By Ken Grimwood
(Warning... very mild spoilers ahead. They won't matter, though. This book is too awesome to be ruined by spoilers.)
Most people cringe when they are asked "What is your favorite film?" or "What is your favorite book?"They tend to get angry at the questioner and reply with something like this: "How can I choose just one from so many!? It's not a fair question! Can I choose my favorites based on mood or time of day or period of my life?" And while I empathize with those who can't answer such straightforwardly impossible questions, I have no problem with them.
Granted, I have dozens of favorites films and books, and I can answer these questions in more obtuse tones if the situation requires, but if, for some reason, my questioner demands me to boil it down to one from each film and books, I can do it. I can actually answer both questions with definitive and unwavering answers. Without question, my all-time favorite film is The Big Lebowski and my all-time favorite book is Replay.
Technically, I read Replay four years ago, which means I'm breaking a blog rule (writing about the last book I finished), but not really. I recently finished re-reading this novel with a class of students and since I'm still ankle deep in an especially long novel, I thought I could add a little blog content in the interim.
For anyone who hasn't read (or heard of) Replay, drop whatever nonsense you are reading right now and find this gem of a novel. It won't be easy. It took me a while to track down a copy, but they are out there. And with all due respect to Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, Replay is simply the best piece of science fiction I have ever read (and, like I said, my favorite novel). Set in 1988, the novel begins with the death of 43 year-old, mild-mannered radio journalist Jeff Winston. Winston is the very definition of ordinary. Until the instance of his death, Jeff had been a middling man of middling ambition living out his mediocre life with his increasingly bitter wife, Linda... no kids. Well, that's the way this mortal coil works, right? We're born, we live as best we can, and we die... the vast majority of us in a haze of relative obscurity. Right?
Well, not Jeff Winston.
Jeff Winston's life begins with death.
In one sense, Jeff Winston does die in his office in 1988, in that his life to that point ceases to exist. but instead of a cessation of existence or some sort of progression into an afterlife, Jeff Winston wakes up as an 18 year-old in his dorm room at Emory University in 1963, complete with all his memories of his past life. A life that has not yet been lived. He has not met Linda. His best friend is still alive and every major event that has happened, from the assassination of JFK, Vietnam, the moon landing, Watergate, Heaven's Gate, etc... are all events yet to unfold. It is as if the entire world resets, save for one man's consciousness, leaving Jeff with a 20/20 vision of future events until 1988.
Once the premise is established, Ken Grimwood essentially begs the question: If this happened to you... what would you do?
The novel is a riveting exercise in what many (if not most) of us would do given the chance to live our entire adult lives over again with all the cheat codes available. Imagine a crystal clear notion of the next 25 years of time. Election results, sporting results, disasters, news stories, financial information, cultural trends, technological advances, Yanni. This isn't simply stumbling upon a sports almanac owned by a weird kid with an orange life jacket in 1955 that provides you with an aspect of future events, but rather all your collective memories and recollections from a world that has not yet caught up with you! It's a variety of reincarnation that is as tantalizing as it is scary. And it has provided me with a little game that I have placed since I read this book back in 2008.
If this were to happen to me I would begin replaying in 1993 (that's when I was 18 and the Toronto Blue Jays were about to win their second straight World Series in dramatic fashion (touch 'em all Joe!)) and on nights when I am having trouble falling asleep I often fantasize about what I would do if this phenomenon did occur (well, it beats counting sheep). There's the good stuff: A good portion of my fantasies surround (like Jeff in the book) betting insane amounts of money on sporting events, investing in sure thing stock (Google, Nokia, AOL, Apple, Amazon, Facebook (giggle) etc...) and I'd probably use the phenomenon in ways that I don't want to explore online since my mother tends to read this blog (though Ken Grimwood goes there with Jeff). But there would also be the bad: It's highly unlikely that I could recreate the exact circumstances that lead to me meeting, dating and ultimately marrying my wife (among other important people in my life) and I wonder whether I would be able to refrain from interfering in the space/time continuum (could I really, in good conscience, sit back and allow the events of September 11th to happen again? Or Columbine? Or Triumph the Insult Dog? Or any number of other tragedies that I know are impending?).
Replay is such an intriguing premise. One with so many variables. And if the premise of this book was simply replaying your life from the age of 18 until the age of 43 it would have been excellent, but Grimwood doesn't stop there. On the exact date and time of his death in 1988, Jeff Winston dies again and begins replaying his life... for a third time. This continues to a fourth and fifth and sixth life, each slightly shorter than the last, but to a human being, an almost infinite amount of living to be done. And just imagine, for a second that perhaps Jeff Winston isn't the only person experiencing replays.
Each time I finish this novel I curse Grimwood for ending it. There was so much more that could have been written. It could have been the first infinite book. Alas, I understand that an artist should always leave there audience wanting more. In this respect, Ken Grimwood is a genius. Rumor has it that he was working on a sequel to the book when he died in 2003, but left us with an unprintable manuscript which he went off to, presumably, replay his own life. Jerk.
There has been rumor of a movie for years (including one that would have starred Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts) but as of yet it has not materialized. It's a shame, too because I think it would make a killer film if done right.
Until such time, there is still the book. I am surprised that it isn't as well known as it should be. Given the premise of the novel I figured it would have been a runaway best seller rather than a cult classic. But what do I know about taste? My favorite movie is The Big Lebowski.