(Warning, I guess? Minor spoilers concerning Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life follow)
Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books are sharply plotted, funny, and dark, filled with fierce, intelligent, and damaged women. Really, to call them “Jackson Brodie” books is a bit of a misnomer: Brodie tends to act more as the (scruffy, charming, irresponsible) cog that keeps the precise machinery of the plots rolling, and the focus of the books rests much more on the victims of the crimes he investigates. Part of the reason I find the books appealing is that they are deeply concerned with ethics, with making things right, or (more common in Atkinson) the impossibility of doing so.
Life after Life foregrounds this question of what it would mean to “make things right”: quite literally allowing the main character, Ursula (another of Atkinson’s fierce, intelligent, damaged women) to try again and again (and again) to live her life in an attempt to get things right in a murky sort of reincarnation/eternal recurrence scenario (at first it appears Ursula does not realize she is living her life over and over, beyond a sort of vague sense of dread and deja vu, but as the book goes on she seems to become more aware of what is happening). It’s a well-written book, and many readers like it much more than I did, and I’m pleased Atkinson has a larger readership as a result. At on level, part of my dislike has to do with the darkness of the book (YMMV): in none of Ursula’s various lives is she ever granted much happiness by her author, and some of her lives are very dark indeed (in one life she is trapped in a marriage with a Nazi party official; in another her life is derailed by a rape, illegal abortion, alcoholism and an abusive husband). But even if Atkinson had let Ursula have at least one happy life the book does not quite work for me, even if it has worked for many other readers.
When I first heard of the book, I thought it sounded like a bad idea – the difficulty of dealing with the pure repetition of going through one life over and over again sounded a bit like a bad video game where each time you “die” you start over again at Level One. That sort of thing is going to get a little boring after a while. But, Atkinson avoids boredom at the level of plot for the most part. She is a skilled writer and she uses omniscient third person narration (or, to use Ursula Le Guin’s term, which I like better: “authorial narration”) to illuminate different facets of Ursula’s various lives (although as Ursula gets older, the third person narrator becomes more limited, tied closer to Ursula’s perspective). So, for example, Ursula’s birth is described many times, but from the alternative perspectives of her mother, of the doctor arriving on the scene, of the midwife delayed by a snowstorm etc., each time with little variations that illuminate and trigger a sense of recognition of something “the same, but different” in the reader.
The lives Atkinson writes also have enough variety and change to remain engaging and believable (although, as mentioned, in none of them is Ursula granted much chance at happiness). The book isn’t some sort of modern wish-fulfillment fantasy that the life we have is the life we choose. In many of Ursula’s lives, events entirely out of her control and influence occur (WWII being the ultimate constraint that cuts across all her lives, at least those lives where she lives long enough to see it) that shape her life as much or more than any particular choices Ursula herself makes. One of the strengths of Life after Life is the way it draws attention to the radical contingency of our lives, the ways in which the lives we live (and the selves we are) are not purely our own (one of the basic myths of our contemporary moment).
Yet, despite Atkinson’s imagination and skillful plotting, the book still ends up being a little bit boring at the level of … well, I’m not sure how to describe it: the level of “narrative consequence”? The level of fictional metaphysics? (Is metaphysics an appropriate category for evaluating a novel?). The basic issue I had is that I kept expecting a narrative payoff: that this life was finally Urusula’s “true” life, that a life mattered and had meaning beyond the internal cause and effect of each separate timeline. I suppose I was hoping for some extension of identity beyond the raw events of the different lives. But, apart from Urusula’s growing awareness of her multiple lives (which remains quite vague), there is no ultimate payoff of meaning. It’s not clear to me that if Urusula is able to assassinate Hitler (for example) that this has any sort of effect outside of that particular timeline. If Hitler dies in one life, but is alive in all the others, and the cycle just keeps repeating, I’m not sure what it actually means for a reader (or for Ursula). At one point near the end of the book Ursula kills herself in order to “restart” so she can try and get things right the next time around. But, if she kills herself just to start over again and make another attempt, it just draws attention to a feeling of triviality that starts to creep over the reader as the book carries on: if one of Ursula’s lives is tossed away without consequence, what exactly is the value of each life she lives?
I might be missing the point. After all, we as readers do see the different lives and so we are able to make judgments that Ursula (and others in the narrative) cannot concerning what is the “best” life among the various lives she leads. This is fiction after all and it’s all made up anyway; Atkinson is just foregrounding this fact in a particularly blunt manner. But, drawing attention to the artificiality of her creation, to the fact that Ursula’s lives are written and could be written otherwise (and I suppose this is partly why the darkness of the book rankles – and it must rankle me a fair amount, since I’ve mentioned it too many times already), she deflates the power of her fictional world. If the world the characters inhabit has no ultimate meaning for them, I’m not sure why it means much for me as a reader. I’m not sure what sort of judgment of what is good or “best” is possible if the cycle just continues turning. This is perhaps something of a religious complaint, a call for some sort of ultimate framework of meaning within the narrative which Atkinson refuses to provide. Perhaps other readers don’t find the idea that this varied repetition is all there is as boring (or, in a different light, as terrifying) as I do. As mentioned, I think Atkinson is an author very concerned with ethics, with “setting things right” as I put it earlier. I suppose my frustration with this book is that if every choice Ursula faces is (eternally?) relativized in repeating cycles, her attempts to “set things right” appear to be temporary, illusory, weightless – for her, and for us.