Kate Atkinson’s ‘Groundhog Day’ Fiction
By SARAH LYALL
Imagine having the gift (or the curse) of continually dying and being reborn, so that you relive segments of your life again and again, differently each time, going down various paths and smoothing out rough areas until you get it right and can move on. Imagine, too, that you are not conscious that this is happening, but experience it as intermittent déjà vu, a sometimes-inchoate dread, an inexplicable compulsion at sudden moments to do one thing rather than another.
Kate Atkinson’s Shrewdest Plot Tricks
This is not an original artistic conceit, obviously. A century ago, the book “Strange Life of Ivan Osokin” depicted a young man who is given a chance to relive his life and correct his mistakes in 1902 Moscow. And in “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray is forced to repeat the same wretched day, and listen to the same wretched Sonny and Cher song, in Punxsutawney, Pa., until he becomes a better person and wins over Andie MacDowell. But in “Life After Life,” her eighth and latest novel, the British writer Kate Atkinson has taken these notions — what if practice really did make perfect, and what if we really could play out multiple alternate futures — and put them through the Magimix, pumped them full of helium, added some degrees of difficulty and produced an audacious, ambitious book that challenges notions of time, fate and free will, not to mention narrative plausibility.
Atkinson’s work suffers from a bit of brand confusion, which partly explains why it hasn’t caught on in the U.S. as it has in Britain. She does not write about vampires or werewolves or women exploring their inner goddesses with a little sadomasochistic sex. Nor does she continually produce variations on a theme or even variations within a genre. Her writing is funny and quirky and sharp and sad — calamity laced with humor — and full of quietly heroic characters who offer knowing Lorrie Moore-esque parenthetical asides. (“I think in brackets; I do my own asides to myself,” Atkinson said.) She writes critically admired family sagas that are not really family sagas; crime novels that are not really crime novels; and now, in “Life After Life,” to be published in the U.S. next month, a science-fiction novel, in the loosest possible sense, that is nothing of the sort.
Atkinson’s true genius is structure. Her books wend forward and backward, follow multiple stories from multiple points of view, throw dozens of balls up in the air — but always conclude with loose ends tied up, so that everything makes sense. Her first novel, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” published in 1995, intersperses the linear narrative of the heroine’s life with a series of chapter-long explanatory “footnotes” that fill in the back stories of various glancingly mentioned relations and events, painting an intense portrait of a big, messy British family in the first three-quarters of the 20th century. The book seemingly came from nowhere to win a major literary prize in London, instantly establishing Atkinson as a singular voice while generating grumbling among more established (male) writers. The novel also displayed what have become staples of her work: big complicated plots and joyful experimentation with form. One of Atkinson’s novels has three different beginnings. Another, set over three days, has four main characters. A protagonist in another spends a good portion of the book in a coma.
Atkinson cannot really articulate how she creates these elaborate structures. Although she used a Moleskin storyboard to keep track of the acrobatic chronology in “Life After Life,” she generally does not formally map out her plots. Instead, many of her books start as ideas, or as challenges to herself — characters or thoughts that dare her to put them in stories. Sometimes they begin with the title itself, as in “Started Early, Took My Dog” (2011), which came from an Emily Dickinson poem and which required only that she include a dog and make her hero a Dickinson fan. With “Life After Life,” Atkinson knew she wanted to write about the London Blitz, but she also wanted to experiment with a protagonist who constantly dies and is reborn, and she wanted to examine whether someone in that predicament could actually alter the course of history. Could her heroine — brave, tragic Ursula Todd, born in 1910 to an ordinary family in an ordinary English county — somehow stop World War II?
In the process, “Life After Life” takes the concept of alternate universes and lets it run riot. Characters die in some sections, survive in others. In one chapter, Ursula is raped, becomes pregnant, has an abortion and, disgraced, marries an abusive monster of a man; in another, she shoves the rapist into the bushes, embarks on an important government job and has an affair with a senior government official. In yet more versions, she lives with her married lover, or moves to Berlin, marries and has a child with a German man, or stays in London, remains childless and helps dig bodies out of the Blitz rubble. Each version is entirely and equally credible.
In this way, Atkinson gets to indulge in what might be the ultimate novelist’s fantasy: producing a never-ending story in which any past, any future, even any present, is possible. By leaving things open-ended, she offers herself the chance to erase and restore and rewrite and then try it all over again. It’s easy to see why Atkinson, with her capacity to play out narratives as 3-D chess games, finds the prospect so alluring. After all, for her, nothing is really as simple it seems.
Atkinson lives in Edinburgh, well away from London’s book-party circuit and sharp-clawed literary scene. She does not hang out with other novelists, except Ali Smith, her best friend, who lives in Cambridge. She is extremely private. She had two husbands early on but is not married now, and does not like to talk much about her living arrangements, except to say that she spends a lot of time with her two adult daughters and her grandchildren. She refused, apologetically, to discuss even where her house is.
We met at the Palm Court at the Balmoral, a fancy hotel downtown, where we ordered cups of coffee and split a cheese sandwich. Atkinson, 61, is small and girlish, with a mobile, quizzical face and a tendency to talk quickly and let her sentences drift off into laughter. Her blondish hair is piled messily onto her head and kept back with a pair of glasses. Her accent is difficult to parse — there are Scottish inflections, but also traces of Yorkshire, where she grew up. And to this day, she remains wary of the news media. She rarely gives interviews to British reporters after what happened to her in 1996, when “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” unexpectedly won the Whitbread Book of the Year prize in London.
It was a great upset, and such was the blow to the fragile egos of some male writers that they practically collapsed onto their fainting couches in shock. Several expressed incredulity that a “woman’s book” like “Behind the Scenes,” written by a 44-year-old first-time novelist, could have beaten Salman Rushdie’s clearly superior “Moor’s Last Sigh.” And since Atkinson had mentioned to her publisher that she worked as a chambermaid during college, the London papers went for the “unknown chambermaid wins prize” angle. Even those who praised her seemed to do it backhandedly. “I don’t know if Kate Atkinson knows she was being very postmodern,” Richard Hoggart, chairman of the judges, declared.
“I spent four years doing a doctorate in postmodern American literature,” Atkinson said as she sipped her coffee, amused but still irritated, even after all this time. “I can recognize it when I see it.”
Atkinson’s life has its own postmodern aspects, which she looks at with a novelist’s eye. She was born in York, to parents who grew up poor but bettered themselves with a successful medical-supplies shop. One turning point in her own life came when Atkinson got a B instead of an A on her final high-school history paper, which caused her to lose out on her first-choice college, the University of Aberdeen, which meant she went instead to the University of Dundee, which meant she met her two husbands there, which meant she had her two daughters. Another occurred when (because of the antipathy between her adviser and her department head, she said) she failed the oral part of her doctoral thesis, on the topic of postmodern American short stories, which caused her to abandon academia and take up fiction.
It was some years after college that she began to write professionally. A single mother with two young children, she earned money various ways, including as a tutor at Dundee and a home aide for elderly people, most of them women (“the men were all dead, basically”). She formed a “housework cooperative” with some friends and wrote short stories “about love, romance, adoption” for women’s magazines. “It taught me to write,” she said. “You have to have everything — character, plot, resolution, a beginning, middle and end. You have to have your own voice. You learn how to turn a story around on a sixpence.”
In 1993, a story that would eventually become a chapter in “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” was named first runner-up in a short-story competition. “I went to the prize ceremony and took my friend Maureen with me and said, ‘We have to find an agent,’ ” Atkinson recalled. “This woman came up and said, ‘Do you have a novel in the drawer?’ and I said, ‘I’ve got a few chapters,’ and I sent them to her.” The agent sent them to publishers, an auction ensued and Atkinson ended up getting a two-book deal. “I thought, Really? Just like that?” She bought a new sofa and devoted herself to writing.
Atkinson’s prose and experimental plots — featuring orphans, parents harboring shameful secrets and people haunted by long-ago events no one will explain — are informed by books she admires (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Tristram Shandy” and the works of Donald Barthelme and Jane Austen) but also by the mysteries in her family history. Her paternal grandfather died in a colliery explosion in 1931, and her father was given up by his young parents and raised until he was 9 by his grandmother. His many siblings did not even know he existed until she died (falling off a table while changing flypaper), and he showed up at the family’s door, announcing, “I’m your brother Jack” to the astonished multitudes.
When Atkinson applied for a passport at age 30, she inadvertently discovered that her parents were not married when she was born, and that her mother had a previous husband, something of a scandal in 1950s England. She confronted her mother. “It was during the royal wedding of Charles and Diana, and I was sitting with a baby on my knee,” she recalled. “I thought, I’ll just be casual, and I said, ‘Oh, you never told me you were married before.’ I thought it was a good, offhand, conversational way to introduce that I was illegitimate.” Atkinson’s mother’s response could have come from one of her books. “She turned to me and said, ‘I was going to tell you, but you left the room.’ ” And that was it. “They came from a generation where nobody talked about their past.”
The awkward reality under the carefully arranged facade is a theme that Atkinson often returns to in her plots. The title for “Behind the Scenes at the Museum” came to her after she dreamed about walking around the York Castle Museum looking at exhibits representing Britain at different points in its history. “I woke up and thought, This is what this book is about,” she said, “behind the scenes at the museum.”
Part of the pleasure and the difficulty of “Life After Life” is that you invest fully in each narrative and feel disoriented and sometimes bereft (also sometimes relieved) when, time and again, you are reminded that you have to start over. It feels a bit like reading Italo Calvino’s mind-bending “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” which serves up story after tantalizing story but leaves out their endings. It also feels like Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” and that sickening moment when it becomes clear — do not read the rest of this sentence if you still want to read that book — that the middle section was invented by the book’s main character, a novelist herself, and that it never happened. “I don’t want to spoil the magic,” Atkinson said of her ability to create the characters in these multiple realities, “but it’s a very curious thing that honestly baffles me. It’s the nearest we’ll ever get to playing God, to suddenly produce these fully formed creatures. It is a bit odd. Other aspects you work out more — you rework sentences, you rework imagery. But not characters. They’re not deciding their own fates, clearly, but once you have them, that unconscious process is at work.”
Over sandwiches, however, Atkinson talked about her characters as means to an end, as if they were pawns in a board game. She writes about families, she said, not because she is preoccupied with domestic drama (far from it) but because “it gives you a very handy cast of characters.” Anything can become a story, she said. Then she put down her coffee and looked out on the Balmoral’s tearoom and riffed about how she could set a novel here, or across the street, or anywhere, as long as there was an excuse for her characters to be there. Similarly, she said that Jackson Brodie, her recurring, magnet-for-trouble detective, was also “a very handy device.” Atkinson mentioned casually that she had moved on from Brodie anyway, that his eventual fate was not so important to her. “I’ve finished with him for a while,” she said. “He’s having a really good holiday somewhere.”
I started to feel sad that Brodie — a character so vivid and deeply sympathetic — could be dismissed so easily. But it must be annoying to have readers banging on about your characters as if they were real people, especially when your imagination is always full of other characters and other situations beyond the ones you’ve already written. Stephen King, who declared Atkinson’s “Case Histories” to be “the best mystery of the decade,” likes to speak of “the boys in the basement,” the unconscious forces at work even when he is not actually writing. Atkinson has her own version. “I think of it like a pan at the back of a stove, simmering away,” she said. “I always have books backing up.” (I imagine airplanes queuing on the runway.) There are three, at the moment. “One isn’t working, so we’ll just ignore that,” she said. The second, which is to be called “Death at the Sign of the Rook,” is a homage to Agatha Christie set at a country-house hotel hosting a murder-mystery weekend, where the guests are stranded by a snowstorm. As of now, at least, it’s not going to be a crime novel, with “bodies littering the whole place,” she said, but rather something amusing, with characters who appear to be stock characters — the military man, the vicar — but who really aren’t. The third novel, “A God in Ruins” (the title comes from Emerson), is a sequel, or a companion, to “Life After Life.” It is to star Ursula’s brother Teddy, who dies in a bombing raid in one section of “Life After Life” but survives in the final one. She is considering starting “A God in Ruins” at Teddy’s eventual deathbed, late in the 20th century, and then moving chronologically backward.
As we sat there, Atkinson started, essentially, writing the next book — or what might be the next book — out loud right in front of me. For one thing, she said, forget the notion that Teddy is safe. “He’s still a victim of history,” she said. “The next time Ursula’s born, Teddy might die. Anything might happen.” She has also been thinking about his wife, the lovely and sympathetic Nancy, who dies a few times early on in “Life After Life,” but is herself eventually saved by one of Ursula’s intuitive interventions. “I think Nancy’s doomed,” she said suddenly. “I’m thinking that quite early on in the marriage she’s killed by the crazy guy who strangles her.” This is all quite arbitrary, she admitted. “It might be more interesting for them to have to endure a marriage and see what happens. But I don’t know.” If she had her way, she said, all her books would have endless permutations, with characters going down multiple paths. “You never finish with something, really,” she said.
After Atkinson left the hotel and returned home (wherever that is), I found myself continuing to worry about her seemingly aloof attitude toward characters like Jackson Brodie. Then I remembered something she mentioned in passing — that her plots are influenced by the fairy tales she grew up on, stories that are logically preposterous but have very structured moral universes. So I went back to my notes to find what she said, and I felt relieved. “The legacy of the fairy story in my brain is that everything will work out,” Atkinson had said. “In fiction it would be very hard for me, as a writer, to give a bad ending to a good character, or give a good ending to a bad character. That’s probably not a very postmodern thing to say.”
Sarah Lyall is a correspondent in the London bureau of The New York Times.