Sunday, June 12, 2016
Why God in Ruins is better than Life After Life
This will have spoilers for those who have not yet read A God in Ruins: Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, in which protagonist Ursula leads several "versions" of the same life - in one of which she apparently tries to assassinate a young Adolf Hitler?, I guess that version didn't work out (this is not one of those alternate history novels such as what if the South won the Civil War) - and in the last chapters she gives an alternate life, of a sort, to Ursula's younger brother Teddy. Teddy is a fighter pilot for England in WWII and in some of the chapters that follow Ursula's life in London during the war we learn that Teddy's plane was shot and went down in flames over Berlin. There's no definitive identification of his body or anything, but Ursula speaks w/ others in his platoon who confirm that his plane went down and nobody could have survived. Still, alert readers will spot the hint and be suspicious, and sure enough Teddy turns up in London on Armistice Day and reunites with family and with his fiancee, Nancy. This is especially odd because his resurrection, the "real," within the terms of the narrative, is improbable (though possible), whereas throughout the novel Atkinson has characters die then reappear in later chapters - so why the concern about verisimilitude regarding Teddy's survival? Beats me. In any event, the sequel, A God in Ruins, is about Teddy - and in my view it's a much stronger novel. I read them out of sequence, but if you read them in sequence the 2nd novel - though told in fragments out of chronological order (and very artfully done) - the narrative flows seamlessly from Life After Life: Teddy as a fighter pilot shot down and held as a POW until the end of the war - and the novel is about his childhood and his life after the war. Only at the end, the very last chapter, does Atkinson pull the rug out from under us so to speak and say that Teddy actually died in the plane crash and that none of the subsequent events happened or could have happened as such: a literary version of It's a Wonderful Life, in a way, showing how one person's life touched so many others. In God in Ruins Atkinson has us posit only one narrative disjuncture, and it's a big one, but she doesn't knock us about like ping-pong balls over the course of the whole narrative, as she does in Life After Life, and to what end? LaL does so only to confuse and befuddle, to move us away from narrative engagement; God in Ruins, more successfully, keeps us engaged throughout and then at the end asks us to ponder the narrative in a different light; I didn't love that, but didn't feel betrayed, either.