Thursday, April 11, 2013

Personal Alternative Histories--I'm Trying to Find More Examples That Exemplify the Sub-Genre of Kate Atkinson's Wonderful New Novel, but I Need Help.

A lot of folks now think about Kate Atkinson as a mystery writer, due to her very successful Jackson Brodie series. When I first read Case Histories, I didn't think of it as a mystery, but as a writer using the mystery genre to tell a complicated story with several interwoven plotlines. One of the things that was most fun abot hand-selling this book is that both genre and non-genre fans loved it, which is why we sold over a thousand copies of Case Histories during my time at Schwartz. There were so many different types of booksellers touting this book, and with its great word of mouth, it wound up becoming a huge bestseller in paperback.

I'm not really a series reader, but I loved Case Histories so much that I read One Good Turn too. A great book, but felt much more like a straight ahead mystery, and not quite the genre bender of the first. I wondered, was Atkinson going to go this route and become one of the titans of the genre, or was she going to feel hemmed in by the boundaries. I wasn't honestly sure, because while her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won the Whitbred (now Costa) prize and had steady sales, it seemed like Human Croquet and Emotionally Weird were quieter, though they definitely have their fans (and remain in print in the US after many years).

It could happen. We learned from Ian Rankin's visit that Atkinson is a friend, and she's seen what he's done with mystery/thrillers. But I was a huge fan of Not the End of the World, a clever subversion of the short story colllection, and so I wondered if perhaps Atkinson might go in a different direction one day. In my memory, the book came out after Case Histories, but it turns out it was a year beforehand. Don't you hate faulty memories?

Life After Life is proof positive that Atkinson's brain is on creative fire. To me, it harkens back a litle to Behind the Scenes at the Museum, plaing with some themes and settings of her first novel. And she continues to play with genre, but now it's more of the speculative variety. I wouldn't exactly call the book science fiction or fantasy, but there is a genre in the field called "alternative history" and now I'd like to label a subset of the genre, "alternative personal history."

The more I look around, the more I see the genre in action. A famous example is the film "Groundhog Day," where Bill Murray continues to relive a key moment in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Another film is "Sliding Doors," where Gwyneth Paltrow's future splits in two, and we watch her live both alternatives.

There are many literary examples, and the more I think about it, the more I need to do a display, only I'm having trouble finding a definitive, or even semi-definitive list.

1. Replay, by Ken Grimwood
A 43-year-old man awakens in the body of his 18-year-old self, and then it happens again, and again. This book won the World Fantasy Award and was published by Arbor House. Oh, I used to like that publisher. I know it got folded into Morrow, but I forget how. Ah, here it is in Wikipedia.

2. The Post Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver 
Another life split caused by a romantic decision. I was going to link to the blog where I discussed the book at our in-store lit group, but I wasn't consistently recapping the meetings in January 2010.

3. The Repeat Year, by Andrea Lochen
This Wauwatosa resident is going to be appearing at Boswell on May 16, along with Madison's Dale Kushner, for her novel, The Conditions of Love. In Lochen's book, a woman wakes up in her boyfriend's bed and realizes that the very bad year she just experienced has gone away. She gets a do over. The book releases on May 7.

4. The Original 1982, by Lori Carson
This is a book I found on our galley shelf and is coming out on May 28. An aspiring singer makes a big decision, and the book splits in two. The story is said to have a 1980s New York music vibe.

5. So to that I add Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. Just in case you haven't read all the press about her new novel, here is Sharon's recommendation.

"Kate Atkinson takes a departure from her mysteries to write an enchantingly written and intricately wrought story of the life and many deaths of Ursula Todd. Ursula is born in 1911 and when she dies, in a twist on reincarnation, she is reborn as herself at the same time, with the same family. Sometimes Ursula learns things to prevent a tragedy in the next life, and sometimes she doesn’t. Questions arise about the role of fate and simple timing in everyone’s life. Kate Atkinson has outdone herself in her latest novel." Thanks, Sharon!

In my head, I have very strong feelings about what makes this genre of "personal alternate history" distinctive. In traditional alternative history, personified on the literary side by Philip Roth's The Plot Against America or Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, it's a what if question that is answered once. Another example is the old television series "Sliders" where the what if question was asked again and again. But in personal alternate history, it's the character's decision that changes the world, the world doesn't change the character. See the distinction?

As you know, Kate Atkinson is appearing at the Milwaukee Public Market (400 N. Water St) on Friday, April 19, 6:30 pm for the Milwaukee Public Library's Fill the Shelves fundraiser. This is the only time of year you can purchase a book for inclusion in the Milwaukee Public Library's circulation with a personal bookplate. You can make the donation the night of the event, and afterwards at both the Katie Gingrass Gallery and also at Boswell.  How could I not include this pitch? Visit our upcoming events here.

So here's the thing. The more I do research on this, the more films I come up with that fit the bill. I decided "It's a Wonderful Life" fell short, because it's more of "A Christmas Carol" trope; the alternative is not seen as an equal reality. But "Run Lola Run" definitely fits the bill.

How am I supposed to make a display without a list of books? Can you help me come up with more? I will add these suggestions to the blog over the next few days.

a. Our friend John offered  Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night, A Traveler. Boy, I have to take a month off and read everything Italo Calvino wrote.

1 comment:

john eklund said...

Reading Life After Life now, keep being reminded of Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter Night a Traveller..." Very different book, but now I want to re-read it.