Boomer Do-Over: Stephen King’s 11/22/63

Paul Saint-Amour

Where were you when JFK was assassinated? This is the first of eleven discussion questions appended to the new paperback edition of 11/22/63, Stephen King’s time-travel novel. The questions precede other Book Club Kit features designed to help groups of readers “travel back” to the period: a Q & A with the author, a playlist of popular music from the late fifties and early sixties, chosen and annotated by King, and a collection of classic Cold War recipes (Tuna Salad, Tomato Soup, Ham Steaks and Okra, Black Bottom Pie) taken from the 75th Anniversary Edition of the Joy of Cooking. A nice touch, all of this, but strangely redundant: if the date in question immediately signifies to you from the book jacket, as it’s clearly meant to, you probably remember the food and music of the period without prompting. The question “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?” is addressed to readers within a certain generational span, their memories of receiving the world-altering news forever pinned to a specific moment and place. Younger book club members with vaguer answers to the JFK assassination question (“too young to remember”; “in utero”; “unborn”) will be left staring awkwardly at their retro tuna salad. Alongside the period textures the novel offers, that fine blend of mayonnaise, diced celery, parsley, chives, and canned tuna (flaked with a fork) may be the chief pleasure for the post-Kennedy reader. When it comes to time travel, 11/22/63 is finally less interested in the ramifications of going back than in recapturing the mouth-feel of the past.

Jake Epping, the protagonist of 11/22/63, is one such post-Kennedy kid. He’s 35 when the novel opens in 2011, a newly divorced high school English teacher living in King’s hometown of Lisbon Falls, Maine. He’s also the only faculty regular at Al’s Diner, the local greasy spoon. One day Al himself confides to Epping that he’s discovered a portal leading from the diner’s storeroom to the street outside. But there are a few temporal wrinkles: the portal always delivers its user to 11:58 a.m. on Tuesday, September 9, 1958. However long you remain in the past, only two minutes elapse in the present while you’re away. Each successive trip through the portal immediately resets the system, deleting any changes you made to the past during the previous visit. There’s a convenient upside: objects brought back to the present through the portal, including money, survive the erasure of one trip’s effects by another’s. And a downside: your body continues to age, so having stayed in the past for five years you would return to 2011 five years older than when you left.

Back cover of <i>11/22/63</i>.

At first, Al confides, he used the time portal to increase the diner’s profit margins, buying ground beef at 1958 prices and selling it in his Famous Fatburger at twenty-first-century ones. But his ambitions have since grown. On his most recent trip back he had planned to stay in the past until 1963, preventing the Kennedy assassination and all its negative sequellae, from the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., to the ensuing race riots, the rise of the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Impeded by rapidly advancing lung cancer, Al must now find a younger, healthier successor, one who can succeed in saving JFK before the diner is bulldozed to make way for an “L.L. Bean Express.” What little Epping knows about the Kennedy assassination he’s learned from Oliver Stone’s JFK, but he takes up Al’s charge out of pity for the dying man, curiosity about the past, and a desire to intervene for the good.

Rechristened George T. Amberson (b. April 22, 1923) on his fake IDs—a nod to Booth Tarkington’s 1918 downward-mobility novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, which Orson Welles adapted for the screen in 1942—and fortified with period currency his predecessor amassed by gambling on the known outcomes of sporting events in the past, our hero heads down Al’s “rabbit-hole.” At first, like the protagonist of Tarkington’s novel, he feels out of joint with the times, a “temporal bedouin.” He discovers he has mistakenly brought his Nokia cell phone and some twenty-first-century money with him and drowns both in a cow pond behind a motor lodge in rural Maine. Far from making him feel more stranded in the past, giving up these accessories opens him to a seduction by it:

 

It stank near the mills and on public conveyances where everybody smoked their heads off, but in most places the air smelled incredibly sweet. Incredibly new. Food tasted good; milk was delivered directly to your door. After a period of withdrawal from my computer, I’d gained enough perspective to realize just how addicted to the fucking thing I’d become, spending hours reading stupid email attachments and visiting websites for the same reason mountaineers wanted to climb Everest: because they were there. My cell phone never rang because I had no cell phone, and what a relief that had been. Outside of the big cities, most folks were still on party lines, and did the majority lock their doors at night? Balls they did. They worried about nuclear war, but I was safe in the knowledge that the people of 1958 would grow old and die without ever hearing of an A-bomb being exploded in anything but a test. No one worried about global warming or suicide bombers flying hijacked jets into skyscrapers.

 

A passage like this risks ratcheting down the stakes just when it should raise them. It gives us time travel as higher tourism: on holiday from the anxieties of his own time, Epping/Amberson is free to luxuriate in the deeper trust and higher thread-count of the past without suffering its anxieties. At moments, confronted with segregated toilets and urban poverty and unabashed racism, he will concede that 1958 is not “all Andy-n-Opie.” But before long the “temporal bedouin” begins to imagine putting down roots: “I could live here. And quite easily. Happily, even.

Epping really begins to go native when he settles in the small town of Jolie, Texas, to wait out the years between 1960 and the assassination. He takes over the drama program of the football-crazed high school, casting a linebacker as Lennie in Of Mice and Men. And he meets the novel’s vividest character, the gangly librarian Sadie Dunhill, who will become his dance partner, his lover, and eventually his confederate in trying to stop Oswald. But that crux seems a long way off during the Jolie chapters, which are also the novel’s affective hearth. “It was when I stopped living in the past and just started living,” Epping tell us. He has come to touch off an alternate history, but a senior colleague invites him to embrace a counter-alternative: “Come and teach. That’s what you were meant to do.” He muses happily on her words at a school dance: “I think that’s when I decided I was never going back.”

Time-travel narratives, even as they tell us how an individual interferes with punctual historical events, are also about what a generation knows.

King’s protagonist blends into the Kennedy era with minimal retouching. He bears few of the generational watermarks we might expect in a person of his age and background (born in 1976; white, middle-class, college-educated). Time-travel narratives, even as they tell us how an individual interferes with punctual historical events, are also about what a generation knows. And generational knowledge has to pass the sniff test of the probable, not of the narrowly possible. In my nostrils at least (I’m an older Gen Xer, born in 1969), Epping repeatedly flunks this test. He knows too much about late 1950s music, dances, and cars and is suspiciously silent on the likes of Super Mario Bros., The Real World, and Nirvana. (Where were you when Kurt Cobain killed himself?) On America’s pastime he sounds like my father-in-law: “Back then, baseball was played as it was meant to be played—in bright afternoon sunshine, and on days in the early fall when it still felt like summer.” When he renounces wired life (“stupid email attachments”) he is not a webhead making a virtue of necessity but a cranky late adopter happily reverting to the good ol’ days of Ma Bell, snail mail, and room-sized UNIVACs.

As an ostensible member of Gen X, Epping is a puppet who can only speak with a hand up his back. That hand belongs to a Baby Boomer—Stephen King was born in 1947, at the peak of the postwar birth spike—and imaginatively undoing the JFK, RFK, and MLK assassinations and the Vietnam War is the ultimate Boomer do-over. The core fantasy of 11/22/63 turns out not to be Generation X’s credible seduction by the Mad Men era. Instead, it’s a daydream of youth regained, of having it all to redo knowing what you know now: that the A-bombs won’t fall, that the Pirates will win the 1960 World Series, that root beer will taste worse in the future. King avoids what his protagonist calls the “hoary old time-travel paradox” in which the traveler imperils his or her existence by killing or coupling with an ancestor. But if the business here is not Oedipal, as it is in Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future and Octavia Butler’s Kindred, it involves equally strong intergenerational forces. In Jake Epping, King creates a protagonist a year older than his own youngest child but empties him of recognizable generational being, endowing him with a Boomer’s soul but the maturity and historical agency of the Boomers’ parents and teachers. The annihilating violence of this novel is not that of political assassination but of historical homogenization: fully three generations are imagined to have the same proclivities—the same tastes for afternoon baseball, easy credit, and bottled milk.

This is Bildung by Nintendo: everything—the actions and education of others, events in the world, history itself—is subordinated to the education and pleasure of the player.

Despite Epping’s glad rejection of the digital age, one key aspect of 11/22/63’s premise is strictly post-Atari. The novel has the iterative structure of a side-scrolling platform video game in which a protagonist with a finite number of “lives” at his disposal has to work out a sequence of moves in order to complete a given level. (It shares this structure with Harold Ramis’s film Groundhog Day, with the difference that Ramis’s protagonist seems not to age across attempts.) Failure to perform these moves means having to repeat the level from the beginning, with the consequences of the previous attempt wiped out except insofar as the player has better learned and internalized the sequence. During his trial run through the portal, Epping prevents an unhinged man from killing or severely injuring his wife and children on a rampage, then returns to 2011 to check on the downstream results. The effects of his actions, however, will be cancelled when he returns to the past to mount his full-scale assault on Oswald; he will have to repeat the intervention for it to “count,” even as he sharpens his ability to intervene in additional scenarios. This is Bildung by Nintendo: everything—the actions and education of others, events in the world, history itself—is subordinated to the education and pleasure of the player. You can imagine Epping complaining that by 2011 films have interbred with carnival rides and novels with video games, and preferring the purebred books and movies of 1958. But reading 11/22/63 can be like watching someone else get better at Donkey Kong through multiple plays: better than boring but short of absorbing.

For all that King attends to his protagonist’s learning curve, in one respect he keeps him stupid. Early in his adventure, Epping wonders how his department head would feel about his teaching a short course on The Literature of Time Travel. Aside from his reference to the genre’s “hoary paradox,” though, there’s no evidence that Epping has actually read the literature of time travel. His literary diet, King takes the trouble to tell us, consists of Dickens, Hardy, Wolfe, and Paul Bowles; spy novels and detective fiction; and favorites from the US high school English curriculum (Salinger, Steinbeck). At the cinema he seems to favor ’50s film noir, B-movies, and suspense. But there’s no mention of The Time Machine or Kindred or Back to the Future, not even a reference to Jack Finney’s Time and Again, which King in his afterword calls “the great time-travel story.” Nor does Epping seem to have read any alternate-historical fiction, the other genre in play here—neither Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle nor Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America nor Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union nor any number of victorious-Confederacy fantasies, Star Trek episodes, and steampunk excursions.

A story-world studded with references to enchanted fictional worlds—Ozes, Dunes—astonishes us less when it turns out to be enchanted itself.

To be sure, 11/22/63 is not alone in its reluctance to name literary precursors within its story-world. So-called genre fiction has a particularly strong (though by no means universal) allergy to letting its protagonists be readers of their own genre. Butler’s Dana Franklin seems to have avoided The Time Machine, Marty McFly has missed out on Kindred, and neither seems to have watched Kirk and Spock travel back to the 1930s and risk altering history by saving poverty activist Edith Keeler from an untimely death. LeGuin’s Ged lives in a Tolkien-free universe; more bizarrely, Rowling’s Harry is unacquainted with Earthsea, Middle-earth, and Narnia. (Rowling not only declines to make her characters readers of fantasy but purges Literature altogether from the Hogwarts curriculum, as if keeping novels off the wizarding syllabus could ensure her own books’ monopoly on literature as a form of magic.) Lev Grossman’s recent The Magicians and The Magician King are among the rare exceptions to the rule, with their protagonists constantly reading their own otherworldly experiences by the light of the fantasy and sci-fi they have consumed.

King’s novel, too, could have featured a protagonist conversant with the genre in which he figures; Epping is an English teacher, after all. Why, then, keep him a naïf about time-travel fiction? Grossman’s novels offer a revealing foil. By promiscuously name-checking other fictional worlds, The Magicians and The Magician King at once enhance their own realism (Grossman’s characters would have read Rowling and seen Terminator 2) and injure the singularity and enchanting power of the fictional world they labor to establish. A story-world studded with references to enchanted fictional worlds—Ozes, Dunes—astonishes us less when it turns out to be enchanted itself. This works to Grossman’s advantage, given his novels’ multiple-worlds premise and their interest in fantasy as a vector of disenchantment. But 11/22/63 aims to enchant. It presents time travel as a feature unique to its story-world rather than as a well-worn trait of a populous literary genre. Letting Epping read his own story’s precursors would wreck the pretense that we are, as readers of that story, under the spell of unprecedented events. It would rub our noses in what is already hard enough to ignore: that the principal charm of time-travel fiction nowadays is the spell of precedent—the been-there-done-that magic of genre.

11/22/63 faces a related problem endemic to time-travel fiction, really the rift at the genre’s heart. King needs the historically established timeline—the one in which JFK is assassinated—to seem privileged or singular in order for the prospect of its alteration to generate 842 pages’ worth of suspense. But the basic mechanics of time-travel and alternate-history narratives destabilize the established timeline by implying that a vast number of alternative ones were possible. Any narrative that thematizes the endless branching of possible histories has difficulty making one timeline matter over the rest. This threatens a kind of quantum homelessness—a sense that all paths in the forking garden are equally possible and equally contingent, with nothing to recommend one among them as the “right” timeline.

King’s solution to this problem is appropriately gothic. As Epping gets closer to events he wants to alter, the physical world seems to resist him. His car engine splutters, his tools break, the very air turns syrupy. Sensing “something working against me,” he realizes, in italics, that “The past does not want to be changed. The past is obdurate.” And more: “The past is sly as well as obdurate. It fights back.” Whether it manifests itself in suddenly uncooperative objects or in the “sentient menace” of the Texas School Book Depository, a faceless but personified force wants events to flow in the channels already (as it were) cut by history. This conceit, second nature to horror writers, attributes to an underspecified “something” in the world of the novel what is really an imperative of its plot: that the time traveler must not alter history easily, blithely, or with impunity, and that the “right” timeline must prevail for the narrative to achieve closure. “Something is at work, okay? Somewhere in the universe (or behind it), a great machine is ticking and turning its fabulous gears.”

The novel has, by its final pages, lost its taste for the alternate-history thought experiment that had seemed to be its raison d’être.

This alloy of gothic and the counterfactual should make for a harrowing rendezvous with destiny when the novel finally reaches November 22, 1963. But there is a halfheartedness about King’s Oswald-stalking, and something savorless in the phone call Epping receives on fulfilling his mission. (“Jack Kennedy here. I … ah … understand that my wife and I owe you … ah … our lives.”) Even more perfunctory is the brief account of the altered 2011 to which Epping returns, a standard-issue millennial Pottersville featuring earthquakes, blackouts, graffiti, neo-Nazi Hate Meetings, and environmental collapse, the long-term results of JFK’s survival, partial pullout from Vietnam, and failure to pass Civil Rights reform. Epping’s meddling, it turns out, has not only altered the historical timeline but also weakened the earth’s crust and, for cosmologically opaque reasons, the very fabric of reality. “The changes are never for the better,” he concludes ruefully, “No matter how good your intentions are.”

All of which is to say that 11/22/63 has, by its final pages, lost its taste for the alternate-history thought experiment that had seemed to be its raison d’être. Not that the novel ever holds to a steady position on the gravity of timeline tampering. Epping/Amberson is so wary of disturbing the future that he refuses to intervene in an act of domestic violence, yet he is perfectly willing to influence the lives of his students in Texas and he twice yields to his weakness for attention-grabbing cars (red ’54 Ford Sunliner with ragtop and whitewall tires; ’59 Chevy, also red, and with gull-wing tailfins). The loving detail in which King describes the period’s cars, along with its music, food, dances, social rituals, and consumer culture, is just the point: as alternate history, the novel comes to care less about alternatives and more about the rites and realia it takes for history. Its readers sit down to screen Back to the Future but wind up watching American Graffiti instead.

King’s vandalism of the counterfactual project (how else to understand an alternate timeline in which an Al Qaeda suicide bomber detonates his vest at a Beatles reunion concert, killing 300 and blinding Paul McCartney?) can read like bungling, haste, or confusion. But there is a more stirring and thoughtful renunciation at work in 11/22/63 as well, one that attempts to lay to rest, for the generation most haunted by it, the ghost of an alternate history in which the Camelot myth was not cut short. Such a gesture has its own Boomer egotism, the kind that halts the play to break its staff and drown its Nokia flip phone—the kind that says: On my generation’s renunciation hangs the future of the world. But after four acts of strutting and fretting it also says, with a kind of fifth-act quiescence: Let what was—including all we deplore and regret—be as it was. In this, 11/22/63 may even offer a critique of how its own genre’s counterfactual pedagogy can make the past as we understand it less grave and monitory—can invest history with a sense of arbitrariness that dilutes the haunting power of what did happen.

Time travel aside, there is another kind of expedition involving repeated attempts to intervene for the better, each attempt offering the chance to rectify the failures of the last; in which the traveler ages while those in whose lives he or she attempts to intervene remain the same age year after year. It’s called teaching—the profession, as it happens, that Stephen King gave up in 1973 to write fiction full-time. And it’s in the middle section of the novel, where Epping becomes a high school teacher in 1962, that he, and King with him, seem to lose interest in the unradiant Kennedy plot because they find something less grandiose, more particular, to warm their hands by. The time traveler has to avoid altering the past more than is absolutely necessary, given the uncontrollable ways in which the effects of small acts may propagate on a massive scale. The high school teacher aims to interfere; he or she is, in a sense, always George Amberson come to Jolie, wading daily into a world of non-contemporaries to learn how the consequentiality of the individual can meet the obduracy of the past. Our classrooms are full of novelists manqué. 11/22/63 is their counterpart and secret sharer: a novelist’s sidelong glance at the classroom he relinquished, the teaching he elected not to do.