Last week, I finished a 750 page book that at times I could barely stand putting down. Not that it didn't have its sagging moments, its occasional tedium of detail -- which book that long can avoid those things? But I don't recall a book which kept me wondering so long about so many threads, about how the author would resolve each of them.
Probably because I've never been much interested in fantasy and horror -- give me the real stuff, I say -- I've never read Stephen King. And yet I also know that he has written more than just horror; a novella he wrote, for example, was turned into what I consider the most magnificent film I've ever seen, "The Shawshank Redemption." I started on 11.22.63 perhaps only because it is about the assassination of JFK. Even if you don't buy the myriad conspiracy theories, it is fascinating to speculate about all the mystery and questions around the event. Who was Lee Harvey Oswald? What was he like? Who was Jack Ruby? What made him shoot Oswald? What if he hadn't? What if Oswald had missed?
And this book takes you into that thicket of questions. Quite literally so, via that time-tested fiction device: time travel. What happens if you can change the past? What happens if it is a relatively small event you're changing, one with few wider implications? What happens if it is, well, the murder of an American President? Is one of these more difficult to achieve than the other? What happens when you return to the present? What happens when you return to the past after returning to the present?
It's not that nobody has tackled such themes before; and more than that, it's not that none of us have ever thought about them. But King explores them in different ways. Of which, surprisingly, the most telling is a love story. Not the assassination itself, not the travel through time itself, but a love story.
How else can a relationship across the barrier of time play out except as heartbreak? And yet King manages to find believable hope for his story. You can't change the past, but if you want, it can make you whole.
What ifs are fine as far as they go. The what nows are infinitely more interesting.