In The Simpsons’ sixth-season Halloween episode — “Treehouse of Horror V,” primarily remembered for its Shining knock-off, The Shinning — Homer accidentally turns his toaster into a time machine, travels back to the prehistoric age, and realizes that anything he does in the past has the capacity to change the future. It’s a lesson as pivotal to time travel (see: every story ever told about time travel) as it is irrelevant to everyday life. After all, we can’t not make decisions. Should our choices send us down one path at the expense of others — or, to get more J.J. Abrams about it, should each of our choices create countless additional paths which themselves generate still more simultaneously occurring futures — so be it. We’ll never know the difference.
Unless. Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is elegantly concerned with this abundance of potential paths, and with the possibility that one might indeed be aware of their existence. At the heart of LAL is Ursula, born on a snowy night in 1910, dead within minutes, and then born again — on a snowy night in 1910. Nor is Ursula’s first rebirth her last: She dies in a variety of ways, and at a variety of ages, over the course of the book, and only in certain versions of her life does she mature enough to experience significant rites of passage, (or in some cases enough to make major contributions to the trajectory of world history). In this way, Life After Life is not so much about reincarnation — Ursula is in all iterations herself, never a cat or a horse or a blade of grass — and more about how even small choices have the power (or maybe just the capacity?) to redirect our lives. In other words, Ursula is not repeatedly reborn to a different set of circumstances, but rather given multiple opportunities to live within the same set of circumstances. It’s how she handles each life that shapes its direction.
Then again, is it? It’s not too spoiler-y to say that this girl dies a LOT. Definitely more than seems statistically reasonable for one person, even accounting for a handful of deaths at the hands of early-1900s influenza. Individually, each of these deaths emphasizes the chaos of life, the reality that anyone can perish at any moment, and be saved or doomed by the most fickle of circumstances. But collectively the deaths suggest a certain Final Destination-ish cosmic obsession, one perhaps immune to silly things like free will. So maybe the point is that Ursula’s choices don’t have any bearing on her fate. Or maybe Ursula isn’t the exception but the norm, and we’re all constantly living and dying and living again, spinning off countless versions of ourselves at each of life’s intersections, like a hydra with decisions for heads. Maybe that’s bad? Maybe it’s good? Maybe it just is.
The only Kate Atkinson I’d read before this was Case Histories, a literary detective novel a la Tana French (also) that provided little insight into how she’d fare on something zanier. But the beauty of Life After Life is its accessibility. Like Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, LAL doesn’t expend much energy rhapsodizing on the implications of its own premise; on its face, the novel always feel more “Ursula dies and is born again and let’s see what happens” than “Ursula dies and is born again and what does that mean?” Atkinson also accomplishes the admirable task of being at once poignant and bleak and funny. See:
“Bad news, I’m afraid,” he said, opening the curtains.
“What bad news?” she asked.
“Norway has fallen.”
“Poor Norway,” she said and sipped the hot tea.
(Ah, World War II humor. Too soon?)
There’s a quote in Frankenstein that goes: “Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity and ruin.” I think this, ultimately, is the takeaway from Life After Life. Not that our decisions matter or don’t, but that they are small in the grand scheme of things – that simply by virtue of existing we are forever opening ourselves up to any number of possibilities in life. That maybe we will accomplish something so great as to make headlines and history books, but also maybe we’ll die in a freak accident. (Either way, all roads lead to death.)
At the end of that Simpsons episode, Homer — having traveled back and forth and back and forth in time searching for a return to normalcy — ends up in a version of his kitchen with a version of his family that for all intents and purposes seems business as usual. At least, until they start eating with lizard tongues. Maybe indifferent, maybe exhausted, maybe simply resigned to very imperfection of existence, Homer pauses, shrugs, and says, “Close enough.” I can’t explain why, but I feel like that about sums it all up.
TITLE: Life After Life
AUTHOR: Kate Atkinson
PAGES: 560 (paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Case Histories, Behind the Scenes at the Museum
SORTA LIKE: The Post-Birthday World meets Beautiful Ruins with a bit o’ 11/22/63
FIRST LINE: “A tug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the cafe.’