At least here in Lawrence, Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction this year for 6 more weeks of winter seems to have been on the money. Not a Groundhog Day goes by without fond recollections of its namesake movie, a comedy which, due to the profundity of its central problem—a man doomed to repeat the same one day of his life until he gets it right—has arguably recast the meaning of the holiday itself. Just a month past New Year’s Day and its resolutions, Groundhog Day, as symbolized by Bill Murray’s struggle to break free of banality, is a day to reflect on how difficult it can be to change. It’s another testament to the movie that, for all its lightheartedness, the title itself has become shorthand for bad habits and repetitive situations.
As it happens, this year I read two very good novels that explore the Groundhog Day idea in depth. The first, Ken Grimwood’s Replay, is one of the most unpredictable books I’ve read in some time. The novel’s 43-year old protagonist, an obscure radio journalist named Jeff Winston, dies of a heart attack in 1988, but regains consciousness in 1963, inhabiting his young body and original Emory University dorm room. For reasons unknown to him, Winston is apparently reliving his life from that moment onward, although he retains memories of the years he has already lived. While the book does provoke contemplation of how one would approach such an existential do-over, the practical aspects of Winston’s situation are so fascinating that its bigger philosophical questions seem almost to operate in the background. Where Bill Murray’s jaded weatherman in Groundhog Day buries the complexity of his condition in laughs, Replay’s Jeff Winston wields his as a superpower akin to classic sci fi tropes like invisibility or mind reading, inviting readers to contemplate the possibilities in knowing the outcome of future historical and sporting events (Winston forgoes his career almost immediately in favor of long odds bets on World Series and Super Bowl outcomes he already knows, for example). The mysteriousness of Winston’s situation also kept me turning the pages just to see how author Grimwood would resolve all the practical questions of his extended thought experiment, such as why the phenomenon occurs, whether it happens to anyone else in the story, and how it will conclude.
Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, which made almost everyone’s best books of 2013 list, is another take on the idea of a repeating cycle of life and death. Atkinson, veteran British author of the instant classic Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Case Histories, upon which the PBS Masterpiece Mystery! series of the same title is based, gives us a repeat performer named Ursula Todd, born during a snowstorm in February 1910, numerous times. Unlike the heroes of Groundhog Day and Replay, Ursula’s recollection of her past lives dawns on her intuitively, as she experiences intense déjà vu, premonitions of the everyday details of life, and instinctive dread of the events which have previously done her in. Atkinson’s approach is the most psychological of the three; in one sense the novel is an examination of how such a situation would impact one’s personality. In another sense, it charts the various paths a life can take, offering many versions of a single character as personal challenges and the forces of history work upon her in different ways. At heart, though, Life after Life is simply a chronicle of an eminently likeable middle class British family as they raise five children and confront two world wars. Atkinson’s haunting depictions of the German bombing of London may be the core experience of the book, and her protagonist’s peculiar talent allows her to play out that favorite and ever satisfying scenario of the counter factual historian: the assassination of Hitler before all the trouble can even begin.
While none of us here at the library is stuck in a reincarnation loop (at least that we know of), I’m pleased to announce we have been able to pool years of esoteric study, utter an incantation or two, and alter the laws of space and time to allow for multiple experiences of reading Life after Life. If you enjoyed it the first time around, see what it’s like in large print, on CD or downloadable audio, and on Kindle , Nook , and Sony eReaders. – Dan Coleman, Collection Development