**spoiler alert** My esteem for this book steadily plunged as I read more and more of it, though it was never that high in the first place. It's been...more**spoiler alert** My esteem for this book steadily plunged as I read more and more of it, though it was never that high in the first place. It's been about fourteen years since I abruptly stopped reading the author I once couldn't get enough of as a teenager. I should've stayed retired, for now I've entered a portal into the past and destroyed any nostalgic admiration I might've still possessed for Stephen King. Having read this new work--highly acclaimed as it was upon its release--I now fear that maybe all of his books were always this bad and I was just too young to know it.
Jake Epping is a paper-thin, annoying character, an obvious figment of the imagination of a 65-year-old man. He's supposed to have been born in 1976--ie, as old as my sister--yet he repeatedly refers to the internet as "the net" (one of his teenage students does the same, though in reality she probably would've never even heard the phrase "the net" used in earnestness). That's just one nitpicky example from the very end of this ludicrously long novel, but there are plenty of others. In the beginning he has an exposition-heavy dialogue with the owner of a diner where he repeatedly exclaims, "Hey, I'm just an English teacher--you'll have to explain it to me!" As in, "Gore losing to Bush in 2000? Hey, I'm just an English teacher--you'll have to explain it to me!" In the beginning he seems only vaguely familiar with whatever might've happened in Vietnam midcentury, yet later in the book the very same man who claimed to know nothing about politics (because English teachers in 2011 only think about verbal grammar and canonical short stories (though of course not Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder," of which this novel is a direct ripoff)) refers to Vietnam as a "giant green dildo" that servicemen were required to penetrate themselves with (a sentence which screams, "This sentence was written by that ole hellraisin' liberal Stephen King!"). Rather colorful. He can also quote statements that are made during the Cuban Missile Crisis ("because of some test I faintly remembered taking years ago in gen ed"). Yet: "Hey, I'm just an English teacher! Who's Al Gore? What's a Florida?"
In that same exposition-heavy conversation, his diner cook pal asks him if he's ever heard of Occam's Razor. By this point our protagonist has proven himself so idiotic that it's almost a given that he hasn't heard of it, yet he responds by saying, and I quote, "It's a basic truism sometimes known as the law of parsimony. 'All other things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one.'" Because that's how people speak. It's not just King and his editor assuming that most of his readers will be either too dumb to know that or too dumb to know how to use the net to look it up on Yahoo.
So anyway, this 35-year-old goes back to 1958. He basically enters his grandfather's generation. Surely there will be a lot of interesting observations about how drastically different things are. Surely a man who grew up with a lifetime of exposure to "the net," online social networking, cell phones, texting, abundant free pornography, environmentalism, feminism, postmodernism, post-civil rights, the gay rights movement, globalization, major changes in cuisine and nutrition, post-Watergate cynicism, rampant drugs both prescription and illicit, sexual liberation, craft beer, etc., etc., etc., etc. will experience some major shock when going back half a century. I mean, in the less than two years since my husband got a smart phone, his reliance on Google Maps has already made him complete unaware of how to navigate our own neighborhood. Surely this 900ish page tome is full of acute details about our historical situation and its relation to the past. Yes, and they are as follows: 1) man, a whole lot of people sure smoked a lot!, 2) food tastes so much better without all the preservatives (like these delicious gems sure to please the stomachs of any man born in 1976: http://www.buzzfeed.com/ariannareboli... ), and 3) they sure were pretty racist at that one rest stop in North Carolina! That's about it. He has to correct his slang a couple times, but otherwise the transition is seamless. He even knows all the songs on the radio, since, of course, all they played on the radio in 1958 were the biggest rock and roll hits that have survived to this day.
Okay, so it's not about comparing two eras. Neither the character nor the writer seem to know or care anything about life since the late 1970s. Well, at least there will be a thrilling suspense plot! A man racing the clock to intercept an assassin! A hundred pages of surveillance of boring conversations mostly in Russian! A bout of amnesia 80% into the book in which the protagonist spends an entire long chapter trying to remember what the book is about! A high school performance of OF MICE AND MEN so riveting it moves the entire house to tears! A teenage football star killed in a drunk driving wreck! A fundraising vaudeville routine that features two men in a dancing horse costume and a pie fight--described not once but twice!
A 35-year-old man from 2011 goes back in time and writes what amounts to an episode of "Hee Haw"? That's what this dude finds funny? "I rode on a plane so old that one restroom was marked Orville and the other was marked Wilbur"? Is he making a statement about how quaint and simple humor used to be half a century ago? Because DR. STRANGELOVE came out in 1964 and I don't remember any staring-at-orange-juice/concentrate jokes. And TO BE OR NOT TO BE from 1942 is absolutely hilarious with nary a single dancing horse suit. So is he just trying to make his protagonist seem like a simpleton with no imagination? Is that why his main character goes around correcting grammar?
Okay, so the action isn't that thrilling. What about the science fiction? Surely there are some cool paradoxes or loops or pseudo-physics or something fun like that. No, there's the very Kingian "Yellow Card Man" who gives a very Kingian explanation about parallel universes much too late. And there's some nonsense about "harmonics"--because surely the fact that two men in 1958 are named George must be more than mere coincidence. The harmonics thing is more than just silliness, though--it's also downright offensive. Because King subtly (as subtly as King can get) reveals that the very-much-a-real-city Dallas, Texas, is a harmonic double of the very-much-a-figment-of-a-weak-imagination Derry, Maine. Which, if you're not following, means that the reason 1963 Dallas bred racism, violence, and political assassination is the same reason that 1957 Derry bred a child-eating, sewer-dwelling clown: a ball of fire from the Macroverse that crashed into the earth thousands of years ago and awakens every thirty years to feed on human fear. That's why MLK talked so much about Pennywise and the Ritual of Chüd in his speeches--because complex American social history is reducible to a cosmic space opera in which there are evil people (like Oswald) who need to die and good people (most of them living in small towns, one of them occupying the presidency in 1963) who deserve to live and love and dance and drive gas-guzzlers without worrying about melting icecaps.
Aren't there much better solutions that Jake Epping could've pursued? I mean, first of all, JFK wasn't really any messiah--preventing RFK's assassination would've probably been a better choice--but that's besides the point. Oswald begins the book as a feeble-minded, lonely, browbeaten (by a domineering mother) man who has no friends and sorta likes JFK. Epping writes this in his notes while spying on him. It's only a few years later that Oswald is a feeble-minded, lonely, friendless man who hates JFK. And during all those years Epping just sits there (as his neighbor) spying on him, waiting for the OK to kill. Why not, I dunno, go across the street and say hello? Bake him a jello mould? Tell him, "Hey, dude, you're right, Castro is a pretty good guy, but murdering the president isn't going to accomplish anything"? That never crosses his mind. Why? Because Oswald is a monster, plain and simple. In King's universe these men frequently exist.
Of course there are plenty of other courses he could've taken, too... say, going to the UN and convincing the world to slow its role... but then I'd just be rewriting the book. Still, it's weird that none of these ideas really cross Epping's mind. He's pretty narrow-mindedly hellbent on murdering the presumed assassin.
Okay, so the character's unrealistic, the plot is boring, the details are deficient... at least there's a cool alternate history! I mean, what would've happened if JFK had lived out a full term, possibly two? Would RFK still have run in 68? Would his assassination still lead to the crippling of the Democratic party and the rise of Nixon? What historical dominoes would've fallen in a half-century without the three shots in Dealey Plaza?
Well, according to Stephen King, if JFK had lived one minute past 12:30 pm on 11/22/63, then the butterfly effect necessarily means that a devastating earthquake would've destroyed Los Angeles less than a week later. And earthquakes like that would continue to ravish the world for the remainder of time, being the major influencing factor in all societies on Earth. If JFK lived, Japan would've sunk into the ocean. Because one powerful man's death truly has cosmic, seismic influence over the earth. Oddly enough, though, all political history would pretty much stay the same. Reagan would still become president, etc., etc. Only: earthquakes. Lots of em. A political assassination doesn't really impact politics, you know? It just changes weather patterns and fault lines.
I could go on and on and on and on about how obnoxious this book is. But what I really need is one of those rabbit hole time portals. You know, one of those wormholes that resets time whenever you step into it. Then perhaps I could go back a week in time and leave myself a note: "Yeah, I know how much you liked Stephen King when you were a kid. It might be cool to look into some of his more recent work. But, well... you've got all these other books that look pretty good. I mean, SWANN'S WAY isn't even 900 pages and you've barely read a sentence of that! Maybe you can read 11/22/63 some other time...."(less)
Many of these stories read like Philip K. Dick for Douchebags. Cold, cynical, bitter. Judgmental of all the characters, who are all unlikeable. Punchy...moreMany of these stories read like Philip K. Dick for Douchebags. Cold, cynical, bitter. Judgmental of all the characters, who are all unlikeable. Punchy prose that aims to capture the cadences of actual thought and speech but that instead only sounds unnatural and obnoxious. Some of the premises are pretty interesting, but only the title story and "Puppy" feel like complete, polished works.(less)
I spent a couple hours the other day looking through all the "Best of 2013" book lists that were recently published in newspapers and on websites. LIF...moreI spent a couple hours the other day looking through all the "Best of 2013" book lists that were recently published in newspapers and on websites. LIFE AFTER LIFE was the clear winner, but I guess "Best of..." book lists are like Oscar picks for Best Picture because LIFE AFTER LIFE is hardly what I'd call a masterpiece. It has some great scenes (Ursula's marriage to an abusive schoolteacher, her work during the Blitz, her observations of a snoozing Fuhrer), but overall the book is a slog. There are dozens of characters, though only a couple of them are interesting. The same scenes are repeated over and over without any satisfying payoff. Any insight into the human condition is bleak but also cheap (and ultimately nihilistic), and I don't think that Atkinson really understands the Nietzsche that she so freely references. As other reviewers have pointed out, this is just a dark, boring, inferior GROUNDHOG DAY.(less)
I was very excited to read this, but unfortunately the concept behind the book is much better than the presentation. I found the writing style to be a...moreI was very excited to read this, but unfortunately the concept behind the book is much better than the presentation. I found the writing style to be aimless and unclear. Each chapter begins with several pages of unorganized minutiae, surprisingly drawn from a very limited number of sources (is one man's journal really sufficient evidence to support every point you make in the book?), and ends--jarringly--with the conclusions to be derived from that smattering of seemingly random data. Which is to say that instead of nicely integrating his evidence into his theoretical framework, he rather doles them out in uneven lumps. The end result is a book that is often tedious and sometimes unconvincing. Also, some of the conclusions aren't as elucidated as I would have liked; he charts certain chronological progressions without really determining or even speculating how or why they changed over time. The book is a great foundational work and it has some fascinating anecdotes, but it's not without its flaws.(less)