(With a certain famous movie out recently dealing with time travel, I thought I'd post a review of a book that takes a different look at what it would really be like to go back.)
What if your life had a reset button, just like the old Nintendo game consoles? Would you push that button?
First published in 1986, Ken Grimwood’s REPLAY asks that very question and provides one answer. Jeff Winston is a 43-year-old man, a journalist by trade, with a marriage that has meandered off course. One day, sitting in his office, Jeff dies of a heart attack. The next moment, he wakes up in his college dorm room. It’s May 1963 at Emory University in Atlanta. As bewildered as he is, he slowly comes to the conclusion that—somehow, someway—he is living his life over again, but with one huge caveat: He remembers everything from Life Prime, or Life 1.
Seeing this as an opportunity to “get things right,” Jeff decides he’s going to get rich, quick. He bets on a horse race, one in which the outcome nobody saw coming, and makes a substantial amount of money. Next, he convinces a friend—one who committed suicide in Life 1—to journey with him to Las Vegas where he wins even more cash. He also finds a pretty young lady, one you wouldn’t necessarily want to take home to the parents on Thanksgiving, but one who wants nothing more than to quench the lust of the young and spend a lot of money. Isn’t that what every 18-year-old wants? For Jeff, the answer is yes.
Until he wonders if he can change the course of history. It’s summer 1963. Later that fall, President Kennedy will be assassinated, but only Jeff knows where and when. So he does what any Baby Boomer would do: try and stop it. He concocts a fake letter as if from Lee Harvey Oswald and sends it to the White House. Naturally, the Secret Service arrest Oswald days before the 22nd of November. And, yet, Kennedy still dies. The shooter now has a different name.
If you read the description at your favorite bookstore, I’m giving away nothing away when I say that when Life 2 Jeff Winston reaches his 43rd year, he dies again. And again he wakes up at Emory University, May 1963. Only this time, Life 3 is a little past where Life 2 began. All that he knew in Life 1 and Life 2 is still intact in his memory, yet Life 2 is erased from history. Now, Jeff has another 25-year life to live, but this time, it’ll be different. But he’s already starting to realize that on that particular day in his 43rd year, he’ll die yet again. Perhaps, however, he can do something about that. He tries certain things, but I’ll leave you to read and discover the outcome.
This book is simply marvelous. It was a selection of my science fiction/fantasy book club, an informal gathering of five guys that has gone on for seven years. I didn’t select the book, but it’s already in my Top 10. While this book might be classified as fantasy, there is no magic. For all intents and purposes, this is a standard fiction book with the one conceit. Jeff makes his choices and has to live with the consequences. What really makes this book shine is the length to which Grimwood details Life 2 and Life 3. In Life 2, Grimwood has Jeff Winston make the obvious choice many of us would make: I want a life with more money. Jeff reaches a certain conclusion, so that when he starts Life 3, he makes different choices. I’d say that Life 2 and Life 3 take up at least half the book, maybe two-thirds (I listened to the audio). That time really allows the reader to become immersed in Jeff’s world and gives the reader the opportunity to ask the big question: If you could relive your life over again, what, if anything, would you do different?
This book asks so many deep questions of the reader. One is about the nature of history and typical time travel stories. The central idea of time travel is that a person can go back into the past and change history. That’s what Marty McFly did in “Back to the Future.” (As an aside, I can’t help but wonder if the writers of Back to the Future II read REPLAY or if betting on sure winners is just standard fare in time travel stories.) But what if the flow of history is too great a force to overcome? That’s where REPLAY goes. Jeff gets Lee Harvey Oswald arrested, but someone else kills Kennedy. Thus, was Kennedy always destined to die in Dallas? In Grimwood’s version, yes.
REPLAY is one of the best books I’ve read this year. My historian self reveled in the minor details Grimwood changed. My reader self loved diving deep into a character’s mind and seeing him through many lives. I was also richly rewarded with the ending, the nature of which I’ll detail below in an “EPILOGUE.” There will be spoilers, so if you don’t want to know the ending, stop reading now.
You know I love this book. You should give it a try.
Oh, and I have my answer to the first question I posed. Do you?