s is, “What if Hitler won the war?” (Actually, it’s creepier than that: it’s more, “What if America sided with Hitler?”)
In King’s story, changing that key event causes a gaping wound in the fabric of history that leads to some truly bizarre outcomes—both terrible and terribly believable. (I understand the author sat for a spell with superstar historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin to thrash this part out. It’s spell-binding, worth the price of admission, and guaranteed to stay with you for weeks after the reading, perhaps months.)
In Roth’s, changing that key event also causes a gaping wound with terrible consequences, but in this case things eventually wind back around to “normal.” Within a few decades, yes, even though the Nazis and Americans got chummy and things did get pretty awful there for a while (who knew the United States could turn so fascist?), the alternate history ultimately blends back in seamlessly with the real.
So exactly how does that happen? That’s what intrigues me.
Both stories seem to suggest that the fabric of history (or of reality, depending on your vantage point) has a sort of immune system of its own that actively struggles to heal itself. In Roth’s story the immune system prevails. In King’s it tries like hell—but it can’t quite overcome the grievous wound.
In fact King even suggests, in the slyest and subtlest ways, that some of the great catastrophes of our actual history, such as 9/11 or the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, were never “meant” to occur but erupted as toxic symptoms of other rips in the fabric of events-as-intended.
Yet none of that is why I love this book so much.
Because even with all of that, 11/22/63 is not at its heart a time-travel story.
It’s a love story. And I love what it says about love.
It is no spoiler to tell you that the story’s hero, a young Maine schoolteacher named Steve—whoops, I mean, Jake—goes back in time and falls in love. And that his ardent desire to preserve and protect that love ultimately comes into conflict with his historical mission, that is, to save the president from the assassin’s bullet. That much you could guess. What I won’t reveal is where that leads … except to say that the story’s final pages are a poignant tribute to the enduring, almost gravitational pull of love, even beyond the boundaries of time and reality.
Hey. Maybe that’s a clue.
Maybe there is a force holding together the fabric of history, laboring silently and continuously on our behalf to nudge events toward their most benign possible outcomes. Maybe that force behaves in much the same way as love behaves.
Maybe it is love.