Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: Replay, by Ken Grimwood

Replay is a book that is well-regarded among science fiction circles, one of those perfect-length novels that doesn't say anything more than it needs to say, that takes a simple speculative concept and spins it out into a meaningful comment about life. You can almost pull the story synopsis right out of the title. On an otherwise uneventful morning in an otherwise dull mid-life, Jeff Winston suffers a massive heart attack. In his own experience, he dies, but then immediately comes to in his 18-year-old body, the whole of history reset to exactly where it was 25 years before, with the exception of Jeff's intact memories. For inexplicable reasons, he's been given his life to start over again. And, as it painfully turns out, again and again and again.

Does the novel deserve the praise it gets? On page one, I thought I was in for something very special indeed. It opens with this guy dropping dead in the middle of a sad, dull, and strangely sweet conversation, and I thought that Grimwood captured something brilliant there, showing us the banality of life and death at once. As the story goes forward, however, the effect becomes rapidly less impressive--the unelaborate evocation is just Grimwood's writing style--but while I think the story succeeds overall in a related way, and is a rewarding read, it didn't blow me away with its genius. Each time Jeff goes back, he tries things a little differently, and the author walks us through his attempts (which we slowly learn are shortening). Jeff is successful in that he sets up his replayed lives with more in less time, and, as almost anyone would, he puts some effort in to change the broad course of things, and to seek out the deep meaning of life, and the point of his unusual experience of it. But it takes him as much work as ever to get better at living, and all he ever really manages to figure out is what's valuable to him, over which he has limited ultimate control. There are no answers, and the only lesson in the end is the one that is offered to any of us.

[A short novel? With a simple, elegant concept? That doesn't rely much on the depth of prose? It would probably make a great movie, and it's too bad that Groundhog Day went and happened in between.]

It's fun to imagine what you'd do if you got your own clock turned back like that. Speaking for myself, I am sure I'd handle Round One differently than Jeff Winston did. Twenty-five years ago today would put me as a junior in high school, which would be awful, but just around the corner was a college experience that I loved. I am not sure I remember world events (and certainly not sporting events) with enough precision to fund me in 1989, but it's nice to imagine that I'd enjoy the whole span a great deal more with some useful people experience and self-understanding under my belt. Moving on, I could see myself obsessing on those points where I wish I chose differently, and on a replay, I'd look forward to being sure I'd zig where last time I regrettably zagged. If I were writing this story, my version would have the character going back, determined to set right a couple of those long-brooded-upon wrongs, only to find that on a second try that he's still the same schmuck he always was. Ah fuck it, I tried.

Wondering what else he may have written, I looked up Ken Grimwood on Wikipedia, and learned that he died of a heart attack ten years ago at the age of 59, a bit before his time. There can be no news on whether he went back. I won't hold it against him if he did; he seemed like a decent enough guy.

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