Sometimes books harmonize with you.
In 2010 I signed up for OK Cupid on a whim, where I met my husband, who got a new job at the same time as another guy, who introduced us to his wife, who had met a woman through blogging, who came to the US to visit, who mentioned that she was reading 11/22/63 by Stephen King. A book I had never heard of, although it was fairly new. A book that I found out got pretty great reviews, even though I don’t remember any hype when it was released. Perhaps I should dedicate this post to OK Cupid, without whom I would have never stumbled upon this book at all.
11/22/63 opens with Jake, a high school English teacher, who learns that he can go back in time and stop the assassination of JFK. But it won’t be easy – first, he has to make sure that he can actually change the past. Second, the past does not like to be changed. And third, he falls in love.
First things first, I loved this book.
Ok, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, commence K’s internal ramblings. If you just want to know what I liked about the book, skip down about 6 paragraphs or so (look for the shiny red convertible).
Reading this book brought up so many interesting ideas. Of course, my mind had to start trying to figure out the whys. Why does the past resist change so strongly? And why does the act of changing things make things worse, instead of better? I tend to be a strong believer of Occam’s Razor. The simplest explanation is probably the right one. Molecules, cells, organisms, and people tend to follow the path of least resistance. With that in mind, I always sort of had this underlying belief that the general flow, the direction of life was pretty much what it was. That our individual choices don’t have that big of an impact on the whole. A body with small mass doesn’t exert much force, right? And what is the mass of one individual’s actions compared to that of a world of 7 billion? Or compared to an entire universe? So, for the most part, I believe our choices and our actions have local effects, but the farther away from ourselves we move, the smaller the impact becomes. Kind of the opposite of the butterfly effect, I guess.
On the one hand it’s kind of depressing to admit that you are a little fish. On the other (better) hand, it’s incredibly freeing to realize that you can make choices for you. I believe that the things we do (for good or bad) affect ourselves most of all.
(There’s a point here besides my philosophical wanderings.) But, then comes along Mr. King with an addendum to my theory. When Jake realizes that his actions have turned the world awry, and when the Green Card Man tries to explain about the difficulty of keeping all the strings in order, I started to have a new thought. Maybe what happens is that the world does follow the path of least resistance, and when we throw a wrench in that path, we’ve upset some natural dynamic. The wrenches could look like anything, right? Something as small as exerting our will over our inclination, or something like deep water drilling, or something like altering the path someone else was meant to take. Maybe all those wrenches, big and small, add up to create calamity and pain – natural disasters and genetic variance that destroys empathy and sharps turns in the flow of society’s progress. Because we can’t live without exerting our will. We lost that ability when our species gained consciousness. And we can’t live without affecting another’s path. So do these actions we take actually create the “bad” things that happen? It’s an interesting thought.
And here’s another: are the “bad” things that happen really bad? This book has me thinking about karma and balance. I believe that you will only be able to experience joy in relation to the amount of pain you are willing to travel through. You can choose to live your life in a manner that is stable – not too much risk, not too much pain, but not too much love, not too much joy. Or you can live your life in the peaks and valleys – taking the depths of pain as they come with risk, and experiencing the joys that come with it as well. You can avoid hurt if you want, but at what cost?
As Jake wrestled with decisions about what to change, and whether or not to try, this is what I thought of. Should he try to make decisions, change outcomes that would prevent people he loved from experiencing pain? Is that even possible? Does his desire to alter balance – to prevent loss in lives of the Dunning family, and in the lives of the people of Jodie – ultimately cause the destruction he finds waiting for him in the present?
I wonder if humans are uniquely fearful of pain and death. Perhaps we are, because we have created such violent means and reasons to accomplish it. It has become something to avoid at all costs, rather than something to embrace as a natural part of life.
11/22/63 is a beautiful read. It’s not all philosophical wanderings – that’s just me. The plot was driving, and interesting, including all the little side stories along the way. Some of those side stories were my favorite parts. I loved the little nods to culture and music, and the silly “current” things Jake/George accidentally let slip. I loved how much he loved his ’54 Sunliner convertible and the omnipresent white over red Plymouth Fury from Christine. (Apparently there were several references to other King book’s including the entire town of Derry, Maine. I didn’t catch that one, having never read or seen It.)
I think I knew where it was ultimately going, but that made it no less exciting to go on the journey. I thought the Green Card Man’s explanations were a little weak, but I had no problem taking off from what he said and coming up with my own ideas. Also, being from Dallas and now living in Fort Worth, I loved the references to local streets and buildings I knew and the tidbits of Texas history slipped in here and there. He certainly did his research for this one (I read that this book is some 40 years in the making). I haven’t read a lot of King (I’m not a fan of horror), so I’m not sure if this is a King thing or something he just did in this book, but the cities themselves become characters. I love that in his afterward he says that people will be upset with how hard he was on Dallas, but asserts that the Dallas of 1963 deserved it. And he’s right, sometimes Dallas in 2012 still does. The slums, the crime, and the neglect aren’t gone, they’ve just moved a little since then. And at the end of a sad story, I’m (of course) a sucker for his nod to a happy ending.
K’s rating of 11/22/63 by Stephen King: 9/10 mangoes