In the past couple of months I have read three novels dealing with some form of time travel, although I use that phrase loosely. I’d make a point about this contemporary interest in moving backwards in time as being about the desire to escape the frustrations and increasing fears of the current day, but that dog won’t hunt. Time travel has always been a fictional mainstay, and it would be equally true to say that these novels do the work of historical fiction.
Stephen King’s 11/22/63 (2011) has a pretty conventional plot: a character discovers a time portal to the past and takes on the mission of keeping Lee Harvey Oswald from murdering JFK. It’s an odd book, simultaneously flabby and in desperate need of editing, while still managing to induce a good deal of anxiety in the reader. I found myself irritated with the wordiness, but happy to turn the pages to find out what happened next. The payoff, however, is pretty predictable: Oops! What if changing the past isn’t such a good idea after all?
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (2013) by Andrew Sean Greer has a more complicated structure. The novel begins in 1985 when Felix, the twin brother of the protagonist, Greta Wells, dies of AIDS. Soon thereafter Nathan, Greta’s husband, leaves her and she sinks into a profound depression. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatments send her into 1918, where she is still Greta Wells, Felix is alive, and Nathan is still her husband. This Greta is also receiving ECT, which sends her into 1941 with the same cast of characters, but yet another life.
This is a fun, readable book that asks us to think about the various forms that a ‘plague’ might take, about the restrictions and possibilities of different times—for women, for gay men, for the foreign-born, for example. We are asked to think about the extent to which each life is a miracle and a mystery, as well as how we, solipsistically, give the lives of others meaning. When Greta is told that a young lover has died of influenza in her 1918 life, she thinks:
No, no, my mind kept insisting, he can’t be dead. It’s impossible, impossible. I was just about to write him! As if others’ lives lasted only until we were out of their stories.
Life After Life (2013) by Kate Atkinson is far more complicated still, and more satisfying. To provide a summary for this novel is almost impossible. The protagonist, Ursula Todd, the third child in a five-sibling family, is born into an upper-class English family in 1910, before the first of the world wars that would change England. The conceit of the novel is that Ursula inhabits lives instead of a life. Over and over “darkness falls” on Ursula, but then, instead of a death, we get an authorial reset, and Ursula (along with the reader) is returned to the moment of her birth, and to the possibility of different choices. Although Ursula is not given the ability to see the future through these resets, she does sense danger, and learns from a past that might still be in her future. At one point, late in the novel, Ursula explains to her psychiatrist that time isn’t circular; rather, it’s like a palimpsest, a manuscript on which the original writing has been crossed out, or erased, to allow for later writing (but the traces of the former writing remain).
Ursula’s no-nonsense mother, Sylvie, insists that “practice makes perfect,” a commonplace that articulates the novel’s rewind-and-don’t-quite-repeat structure. A plot with this circularity puts a great deal of pressure on the conclusion of the novel, for the reader must ask: what is the perfection which the practice has made possible? I have talked with several readers of this novel, and we do not agree at all about the ending of the book (which is one of the reasons that I think this makes a terrific selection for a book club). I suspect that Ursula’s discussions with her psychiatrist provide an instruction manual of sorts for reading the ending. The following discussion takes place toward the end of the novel, when (in this incarnation) Ursula is in a sanatorium.
The psychiatrist, Dr. Kellet, begins to recite from First Corinthians: “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge…” leaving Ursula to complete the passage, “…and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.” The question, Dr. Kellet says, is “do you have enough?” Ursula asks, “Enough what?” Dr. Kellet doesn’t answer, but the reader fills the answer in: charity, which we might translate as love.
But that begs Ursula’s question, for we are left to define love. As I read the novel, Ursula—or perhaps I should say, the author, for it is an authorial intrusion that “resets” Ursula’s lives—defines this love by way of her final “beginning” and “ending” of the novel. It is a problematic ending, as it chooses to allow life and happiness for someone else, for a beloved brother. It does not alter the horror of war, represented harrowingly by the novel’s constant return to the particulars of the bombing of London in WWII. (From a novelist’s perspective, there is that pesky problem with known history, since the reader knows, for example, that WWII was not averted through the early death of Hitler.)
And here’s the notion of the palimpsest again: in terms of our understanding of history, the past comes to us in the form of texts, written, observed, forgotten, erased, lost, rewritten.
Reading a novel like Life After Life is not a passive process: we are expected to loop back, reread, and then, move forward again. This is why I like to read good books with a pencil at hand, making notes in the margins, asking questions, looking for narrative hooks. This is one of the reasons why I prefer the material book to the electronic version. (I know that ebooks allow readers to highlight and make notes, too; I just don’t know of readers who do.) For example, here are a couple of lines from an early chapter (from Sylvie’s third-person point of view as she gazes on her newborn, Ursula): “Ursula opened her milky eyes and seemed to fix her gaze on the weary snowdrop. Rock-a-by baby, Sylvie crooned. How calm the house was. How deceptive that could be. One could lose everything in the blink of an eye, the slip of a foot. ‘One must avoid dark thoughts at all costs,’ she said to Ursula.”
About twenty-five pages later, we see Ursula, as a small child, about to experience an early almost-death: “The slates were slick with ice and Ursula had barely placed her small, slippered foot on the slope beneath the window before it slid out from under her…. Darkness fell.”
From the slip of a foot to the slippered foot, from dark thoughts to the darkness that falls, and yes, it all can be lost in the blink of an eye. But what a pleasure to be in the hands of an author with this level of care and control in the meantime!