The Obdurate Past: a review of the audio book version of 11/22/63 by Stephen King

It is refreshing to witness growth in an artist. I can think of a few I've had the pleasure of watching mature and expand their talents in public: Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, Frank Zappa, Woody Allen, Jonathan Lethem, and Leonardo DiCaprio. After listening to 11/22/63  I can finally add Stephen King to that list. I say "finally" because for years I've been cheering him on to write more mainstream fiction with more thoughtful endings; something I knew he was more than capable of doing as evidenced in his short stories -- think of The Shawshank Redemption or The Body -- but thought that he felt his "Horror" fan base wouldn't allow. Of course I knew better, I was part of that fan base and I wished he would flex his literary muscles more often; and, in a full fledged novel as he had with Delores Claiborne and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. With 11/22/63, I got my wish.

On the surface, King's latest book is a time travel tale, an asynchronous quest to put a bit of bad history right. But at its heart, a love story thrives; a chronologically-perverse yet emotionally sincere affair that ultimately eclipses any science fiction the author attempts to hurl at us. King has admitted his ineffectiveness with, or complete absence of, romance in his early novels. But that all changed with the publication of Lisey's Story in 2006; a critically acclaimed and richly complex tale of ardor. And again in 11/22/63, King succeeds at romance by conjuring the resonant time crossed lovers, Jake Epping and Sadie Dunhill; Jake the time tripping would-be savior and Sadie an escapee from an unhappy arranged marriage, who ultimately becomes Jake's many ways.

Through the literary device of Leitwortstil -- the repetition of words or phrases which are thematically important to the story -- we quickly learn what Mr King would like us to consider the two truths about time travel: firstly, the past harmonizes, which is to say that when someone travels back in time, the butterfly effect holds sway and can change not only the future of the traveler, but also the future of the past he presently inhabits. Sound confusing? it really isn't, no more than déja vu or simple coincidence. In fact the author does not belabor this novel with mind numbing technicalities or paradox. Secondly, the past is obdurate. This essentially means it's not so easy to change the future. The embodiment of the past throws roadblocks (sometimes literally) in the traveler's way. The past does not want to be changed, and the greater the potential of change, the greater the resistance. King is adept at anthropomorphising inanimate objects, and here he successfully humanizes a concept, the past, to the great advantage of tension in his story.

11/22/63  is a massive book, but it needs to be, in fact, at 850 pages, I would have welcomed more. There is something quintessential to time travel tale that requires a methodical telling. Unlike with some previous overstuffed work (Duma Key and Insomnia jump to mind), King gets the length just right with this novel. His pacing is spot on and he never loses the reader with pointless description or superfluous back story. On the contrary, he uses the readers assumed knowledge of historical events to draw them further into the book.

Since this is a review of the audio version of the novel, I must comment on the performance of the narrator, Craig Wasson. Generally he reads the book sans distraction, a key ingredient regarding audio books. It is notable that Wasson, however well he reads, vocalizes some of the characters as familiar icons of cinema. One character suddenly becomes Jack Nicholson, another Burt Lancaster, and still another a mash up of Jimmy Stewart and W.C. Fields. This, though, is a vast improvement over King's last audio book, Under the Dome read by a whingeing Raul Esparza.

For me, with 11/22/63, King sustains like-minded readers hopes for more literary horror from his prolific imagination. He inches closer to joining the likes of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and R. L. Stevenson, among others in the pantheon of literary/genre icons. Many would argue he is already there, but I conditionally disagree; not quite yet. Though he's grown, Stephen King  has more great horror-transcending fiction left in him, and I'll be there rooting for him till the last crooked letter flows from his plenary pen.