“And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur — if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.”
This is a strange situation: a promising if rather thin concept taken on by a very good writer, who then sticks with it longer than she really should. Ursula Todd is made to / fated to live her life over and over again, maybe improving on her previous assay each time, through change in circumstance; Atkinson gives us some hints, as here, that Ursula may have some degree of awareness of this, an accretion of something, or a strong sense of deja vu, but largely the knowledge of this repetition is between us and the author. So we see one character follow a great number of possible paths, take a great number of choices, and we get to see the differences in outcomes that seemingly small choices can make. On the one hand, this is a pretty positive thing; it emphasizes the role of contingency, encourages or even enforces empathy, in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god kind of way. And, occasionally, the formal restrictions of the conceit work to amplify the narrative in a very particular, effective way, like when Ursula dies over and over from the Spanish flu: the repetition underlines exactly how inescapable that epidemic was. But this form also makes Ursula’s choices weightless, lacking consequences, precisely because we know that however invested in a particular moment, or however horrified by a particular outcome, death will be an escape rather than an ending, and she will have another chance to do it all over again, another opportunity to get things right.
(An aside: there is actually a review to be written — and I didn’t write this review — about Life After Life and gamification: Ursula’s story resembles really very strongly a difficult, narrative video game, where you start over and over until you master a tricky part of one level, and then have to start over and over to master the tricky part of the next level. Of course, with the video game you’re the one who’s building up a skill; perhaps the problem with a gamified Life After Life is that it’s a little like watching someone play a video game?)
Regan Arthur 04.02.13
April 27, 2013, 11:00am Comments