Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson

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Have you ever tried a new food and thought happily, ‘Wow, this is so easy to chew!’ It might just be me, but I doubt it somehow. Some foods are wondrously easy to chew: texturally satisfying while still working your jaws enough to justify their status as solid foods. Foods for which the ease of chewing is part of the pleasure of eating them.

That’s how I feel about ‘Life After Life’.

‘Life After Life’ is one of Kate Atkinson’s stand-alone novels (as opposed to her Jackson Brodie series, which I really like). Its protagonist, Ursula Todd, is the third child of Hugh and Sylvie Todd. She is born on February 11, 1910, with her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. She is strangled.

And then reborn. And reborn again.

Ursula Todd dies many times, and in many different ways. She will drown as a little girl, be killed by the Spanish Flu, bombed in the blitz, murdered by a husband. Each life will be a little different, some better, some worse. Ursula will learn and forget and learn again, carrying vague memories, suspicions, hunches, through her many lives.

And it’s so easy to chew! Er, read – it’s so easy to read!

First of all, the plot (reliving the same life, over and over, but tweaking it each time) is a lay-up of a plot. It would be difficult to write a book with this premise that wasn’t eminently readable, in my opinion. The interesting-ness is built-in: who doesn’t want to get a practice run at their own lives? The idea is irresistible to anyone who has ever regretted anything.

And the setting: World War II. Another slow pitch right over the plate. Maybe, one day, World War II will stop being an interesting fictional backdrop, but that day is nowhere in sight. World War II offers so many opportunities for novelists that it must be difficult to choose; Atkinson solves this problem by refusing to choose and writing all the plots. Ursula will pull bodies out of bombed out buildings, make friends with Eva Braun, marry a Nazi. She will even kill Hitler in one of her timelines (seriously).

All the elements are in place for an absolute tear-through of a book; all Atkinson needed to do was write well. And, luckily, Atkinson is a master of chewable prose.

Easy-to-read is a distinct quality that writing can have. In my opinion, it’s totally orthogonal to the goodness or badness of the prose itself: there is really good writing that is very easy to read, and really good writing that is very difficult to read. Some prose just works with you: it flows the way your brain flows; it doesn’t make you work. Sometimes, this is a lazy quality, but not in Atkinson’s case.

Kate Atkinson seems, from the two books I’ve read, an excellent writer of easy, vivid prose. She blends several qualities together into a well-balanced mixture. She is colorful, but she doesn’t over-burden her prose with description. She is funny, but she doesn’t tell jokes. She is casual without being too demotic (her language is realistic while remaining universal, no dialect for her). Her vocabulary is massive, but she almost never uses obscure or overly-difficult words. She’s a really good prose stylist, in my opinion (rather in the mode of J.K. Rowling).

Let me see if I can give you a sense of what I mean:

“Although, of course, neither Bridget nor Mrs. Glover had been invited to the Berkeley, and indeed Bridget had never been inside a London hotel, or a hotel anywhere come to that, apart from having gone into the Shelbourne to admire the foyer before catching the ferry at Dun Laoghire to come to England, “a lifetime ago.” Mrs. Glover, on the other hand, declared herself to be “quite familiar” with the Midland in Manchester where one of her nephews (of which, it seemed, she had an endless supply) had taken her and her sister “on more than one occasion.” (p. 175)

Or:

“He had asked her to meet him for a drink, a request conveyed on an Admiralty docket that had arrived mysteriously while she was briefly out of the office…’I think your department may be due an audit’, it read. Crighton liked code. Ursula hoped that the navy’s encryptions weren’t as rudimentary as Crighton’s.

Miss Fawcett, one of her clerical assistants, spotted the note lying in full view and gave her a panic-stricken look. “Crikey,”, she said. “Are we? Due an audit?”

“Someone’s idea of a joke,” Ursula said, dismayed to find herself blushing. There was something un-Crighton-like about these salacious (if not downright filthy) but seemingly innocent messages. ‘I believe there is a shortage of pencils.’ Or ‘Are your ink levels sufficiently topped up?’ Ursula wished he would learn Pitman’s, or more discretion. Or, better still, stop altogether.” (p. 295)

Kate Atkinson

Ignore the light-heartedness; this is really good prose. It is information-dense without in any way sacrificing clarity. Each sentence is instantly and totally comprehensible. There isn’t a word out of place. Usually, writing with this much complexity gets quickly bogged down in extra adjectives, too many phrases. There’s none of that here; Atkinson has put every word exactly where she needs it, and has nothing leftover. Lastly, notice the diversity in the vocabulary. Most writers are repetitive: they have favorite words and phrases which they repeat over and over. Atkinson does not – her working vocabulary (as well as her set of cultural touch points and allusions) is vast.

‘Life After Life’ left me with the distinct impression that I had read something fun rather than something good. It was a romp of a read, engaging and easy to follow, sad sometimes and funny sometimes and suspenseful sometimes.

It’s not a bad thing, having a nice reading experience! Nevertheless, I am left with the feeling that I had just read a 500-page novel without having to strain even the tiniest bit. It’s the feeling that you have after phoning in a work-out: technically, you did the exercises, but you didn’t need to stretch a single muscle. Maybe you enjoyed it, but you didn’t improve.

And, OK, not all reading experiences need be opportunities for betterment, I understand that. Sometimes books are just fun and that’s great. In Atkinson’s case, though, it makes me a tad uneasy because she is such a good technical writer. And maybe that’s unfair – isn’t her lovely and enjoyable prose enough? But I have a feeling that, if she pushed, she could write something lovely and hard. Something really magnificent.

Rodham

By Curtis Sittenfeld

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I’ve wanted to read ‘Rodham‘ since I learned it existed. I don’t know why I did – it belongs to a category of novels with which I generally have very little patience: the historical novel. I love history, and when I read it, I like knowing whether or not what I’m reading actually happened. Novels obscure that: they present real histories clothed in fiction, and readers (at least this one) can’t always tell the truth.

Rodham‘, though, is a little different. It’s an alternative history, a kind of novel for which I have even less patience. The only thing less likely to get you at the truth than a historical novel is a historical novel about a version of history which didn’t actually happen.

But I’ve been curious about ‘Rodham‘ for years. It’s such a ballsy thing to do, to write a novel about a living person, and about Hillary Clinton in particular, who will surely be remembered as one of the most polarizing and complicated political figures of our time.

Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton met at Yale Law School (in real life). They dated, and moved to Arkansas together to pursue his political ambitions. The first two times he asked her to marry him, she declined. The third time, she accepted. The premise of ‘Rodham’ is, simply, ‘what if she hadn’t?’

I wonder what Sittenfeld wanted to accomplish here. A description of the premise (‘What if Hillary Clinton had never married Bill Clinton?) promises a different novel than the one I have just finished. I suppose that ‘Rodham‘ was meant to answer a wish of Sittenfeld’s to know what Hillary’s life might have been like if Bill Clinton wasn’t the star of it. Unfortunately, Bill Clinton is also the star of ‘Rodham’, just from a more distant vantage.

Alternative fictions must start from a truthful premise, an anchor, from which they then wander off into speculation. The truth to which ‘Rodham‘ anchors itself is that Bill Clinton is the love of Hillary Clinton’s life. Though she leaves him in ‘Rodham’, because he is (both in our reality and in Sittenfeld’s, a philandering rapist), Hillary loves and misses him until well into her sixties. He is the sun around which her imagination revolves for almost the entirety of her adult life.

Which is kind of a bummer, honestly. I was so curious about this novel because I am interested in this idea: Hillary Clinton, more than almost any woman of political ambition that I can think of, is defined by her marriage. It’s not super heartening to think that, if we didn’t marry the great men we might have married, we might accomplish great things ourselves but we wouldn’t ever really get over them.

It might have been less of a bummer if Sittenfeld had given Hillary Clinton more dimension in fiction than her actual public persona suggests. One of the eternal ‘truths’ about Clinton is that she possesses no emotional warmth, that she is a cold, odd, calculating creature of pure ambition: planning her whole life for political attainment, not equipped with the normal spectrum of human feeling.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Sittenfeld basically accepts this unfortunate premise. Her Hillary is odd, and sort of cold. She accepts cruelty, betrayal, heartbreak, grave personal insult, without a normal human recoil. Sittenfeld doesn’t do a great job in persuading her readers that there are hidden depths to Hillary Rodham, and that’s a shame, because I suspect that there are.

Also, ‘Rodham‘ is a little too cute. Throughout her novel, Sittenfeld sprinkles events that happened in real life, weirdly specific ones. Her reasons for doing this are obvious: she wants us to understand that some things are inevitable, some dynamics and personalities will emerge no matter the path we choose, and fair enough. But I do not believe, for example, that if Hillary and Bill had not married and Bill Clinton had not become President of the United States, that Donald Trump would have ended up making his exact “Hispanics are rapists” speech, word for word, in 2016, albeit in a totally different context. And I do not believe that Bill Clinton’s supporters would end up chanting about Clinton, “Shut her up! Shut her up!”. I see what Sittenfeld is trying to do, but it’s too much, at least for me.

Ultimately, ‘Rodham‘ is, (perhaps inevitably), a novel about sexism. The interaction between Hillary and the public in 2016, the curious clashing of her personality, her history, her gender, and the prejudices and expectations of the public on both sides of the political spectrum, was dismaying and painful to a great many women. I completely understand why Sittenfeld might have felt the need to explore that experience in this way, and, essentially, I agree with her conclusions: it does seem to me that some things are inevitable in any timeline, and it does seem to me that we carry our characters with us, and that they inform our destiny at least as much as our destiny shapes them.

But I do wish, if Curtis Sittenfeld was going to go all out for Hillary, that she had given her a little more: more depth, more heart, and more independence. And, perhaps, that she had made her slightly less virtuous? It is precisely the impression (illusion?) of impervious, unemotional, competent control that so many people find alienating about Clinton (besides, of course, the fact of her having a brain AND a vagina) – might it not have been worth interrogating that a little? Trying to find some more complexity in her?

I don’t know. ‘Rodham‘ disappointed me, but perhaps I am being unfair. It’s hard to judge a book without knowing its purpose – maybe ‘Rodham’ was never intended to seriously illuminate the woman behind the persona, or interrogate feminism, or punish the wicked in fiction. Maybe it was only meant to be a weird little mental exercise. However, I think it could have been a great deal more, and I’m sad it wasn’t.

The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

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The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad‘ is Cora’s story.  Cora is a slave on Randall’s Plantation in Georgia.  An outcast even among her fellow slaves, she has been a “stray” ever since her mother successfully escaped when she was a child, leaving Cora behind.  When her master dies and she is inherited by his sadistic younger brother, Cora is approached by Caesar, a fellow slave, with an offer to escape with him on the Underground Railroad.

The pair accept the help of a white tradesman from town, a station master on the Underground Railroad.  A thing of whispers and myth among slaves in the American South, Cora and Caesar are surprised to discover that it is a literal railroad, built underground, a network of tunnels under the slave states.  They take their first ride, emerging in South Carolina to the sight of skyscrapers (and our first clue that this is not a two hundred year old story).

Everyone loves ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  It won the Pulitzer Prize.  It reached #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.  It received magnificent reviews; the four blurbs on the front of my copy are by the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, NPR, and Barack Obama.

Oprah loved it.

But I did not love ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  It’s quite good – good enough that there isn’t much point in trying to discern whether it is great, or merely very, very good.  It’s well-written and spare, effective and persuasive.  It has a novel premise, well-executed, stark and not overdone.

I appreciated these things.  But, when I put the book down, I found that it had left me cold.  I did not connect with it.

At least, I did not connect with it…at first.

Sometimes, you are the smartest person in the room – sometimes you are the only person brave enough not to drink the Kool-Aid.  But usually, when everyone around you likes something and you don’t, you’ve missed something.

I sat around for a long time, in bits and pieces over weeks and then months (I finished this book in September), staring at my computer and struggling to figure out why I didn’t love this book.  I was plagued by a sense that I was missing something, and I dreaded having to say out loud (in writing, no less) that I did not like it.  I tried to understand, to explain, why it is that the goodness (greatness) of a book isn’t enough to make us love it.  It isn’t fair that a book can be excellent and unloved, even by one person.  What more can we ask of a book, than that it be good?

And, in all that muddling, the book started to get to me.

Fictions which use alternative realities (science fiction, for example), rely on altered context for their effect.  By placing their moral or human conundra into totally unfamiliar contexts, or by radically changing one aspect of the environment, they throw the problems at the hearts of their stories into sharper relief.

But slavery is not a problem – it was a reality, an atrocity.  Rather, it was a long, unmeasurable series of atrocities, horrors visited upon real people, people just as real as you are.  These things happened.

The essential premise of ‘The Underground Railroad‘ is, what if slavery had not ended?  But slavery does not need to have been permanent to be overwhelming.  If you have already connected, on a visceral level, with what slavery was, then the fantastical extension of it into the present doesn’t teach you much.  And so, at first, ‘The Underground Railroad’ underwhelmed me.  It was jarring, upsetting, but, by being unreal, it lacked the monstrosity of actual slavery.

Alternative reality fictions work best when they show you something you would not have seen without them.  That slavery is was an abomination, that I had already seen.  The depiction was masterful, wrenching and beautiful, but I would have preferred to see something that I had not seen yet.

But, as thought more about it, my emotions started to catch on something.

In Whitehead’s imagination, the American South is not frozen in time; it has evolved, and each of the states of the South has also evolved, differentiated, developed their own brand of slavery to accommodate the particular needs of their economy, their people.

Georgia is brutal, primitive, indistinguishable from its antebellum self.  South Carolina has evolved a sinister, “progressive” state-run program wherein the state owns slaves and educates, houses, and pays them, all while secretly sterilizing them.  North Carolina has decided that it prefers an all-white world, and has outlawed blacks completely, lynching any that are found within state lines.

This was fascinating to me – this drew me in.  Perhaps because this aspect of the novel, more than any other, challenged to me to think more deeply about my own conception of American slavery.  Like many Americans, I have a life-long mental picture of slavery, taught to me when I was very young and shaded with depth and context as I got older, but never essentially re-imagined.  Now, partly that is because a re-imagining was unnecessary: what I was taught about slavery, that it was an atrocity perpetrated by Americans on Americans, an indelible stain on our history and a foundational sin of our nation, is correct.

And ‘The Underground Railroad‘ does not challenge this conclusion.  And, in fact, Cora’s story is this story, and that, I think, was why I did not emotionally register it, at first.  Here was another person ground under an evil system – there are only so many of these narratives we can meet before they feel familiar.

But the story of the states, each sickened and twisted by the continued existence of the institution, each elaborating on the essential evil in its own way – this was a new story.  And as I sat and stewed about the book, as the effect of the new story slowly took hold, Cora snuck in after it.

Colson Whitehead

I hadn’t connected with Cora because I was thinking of her as fictional victim of a real system, and what would be the point of connecting with her when there were so many real victims to grieve for first?  But, of course, I had completely missed the point: Cora is the fictional victim of a fictional system, the catastrophic future we avoided, but only just.  I needed to grieve Cora because of easily she might have existed.

And so, months later, I understood: the point of ‘The Underground Railroad‘ wasn’t to teach me that slavery was terrible – I know that, anyone who has morally developed past the level of a tadpole knows that.  ‘The Underground Railroad’ was trying to tell me that we cannot comprehend the institution of slavery if we negotiate with it as an evil that was – we must instead understand it as an evil that might still be, but for the narrowest of escapes.  Chance, the accumulation of millions of tiny historical accidents, pulled us away from evil – it was NOT our robust moral good sense, and so we must understand the evil as, in some sense, on-going.  Slavery was not given up unanimously and voluntarily, but had to be crushed by force of arms, and so, in some sense, it continues in the heart of our citizens.  

Which means that, in some sense, it continues.

Cora isn’t fictional, exactly – she just doesn’t happen to be real.  

I don’t know whether I love ‘The Underground Railroad: A Novel‘ now, but it has slowly hollowed me out over the past few months.  I have come around and stand a little in awe of it now – I feel as though I have been tossing around a toy grenade and someone just told me it was active, like I was being careless with something very powerful.

So ‘love’ isn’t the right word – ‘fear’ is.  I am afraid of ‘The Underground Railroad‘.  I sat and thought for months and discovered that I had been afraid all along.