Tuesday, June 7, 2016
What if: Kate Atkinson just told the story instead of undoing her own narrative
So by my count Kate Atkinson writes 3 narrative sequences in which her protagonist, Ursula, dies in a London bombing raid: one in which she's a lonely 30+ woman with a crummy job and no social life (this is the life version in which Ursula is raped, becomes pregnant, endures an abortion), another in which she has an affair with a dashing, somewhat older, married co-worker and returns to her home (it's the same building in all 3 versions) and dies in bombing raid, a 3rd (in this case she playfully fought off the advances of her near-rapist) in which she breaks off the affair w/ the co-worker (she's strong-willed and not the one jilted) and goes back to see her old apartment building and, while out on the street, dies in the bombing. I may have over-summarized or mixed up some of the details, but you get the picture. Each one of these narratives is fine, powerful, gives a vivid account of what it would be like to live under daily air attacks - so weird to think of that in a city like London (as opposed to, say, Aleppo or Damascus), even though the narratives cover similar or even identical ground I found myself caught up each time - and yet, and yet - what exactly is Atkinson's point? Why would she want to alienate us, her readers, to keep us from getting engaged w/ her characters because anything that happens in one chapter she can simply undo or re-do in the next? And it's not as if this is an extremely "clever" narrative, like a story by Barth or Borges, say - it's just that Atkinson keeps examining different narrative "what ifs." I'll tell you what if: What if she decided to tell the life story of a character of her invention, came to points of crisis in the character's life and made some decisions about how the character would live (or not) and followed each decision point on to it's next step or stage or conclusion? What's wrong w/ that? In her penchant for trickery and narrative gamesmanship she gives up far too much w/ not enough payback. I suspect she learned from this, as the sequel to Life After Life, A God in Ruins, does in fact give us a life narrative that doesn't come undone and embroiled in narrative trickery until the last chapter - at which point I felt a little cheated, but at least the narration didn't undermine itself from step one.