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I usually do not post comments on books I read in this blog, but sometimes a book I just finished seems to be calling out for some notes to be jotted down, if only to avoid the depressing development of having forgotten everything you just enjoyed over the course of a mere couple of months.

I do not want to forget the details of “11-22-63”, because I thoroughly enjoyed it, and in particular did I enjoy how he compiled known fiction elements into something gripping and new. If you, like me, are a long-time Stephen King admirer, then a whole bunch of motifs come leaping at you within the first couple of pages – and it is clear where this story is heading: It is “Dead Zone” and the camp fire story of the monkey’s paw, it is nostalgia and melancholia about the things we leave behind, with the special touch of melancholia subjective narration can provide (the Summer novella “The Body”, famous as the source for “Stand By Me”, comes to mind). Mortality and ageing play a part, as does dedicated love. And evil: not the abstract force that allows religions to set pretty good incentives for their followers, but evil as a concrete element partaking in the machinery of human interaction. King wrote about evil personified before, most notably in his bulky “It”, and no surprise that it is the town of Derry, home of the clown that haunted Derry’s sewers so long ago, that plays a part in this story again.

If you are a long-time fan, you will enjoy old friends showing up again (the dancing kids in Derry are not just friends, they have been accomplices in defeating evil), but there are also hints that it is not just the friends that you will meet again (one car that the main character stumbles across frequently suspiciously looks like the one called “Christine” in another great King-fest of nostalgia).

King lines up his new heroes and the old ones to tackle the main question that is clear from the title: What if… What if you could stop the father from killing his kids because you knew in advance and could take him out. What if you could stop the stray bullet from paralyzing the girl? What if you could stop the ex-husband from cutting up the pretty girl? What if you could stop Oswald from shooting Kennedy? King is such an incredibly mature, skilled and seemingly relaxed author today that he does not step into the obvious trap of having an answer to this. He is not interested very much in messages, his strength is characters. The characters at the heart of his stories are always elaborated, always understandable, always detailed to a degree that makes it impossible not to understand their motives and actions. These are real people (even if they are a dog – sorry Cujo, I did not want to leave you out, don’t get mad!), and often they are facing real decisions. Of course it is easy to fix a past murder if you have a time machine (or time rabbit hole), but what some elaborated on as butterfly effect, others as rippling the time-space continuum, yet others as messing with God’s plan, is not trivial. The worlds King paints in this book may have some troubles of their own (earth-crust shattering ripples, a general resistance to change, the past is obdurate), but at their core they are a variation on what Doctor Pangloss already understood: we have to assume that the world as it is is the best of all possible worlds, because it is the God decided to give to us. Creating deviations from this natural path once it has been established has fascinated authors for ages (examples here), and what Stephen King can add to the discussion he does. He brings it to the heart of the American trauma, and he shatters plenty of self-delusions about the way of US and world history doing this. Would saving Kennedy (or Martin Luther King, or Robert Kennedy) have been for the better? He shows that using the terms “better” or “worse” will get your fingers burned, because the implications of any such change – as theoretical a mind experiment as it may be – are mind-bogglingly complex. At one point in the book, we are shown one of the alternate realities that could be created, and suffice it to say that it is not clear why we should want to have that one rather than the one we know.

Decades ago, Stephen King wrote in one of his books’foreword or afterword (usually gems of author’s wisdom and insight, not to be skipped by any means) that he has only a tiny handful of original ideas in his life, and has written variations on these ever since. It is interesting to see that “11-22-63” is such a reprocessed seasoned idea, and makes for a book that did not only receive stunningly positive reviews (not a regular occurrence for King novels), but also a thrilling read. I was willing to get along on the ride with these people, with George / Jake, Sadie, Mike and Deek, I was willing to follow them at much greater lengths than the people from the maybe at face value more “original” “The Dome”, which maybe lacked the humanity, or rather the personalization and individualization of large events that “11-22-63” has.

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