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 horserace, 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?
book review blogs
Spoiler territory. You’ve been warned.
In Life 4 (I belive), Jeff meets Pamela whom he realizes in another replayer. The way in which he does that is very charming. However, as the story moves forward, their love story drives the rest of the novel. Those scenes where Jeff, who had already jumped back in time but had to wait for Pamela to “jump back,” were fantastic. The way Grimwood describes the look that came over Pamela’s face was stellar, like an old friend who finally remembers you.
Moreover, when Jeff and Pamela figure out that their skews—the amount of time lost when they replay—are different, they realize that she’ll die first. Those closing scenes of the two of them, who have lived and loved lifetimes together, is so heartwarming and sad. Just like real life.
Which leads me to a curious omission and the ending. In all of Jeff’s lives, religion was absent. Toward the end of the novel was when I first became aware of it, so much so that I said it aloud in the car. I even brought it up to my wife. You would think that in one of his lives, Jeff might’ve sought guidance from a religious leader.
About that ending. So, one of the best things about the novel is that the replay is never explained. During one of those lives, the possibility of alien interference was raised. Thankfully, it was soon dropped. If the how is never described, the why is. At the end, after Jeff has “died” over and over again in quick succession, he moves on…with Life 1. All the memories of all the other Lives are intact, but he finally gets to experience life without any foreknowledge. By this point, he finds it refreshing. He also resolves to talk with his wife and have the counseling needed. He vows to live life to the fullest. He basically does what every one of us has the chance to do: live you life and make decisions without ever having the chance to go back and have a replay. He comes to realization that life is special and must be lived as such. Since the How of the replaying is never explained, I took the ending as a religious thing. Who is the only being capable of creating the replay universes but then also giving Jeff the choice to move forward or not? God. Ultimately, Jeff chooses to live life staring into the great unknown that is The Future.
My theory is, I think, proven with the novel’s epilogue. Another person wakes up in his younger self and vows that “This time, I’ll do it right.”