Replay, by Ken Grimwood, tackles the classic ‘What if…’ scenario: “What if I could live my life over again?”
It treads a path between the wonderful Star Trek episode ‘The Inner Light’ and Groundhog Day. Jeff, the book’s protagonist, is going to ‘replay’ his life more than once, unlike Picard; but unlike Phil Connors, he’s repeating decades rather than a day.
Grimwood has executed the premise spectacularly well. The prose is economical, and does a fair bit more ‘tell’ than ‘show’, but the scale of the story, and the depth of his exploration of the premise in my view require that. This is a book that is really all about the plot and Jeff’s exploration of his situation.
It starts with Jeff in a weary argument with his wife over the phone, in the middle of which he has a heart attack and dies, aged forty three. He wakes up as an eighteen year old back in college, and gets to do it all again, this time knowing who wins various Kentucky Derbys and World Series. The book really starts to motor when he dies again, aged forty three.
The strength of the novel is how good a handle Grimwood has on his main character. As the events unfold, complete with some twists, one of which provides a pivotal emotional thread, we’re on a journey with Jeff that feels right. There are no false notes in his reaction to the lives he’s given and the relationships he has. But it was only in a conversation he has later on in the novel that I began to see a deeper metaphor unfold from Grimwood, a parallel between Jeff’s lives and our one life, which I can’t give away for spoilers. Suffice to say: ‘Youth is wasted on the young’. It’s beautifully done.
Inevitably, Replay is the kind of novel that constantly holds a mirror up to us, wrestling with the question of how we should live and what’s important. Through Jeff and his story, Grimwood, remarkably, covers all the ground you could think of with those questions.
The fact that ‘the meaning of life’ is a problem or a goal undiminished regardless of the number of lives you’re given is one of the more interesting outcomes of Jeff’s situation.
If the book falls a little short anywhere it’s in the way Grimwood tackles the cause of Jeff’s recurring life, something that Jeff is obsessed with. An attempt to save John F Kennedy’s life in ’63 gives a strand that could have been plucked to more effect, and later in the novel there is a further and much larger opportunity given that never really resolves, at least for me.
The climax of the novel is nevertheless interesting, and is given substance by the strength of what goes before. Resolving Replay’s causality question might have been as big an ask as it was for Stephen King to give us a suitable climax with the monster in It, or Pizzolatto’s challenge to provide a fitting climax to True Detective, but the journey all of these writers takes us on is both powerful and moving.
Replay is much richer than Groundhog Day of course, it has the space to be. But given how brilliant the latter is, this is more than sufficient recommendation from me to go read the former.