Muddling through "Life after Life": A Reflection on Plot and Character in Kate Atkinson’s New Novel

            Every novelist wants to be the one who rewrites the rules of fiction. But it’s remarkable how for all the experimentations over the past couple of centuries most of the basic elements of storytelling have yet to be supplanted. To be sure, a few writers have won over relatively small and likely ephemeral audiences with their scofflaw writerly antics. But guys like D.F. Wallace and Don DeLillo (and even post-Portrait Joyce) only succeeded by appealing to readers’ desire to fit in with the reigning cohort of sophisticates. If telling stories can be thought of as akin to performing magic, with the chief sleight-of-hand being to make the audience forget for a moment that what they’re witnessing is, after all, just a story, then the meager success of experimental fiction over the past few decades can be ascribed to the way it panders to a subset of readers who like to think of themselves as too cool to believe in magic. In the same way we momentarily marvel, not at a magician’s skillfulness at legerdemain, but at the real magic we’ve just borne witness to, the feat of story magic is accomplished by misdirecting attention away from the mechanics of narrative toward the more compelling verisimilitude of the characters and the concrete immediacy of the their dilemmas. The authors of experimental works pointedly eschew misdirection and instead go out of their way to call attention to the inner workings of narrative, making for some painfully, purposefully bad stories which may nonetheless garner a modicum of popularity because each nudge and wink to the reader serves as a sort of secret hipster handshake.

            That the citadel of realism has withstood  innumerable full-on assaults suggests that the greats who first codified the rules of story writing—the Homers, the Shakespeares, the Austens, the Flauberts, the pre-Ulysses Joyces—weren’t merely making them up whole-cloth and hoping they would catch on, but rather discovering them as entry points to universal facets of the human imagination. Accordingly, the value of any given attempt at fashioning a new narrative mode isn’t exclusively determined by its popularity or staying power. Negative results in fiction, just as in science, can be as fascinating and as fruitful as positive findings because designs with built-in flaws can foster appreciation for more finely tuned and fully functional works. Aspiring novelists might even view the myriad frustrations of experimental fiction as comprising a trail of clues to follow along the path to achievements more faithful to the natural aims of the art form. Such an approach may strike aficionados of the avant-garde as narrow-minded or overly constraining. But writing must operate within a limited set of parameters to be recognized and appreciated as belonging to the category of literary art. And within that category, both societies and individuals find the experience of reading some stories to be more fulfilling, more impactful, more valuable than others. Tastes, societal and individual, along with other factors extrinsic to the story, cannot be discounted. But, though the firmness with which gradations of quality can be established is disputable, the notion that no basis at all reliable could exist for distinguishing the best of stories from the worst resides in a rather remote region on the plausibility scale.

            As an attempt at innovation, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel is uniquely instructive because it relies on a combination of traditional and experimental storytelling techniques. Life after Life has two design flaws, one built-in deliberately, and the other, more damaging one borne either of a misconception or a miscalculation. The deliberate flaw is the central conceit of the plot. Ursula Todd, whose birth in an English house called Fox Corner on a day of heavy snow in February of 1910 we witness again and again, meets with as many untimely demises, only to be granted a new beginning in the next chapter according to the author’s whimsy. Ursula isn’t ever fully aware of what occurred in the previous iterations of her expanding personal multiverse, but she has glimmerings, akin to intense déjà vu, that are at several points vivid enough to influence her decisions. A few tragic occurrences even leave traces on what Ursula describes as the “palimpsest” (506) of time pronounced enough to goad her into drastic measures. One of these instances, when the child Ursula pushes a maid named Bridget down the stairs at Fox Corner to prevent her from attending an Armistice celebration where she’ll contract the influenza that dooms them both, ends up being the point where Ursula as a character comes closest to transcending the abortive contrivances of the plot. But another one, her trying to prevent World War II by killing Hitler before he comes to power, only brings the novel’s second design flaw into sharper focus. Wouldn’t keeping Hitler from playing his now historical role be the first revision that occurred to just about anyone?

But for all the authorial manipulations Life after Life is remarkably readable. Atkinson’s prose and her mastery of scene place her among the best novelists working today. The narration rolls along with a cool precision and a casual sophistication that effortlessly takes on perspective after perspective without ever straying too far from Ursula. And the construction of the scenes as overlapping vignettes, each with interleaved time-travels of its own, often has the effect of engrossing your attention enough to distract you from any concern that the current timeline will be unceremoniously abandoned while also obviating, for the most part, any tedium of repetition. Some of the most devastating scenes occur in the chapters devoted to the Blitz, during which Ursula finds herself in the basement of a collapsed apartment building, once as a resident, and later as a volunteer for a rescue service. The first time through, Ursula is knocked unconscious by the explosion that topples the building. What she sees as she comes to slides with disturbing ease from the mundane to the macabre.

Looking up through the fractured floorboards and the shattered beams she could see a dress hanging limply on a coat hanger, hooked to a picture rail. It was the picture rail in the Miller’s lounge on the ground floor, Ursula recognized the wallpaper of sallow, overblown roses. She had seen Lavinia Nesbit on the stairs wearing the dress only this evening, when it had been the color of pea soup (and equally limp). Now it was a gray bomb-dust shade and had migrated down a floor. A few yards from her head she could see her own kettle, a big brown thing, surplus to requirements in Fox Corner. She recognized it from the thick twine wound around the handle one day long ago by Mrs. Glover. Everything was in the wrong place now, including herself. (272)

The narration then moves backward in time to detail how she ended up amid the rubble of the building, including an encounter with Lavinia on the stairs, before returning to that one hitherto innocuous item. Her neighbor had been wearing a brooch in the shape of a cat with a rhinestone for an eye.

Her attention was caught again by Lavinia Nesbit’s dress hanging from the Miller’s picture rail. But it wasn’t Lavinia Nesbit’s dress. A dress didn’t have arms in it. Not sleeves, but arms. With hands. Something on the dress winked at Ursula, a little cat’s eye caught by the crescent moon. The headless, legless body of Lavinia Nesbit herself was hanging from the Miller’s picture rail. It was so absurd that a laugh began to boil up inside Ursula. It never broke because something shifted—a beam, or part of the wall—and she was sprinkled with a shower of talcum-like dust. Her heart thumped uncontrollably in her chest. It was sore, a time-delay bomb waiting to go off. (286)

It’s hard not to imagine yourself in that basement as you read, right down to the absurd laugh that never makes it into existence. This is Atkinson achieving with élan one of the goals of genre fiction—and where else would we expect to find a line about the heroine’s heart thumping uncontrollably in her chest? But in inviting readers to occupy Ursula’s perspective Atkinson has had to empty some space.

            The seamlessness of the narration and the vivid, often lurid episodes captured in the unfailingly well-crafted scenes of Ursula’s many lives effect a degree of immersion in the story that successfully counterbalances the ejective effects of Atkinson’s experimentations with the plot. The experience of these opposing forces—being simultaneously pulled into and cast out of the story—is what makes Life after Life both so intriguing and so instructive. One of the qualities that make stories good is that their various elements operate outside the audience’s awareness. Just as the best performances in cinema are the ones that embody a broad range of emotion while allowing viewers to forget, at least for the moment, that what they’re witnessing is in fact a performance—you’re not watching Daniel Day-Lewis, for instance, but Abraham Lincoln—the best stories immerse readers to the point where they’re no longer considering the story as a story but anxious to discover what lies in store for the characters. True virtuosos in both cinema and fiction, like magicians, want you to have a direct encounter with what never happens and only marvel afterward at the virtuosity that must’ve gone into arranging the illusion. The trick for an author who wants to risk calling attention to the authored nature of the story is to find a way to enfold her manipulations into the reader’s experiences with the characters. Ursula’s many lives must be accepted and understood as an element of the universe in which the plot of Life after Life unfolds and as part of the struggles we hope to see her through by the end of the novel. Unfortunately, the second design flaw, the weakness of Ursula as a character, sabotages the endeavor.

Phil Connors trapped by the snow
            The most obvious comparison to the repetitious plot of Life after Life is to the 1993 movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a character, Phil Connors, who keeps waking up to re-live the same day. What makes audiences accept this blatantly unrealistic premise is that Phil responds to his circumstances in such a convincing way, co-opting our own disbelief. As the movie progresses, Phil adjusts to the new nature of reality by adopting a new set of goals, and by this point our attention is focused much more on his evolving values than on the potential distraction of the plot’s impossibility. Eventually, the liberties screenwriters Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis have taken with the plot become so intermingled with the character and his development that witnessing his transformations is as close to undergoing them ourselves as the medium can hope to bring us. While at first we might’ve resisted the contrivance, just as Phil does, by the end its implausibility couldn’t be any more perfectly beside the point. In other words, the character’s struggles and transformation are compelling enough to misdirect our attention away from the author’s manipulations. That’s the magic of the film.

            In calling attention to the authoredness of the story within the confines of the story itself, Life after Life is also similar to Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel Atonement. But McEwan doesn’t drop the veil until near the end of the story; only then do we discover that one of the characters, Briony Tallis, is actually the author of everything we’ve been reading and that she has altered the events to provide a happier and more hopeful ending for two other characters whose lives she had, in her youthful naiveté, set on a tragic course. Giving them the ending they deserve is the only way she knows of now to atone for the all the pain she caused them in the past. Just as Phil’s transformation misdirects our attention from the manipulations of the plot in Groundhog Day, the revelation of how terrible the tragedy was that occurred to the characters in Atonement covers McEwan’s tracks, as we overlook the fact that he’s tricked us as to the true purpose of the narrative because we’re too busy sympathizing with Briony’s futile urge to set things right. In both cases, the experimentation with plot is thoroughly integrated with the development of a strong, unforgettable character, and any expulsive distraction is subsumed by more engrossing revelations. In both cases, the result is pure magic.

            Ursula Todd on the other hand may have been deliberately conceived of as, if not an entirely empty vessel, then a sparsely furnished one. Atkinson may have intended for her to serve as a type of everywoman to make it easy for readers to take on her perspective as she experiences events like the bombing of her apartment building. While we come to know and sympathize with characters like Phil and Briony, we go some distance toward actually becoming Ursula, letting her serve as our avatar in the various historical moments the story allows us to inhabit. By not filling in the outline of Ursula’s character, Atkinson may have been attempting to make our experience of all the scenes more direct and immediate. But the actual effect is to make them less impactful. We have to care about someone in the scene, someone trying to deal with the dilemma it depicts, before we can invest any emotion in it. Atkinson’s description of Lavinia Nesbit’s body makes it easy to imagine, and dismembered bodies are always disturbing to encounter. But her relationship to Ursula is casual, and in the context of the mulligan-calling plot her death is without consequence.

Briony Tallis being watchful
            Another possible explanation for the weakness of Ursula as a character is that Atkinson created her based on the assumption arising out of folk psychology that personality is reducible to personal history, that what happens to you determines who you become. Many authors and screenwriters fall into this trap of thinking they’re exploring characters when all they’re really doing is recounting a series of tragedies that have befallen them. But things happen to everyone. Character is what you do. Ursula is provisioned with a temperament—introverted, agreeable, conscientious—and she has a couple of habits—she’s a stickler for literary quotation—but she’s apathetic about the myriad revisions her life undergoes, and curiously unconcerned about the plot of her own personal story. For all her references to her shifting past, she has no plans or schemes or ambitions for the future. She exists within an intricate network of relationships, but what loves she has are tepid or taken for granted. And throughout the novel what we take at first to be her private thoughts nearly invariably end up being interrupted by memories of how other characters responded when she voiced them. At many points, especially at the beginning of the novel, she’s little more than a bookish girl waiting around for the next really bad thing to happen to her.

After she pushes the maid Bridget down the stairs to prevent her from bringing home the contagion that killed them both in previous lives, Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, sends her to a psychiatrist named Dr. Kellet who introduces her to Nietzsche’s concept of amor fati, which he defines as, “A simple acceptance of what comes to us, regarding it as neither bad nor good.” He then traces the idea back Pindar, whose take he translates as, “become such as you are, having learned what that is” (164). What does Ursula become? After the incident with the maid, there are a couple more instances of her taking action to avoid the tragedies of earlier iterations, and as the novel progresses it does seem like she might be becoming a little less passively stoic, a little less inert and defeated. But as a character she seems to be responding to the serial do-overs of the plot by taking on the attitude that it doesn’t matter what she does or what she becomes. In one of the timelines she most proactively shapes for herself, she travels to the continent to study Modern Languages so she can be a teacher, but even in this life she does little but idly wait for something to happen. Before returning to England,

She had deferred for a year, saying she wanted an opportunity to see a little of the world before “settling down” to a lifetime at the blackboard. That was her rationale anyway, the one that she paraded for parental scrutiny, whereas her true hope was that something would happen in the course of her time abroad that would mean she need never take up the place. What that “something” was she had no idea (“Love perhaps,” Millie said wistfully). Anything really would mean she didn’t end up as an embittered spinster in a girls’ grammar school, spooling her way through the conjugation of foreign verbs, chalk dust falling from her clothes like dandruff. (She based this portrait on her own schoolmistresses.) It wasn’t a profession that had garnered much enthusiasm in her immediate circle either. (333-4)

Again, the scenes and the mindset are easy to imagine (or recall), but just as Ursula’s plan fails to garner much enthusiasm, her plight—her fate—fails to arouse much concern, nowhere near enough, at any rate, to misdirect our attention from the authoredness of the plot.

Phil beats the clock
            There’s a scene late in the novel that has Ursula’s father, Hugh, pondering his children’s personalities. “Ursula, of course, was different to all of them,” he thinks. “She was watchful, as if she were trying to drink in the whole world through those little green eyes that were both his and hers.” He can’t help adding, “She was rather unnerving” (486). But to be unnerving she would have to at least threaten to do something; she would have to be nosy or meddlesome, like Briony, instead of just watchful. What Hugh seems to be picking up on is that Ursula simply knows more than she should, a precocity borne of her wanderings on the palimpsest of time. But whereas a character like Phil quickly learns to exploit his foreknowledge it never occurs to Ursula to make any adjustments unless it’s to save her life or the life of a family member. Tellingly, however, there are a couple of characters in Life after Life for whom amor fati amounts to something other than an argument for impassivity.

Most people muddled through events and only in retrospect realized their significance. The Führer was different, he was consciously making history for the future. Only a true narcissist could do that. And Speer was designing buildings for Berlin so that they would look good when they were ruins a thousand years from now, his gift to the Führer. (To think on such a scale! Ursula lived hour by hour, another consequence of motherhood, the future as much a mystery as the past.) (351)

Of course, we know Ursula’s living hour by hour isn’t just a consequence of her being a mother, since this is the only timeline on which she becomes one. The moral shading to the issue of whether one should actually participate in history is cast over Ursula’s Aunt Izzie as well. Both Ursula and the rest of her family express a vague—or for Sylvie not so vague—disapproval of Izzie, which is ironic because she’s the most—really the only memorable character in the novel. Aunt Izzie actually does things. She elopes to Paris with a married man. She writes a series of children’s books. She moves to California with a playwright. And she’s always there to help Ursula when she gets in trouble.

            Whatever the reason was behind Atkinson’s decision to make her protagonist a mere silent watcher, the consequences for the novel as a whole are to render it devoid of any sense of progression or momentum. Imagine Groundhog Day without a character whose incandescent sarcasm and unchanneled charisma gradually give way to profound fellow-feeling, replaced by one who re-lives the same day over and over without ever seeming to learn or adjust, who never even comes close to pulling off that one perfect day that proves she’s worthy to wake up to a real tomorrow. Imagine Atonement without Briony’s fierce interiority and simmering loneliness. Most stories are going to seem dull compared to these two, but they demonstrate that however fleeting a story’s impact on audiences may be, it begins and ends with the central character’s active engagement with the world and the transformations they undergo as a result of it. Maybe Atkinson wanted to give her readers an experience of life’s preciousness, the contingent nature of everything we hold dear, an antidote to all the rushing desperation to shape an ideal life for ourselves and the wistful worry that we’re at every moment falling short. Unfortunately, those themes make for a story that, as vivid as it can be at points, is as eminently forgettable as its dreamless protagonist. “You may as well have another tot of rum,” a bartender says to the midwife who is being kept from attending Ursula’s umpteenth birth by a snowstorm in the book’s closing line. “You won’t be going anywhere in a hurry tonight” (529). In other words, you’d better find a way to make the most of it.