It is not easy—it should really no longer be feasible—to write a tale set in the twentieth century that is not a tale about the twentieth century. Like great lithe amorous birds flapping in vacuum, the two novels on review may occasionally seem to slide into the abyssal contextless natter of mimetic realism, sometimes for pages on end; but always there is a hint that these indulgences in prelapsarian fictioneering are courteous rather than supplicant, that they are expressions of nostalgia for lives spent in Eden, for characters upacked for pages on end in an absence of the world, "round" characters in a world that is not round. There is some virtue in this, surely. As meat instantiations of Homo sapiens we do, all of us, exude some whiff of the nectar we swam in before the abattoir of birth. Or so it is fond to think.
The interpenetration of world and post-birth person is what Life After Life is all about. Kate Atkinson's first novel to make use the tools of fantastika to get a grip on things begins right at the harsh heart of the world, and ends there (and beyond). The first brief section of the book, barely more than a page in length, is dated November 1930 (almost all of the many infolds of the book are precisely dated). Ursula Todd, who we soon understand is the central character in the novel, is 20. Somehow she is in Munich. She enters a cafe. Adolf Hitler invites her to sit down beside him. She does so. She then pulls out a gun and shoots him. Darkness falls (each chapter ending in a death, almost invariably the death-this-time-round of Ursula Todd, ends with a variation on the phrase Darkness Falls). We turn the page to the next tiny chapter, which is dated 11 February 1910, but we have been told that everything to come is prelude to the moment in Munich, when it may be that the twenty centuries of nightmare have been unvexed (if only for the nonce), because the assassination of Hitler at that point in world history may have stilled the rocking cradle. Like the unfolding of the whole of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle from the chord that opens Das Rheingold, the rest of this devastating Book exfoliates like some real flower in a fractal garden from that opening passage; the whole of the book, the multiple realities that are tested within its course and found wanting, is told within a held breath that cannot be released until Ursula Todd is able to enter into a life in which the beginning of Life After Life is possible.
The engine that runs the tale is never made explicit. In the very short chapter two, in the midst of an encompassing snowstorm which muffles the quick and the dead and marks throughout the text the beginning of another iteration of her life, Ursula is stillborn. That is no life for a girl. In chapter three, which reiterates the same day, she survives childbirth. Within four years she drowns, darkness falls. We return to 11 February 1910 for another try of the Book. This time she lasts a year longer, when her exquisitely shitty older brother causes her death by falling through the air from an upper story window, darkness falls. Again: she lasts until 11 November 1918 and dies of the flu, her flesh almost literally burning off her bones, darkness falls. This death is a hard one to force the story through. She dies again on the same day, though the flu has a different source. Still another attempt to get past this date fails. And another. Finally the Book is able to offer passage. And so forth.
As Ursula gets past the age of twenty of so, the sequences lengthen markedly, not necessarily for the betterment of the tale. In the least convincing version of her Attempted Escape she marries a suburban teacher, a dysfunctional sadist trapped in ghastly 1930s shabby-genteel hypocrises who murders her. In another, she prolongs a stay in Germany until far too late: she marries a romantic-seeming but sterile German, she becomes (through plausible coincidences) a confidant of Eva Braun and therefore encounters the horrid halitosic vacuum who bears the name of Hitler (I was reminded of Harry Mulisch's even more devastating shredding of Hitler's "personality" in his 2001 novel Siegfried), and she kills herself and her child in Berlin as the Russians close in, for once taking the story into her own hands, seeding her eventual transformation into actor. Darkness falls, falls. In these two most extended narratives, it is sometimes hard to remember that Ursula's lives are provisional, and that their slightly cartoonish exemplary nature derives from that fact: that they are being held up against the sun to see where the stitching fails.
But World War Two is checkmate for a while, because the Book seems unable to solve the Blitz, which kills Ursula relentlessly as successive versions of her story wrestle uselessly against the seemingly inescapable stymie of apocalypse. She dies, friends and lovers die, members of her family die. The narrative virtue of this reiterated entrapment lies mainly in its truth value, for the accumulation of cul-de-sacs encloses the reader in a soul-griding nightmare without terminus, conveying what must have been something like the experience of thousands far more vividly than Connie Willis managed in Blackout and All Clear (both 2011). Atkinson catches this hovering immediacy of terror partly through a near genius at notating humans on the wing, being far more adept than Willis at wielding the tools of realism, though in the end of course she transcends realism's refusal to admit it is being told. Atkinson also has a sharper grasp of the history of the period, and sagaciously involves Ursula in precisely the kind of street-wise recording activities—on the spot bomb-damage tabulations of the sort later published as The London County Council Bomb Damage Maps 1939-1945 (2005)—that Willis's storyline required her thinningly to deny the existence of. All of this makes it more deeply plausible to think that Ursula may have been caught eternally in the belly of the beast, and to suspect that the world in the end has defeated the Book. If Life After Life is a Godgame, it feels as though God is losing.
But something changes. It may be a unique attribute of Life After Life that until very near the end of the book no one inside the tale has any idea what the story is, or even that there is a story they cannot understand, an engine for them to utter. Even Ursula, though she is occasionally afflicted by fleeting moments of deja vu, cannot begin to apprehend the shape of things: that whole worlds (and human lives) are palimpsested over so that the Book can give her another chance to come through. Still, something accumulates within her, a rage breaks through that had gestated since her first meeting with Hitler, though it is only after 400 pages of the utterly absorbing dance that she begins—but just barely begins—to understand, though the Book makes it clear that although she has become an operative in the telling, she does not have words for what is going on. But something has moved her. She has been queened. She is speaking to her beloved brother Teddy, a bomber pilot whose previous reiterated deaths have almost destroyed her:
"No point in thinking," she said briskly, "you just have to get on with life. . . We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try. (The transformation was complete.)
That last sentence sounds like the Book talking to us. But this sly conflation of Book and implied author is as close we get to what one might call the consciousness of things. It is as close as Life After Life gets to coming clean. The main point is that from now on Ursula is calling the shots. In passages of hauntedly unspoken clarity, we follow her into a tacit understanding that for one's life to come out right this time round—we are after all in the middle of World War Two—it will not be good enough to find some scissors to cut a tangled umbilical cord, or to step sideways just before a wall falls over. To make a twentieth century life come out right one must change the world. So she must kill Hitler. A similar realization inspired the heroine of Jerry Yulsman's Elleander Morning (1984) though in fact the two books are deeply dissimilar in feel and heft.
So she kills Hitler.
The world is of course not easy to change. A sequel to Atkinson's lustrous tour de force, tentatively to be called God in Ruins, has been trailed.
A codicil. In most alternate history novels of the past decades, certainly those whose protagonist tries to change the past in order to improve the present, a determinist vision of character seems, perhaps not entirely consciously, to dominate. No matter what the protagonist does to change his or her life, fixed stigmata tend to show through the skin. It is to the credit of Kate Atkinson's remarkable novel that her heroine does change. Each time we meet Ursula riding another surge of the Book towards a life that survives the War, we recognize the same immedicable core of self, but always jigged into new configurations: for each change of circumstance allows, or demands, a significantly modifed grasp of the world, of her interactions with friends and family, of her choice of lovers. By the end of the tale a dozen Ursulas occupy the reader's mind like Shiva, like some great cubist portrait where a dozen faces meet in one radiance. Ursula Todd is a heartbreaker.
I had thought of contributing a cubistic second reading to Gabriel Murray's good response to Joyce Carol Oates's The Accursed (2013), but except for one cavil have little to add, beyond a suggestion that some of the arguments about Kate Atkinson apply here: that Oates, very explicitly, her intent underlined throughout, has taken an old Gothic tale involving a Devil figure who pollutes mortal lives, and translated it with unrelenting intensity into a narrative about the Matter of America. The setting, Princeton, New Jersey, at the turn of the twentieth century; the cast of exemplary characters, from the wholly fictional to the hallucinatingly intimate deconstructions of Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair; the story, in which a white man's rape of a child comprehensively exemplifes through its consequences the poison dance between power and sex in America: all this comes clear through Murray's response to the tale.
My cavil relates to his charge that the novel exposes in Oates "the earmarks of aging, white, heterosexual feminism", a PC Fail litany ("Allo allo, Ms Oates!") that I found not only ageist but a tad tiresome. Whether or not in her thousand other works Oates has entered into any of the concerns or regions Murray thinks she culpably missed dealing with here—prejudice against blacks, depictions of other characters whose lack of sympathy are presumed to have exposed an ignorance of queer theory—is not exactly the point. The Accursed focuses with huge and obliterating intensity on one issue really, whose permutations occupy almost every page of a huge book: the immurement of women in 1905 America. Her cruel treatment of individuals who might (in another tale) be deemed to represent other oppressed groups seemed entirely consistent with her quite astonishingly cruel treatment of almost every character in the novel, excepting the innocents who die. A review of what The Accursed does accomplish (rather than what it should have directed its attention to) may treat it as unsuccessful, though I think neither Murray nor I would end up saying so; and it has a better chance of catching on the wing the unswerving bent of the text.
There is no doubt, I think, that Oates's most typical (and devastating) tales are cloistral, that they are too caught in the claws of their incipits to provides a conspectus of the whole. This does make her wearisome at times, though I don't think she is any more wearisome or burned out with age in 2013 than she was in 1958 (in any case, The Accursed was first drafted in 1983). Her work has been astonishingly, glaringly, claustrophobically consistent now for well over half a century. She is cloistral, passionate, airless, transgressive; and, in the most positive sense of the word, she is a miniaturist. The katzenjammer hugeness of The Accursed condenses, in the preternatural ferocity of her grasp, into a single stare.