It’s been more than two months since February 2nd — Groundhog Day — when Punxsutawney Phil predicted, erroneously, an early spring. Considering a prosecutor’s call for Phil’s death (as though the death penalty were a laughing matter), perhaps Phil wants a do-over, another February 2nd, just like Bill Murray’s character endured for decades in the comedy Groundhog Day (1993).
Using the same theme as Groundhog Day, which wasn’t the first to use a time loop, author Kate Atkinson’s Ursula Todd lives many versions of her life in Life After Life: A Novel (2013). The story begins in November 1930, when twenty-year-old Ursula points her father’s revolver from World War I at Hitler and pulls the trigger. Next, we’re transported from Germany to England, two decades earlier in time, to Ursula’s stillbirth, which the next chapter undoes, when the doctor arrives at the house “in the nick of time. Literally.”
This roughly 500 page novel is a tedious exploration of the “what ifs” in Ursula’s history, focused primarily on the two Great Wars. Ursula is born many times, dies in many ways, and changes the course of her life each time she gets to live it (unlike Billy Murray, Ursula isn’t fully aware of these alternate lives, but she has her déjà vu moments). It’s a grim story with humorous reprieves that are too dry and too sparse to balance the weighty subject matter.
Still, despite being depressing, tedious, and repetitive, the novel kept my interest. I wanted to see how each version of Ursula improved upon the last. I wanted to see how Ursula wound up in a smoky café in Munich pointing a revolver at the Fuhrer. Haven’t we all wondered how the course of history would have changed had Hitler died before he’d had the opportunity to rise to power? Would the Holocaust and World War II still have happened?
Kate Atkinson is not the first person (nor will she be the last) to base a story around such clichés as killing Hitler and time loops. Doctor Who, for example, has done both, as have countless other movies, novels, and television programs — the TVTropes website lists dozens of examples. Here’s one of my husband’s favorites.
As many have said, from the Old Testament to Mark Twain, there are no new ideas. According to Albert Bigelow Paine, in Mark Twain, A Biography, Vol. III, Part 1: 1900-1907 (1912), Twain explained, while discussing the copyrighting of ideas, that:
There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.
Indeed, American copyright law recognizes the importance of borrowing ideas and themes from others by protecting through copyright only the expression of ideas, the specific words used, not the plots or the themes.
So, writers are free to borrow literary themes and plots, but they should be careful when attempting to re-do common ones, like time-travel, déjà vu, and killing Hitler. When they put these themes into their “mental kaleidoscopes” and give it a few turns, hopefully, it will produce a combination that adds value; maybe a combination that’s even better than its predecessors. Otherwise, their readers might think they’re the ones stuck in a time loop.
Note: I purchased the ebook through Amazon for $7.49, which I thought was a good price for a traditionally published book released this year. As of April 15, 2013, the ebook is listed at $12.74 (and on April 16th, it’s listed at $12.59). I would never spend more than $10 for this ebook. [Update: This novel is on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, announced today; maybe that’s why the price went up?]