Ken Grimwood’s Replay is a book which fell in my lap about ten years ago. It blew my mind with a tale of a man who kept dying and reliving his life from different points in his past each time.
Replay revolves around the story of Jeff Winston, a 43 year old man who dies in the first page of the book. But his death is unusual. Whatever force causes the heart attack, propells him back in time, and Winston wakes up in 1963. The last words he hears in 1988 are his wife, about to launch into another tirade about their limping, tired marriage. After Winston establishes that he’s really in 1963, the contrast is clear – he’s been reborn before some of the greatest mistakes of his life. He’s gone from being a middle-aged man to a college student with all the choices of life at his feet again.
Winston has many replays of his life – in which he dies at exactly the same point, in exactly the same way. He always wakes up at an earlier point on his original lifetime – so each time he wakens, everything from the previous lifetime is erased: decisions, mistakes, love affairs, children. But Jeff always has memory of his previous lifetimes, even if the rest of the world has ‘forgotten’ them.
Of course, he turns his knowledge of the future to his advantage – betting on major world sporting events and investing in companies that he knows will be phenomenally successful in the future. The wealth he accumulates allows him to enjoy radically different lifestyles, and also explore the limits of his ability to replay his life. Jeff even tries to influence the events surrounding John F Kennedy’s assassination. Though he takes Lee Harvey Oswald out of the equation, another assassin makes the kill, adding to the age-old conspiracy theories and making Jeff wonder to what extent he can affect world events.
All of this is fine, and Ken Grimwood imagines these second-chances at lives brilliantly – giving the character of Jeff the opportunity to dabble in sexual permissiveness and a playboy lifestyle, but after a while he realises the emptiness of this lifestyle. Jeff encounters a fellow ‘replayer’, Pamela Phillips, when she creates a groundbreaking movie Starsea before the innovations of Star Wars and using George Lucas and Steven Speilberg before they became famous. After a frosty start, the two begin a love affair that spans several replays. However, the romance doesn’t play out successfully each time, and the couple squander one lifetime trying to find other replayers, and most of another lifetime exposing their abilities to the public. This earns them a life lived in detention at the hands of the American secret service.
For me, Replay is perhaps one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. When I first read it, I remember being dismayed by the endless opportunity that Jeff Winston faced in replaying his life. I panicked a lot at the notion that any moment of my one-life was a mis-step or a mistake. Like listening to Pink Floyd’s Time and thinking that you really were “ticking away the moments that make up a dull day”. We don’t all have the luxury of stripping back twenty years’ worth of life and starting again. I was horrified.
I picked up Replay again recently (I’d loaned my original copy to someone who fell out of touch before returning it). Reading the book at this time in my life, yes there was a touch of replay-envy. But on this reading, I could see how Winston had rose-tinted some of his recollections, and the adult inside his college-age body had little time for the pretences of courtship and he bemoaned the fake sexual rituals of the early 60’s.
The message that I’m interpreting from this book – certainly from the ending – is that we don’t have the luxury of rewriting our past lives or living them differently. The universal truth is that we don’t replay, so in life we shouldn’t put up with situations where we’re patently unhappy or dissatisfied. In later replays, Jeff walks away from his tepid marriage, knowing that there’s nothing he can change. He makes sure his wife is comfortably off, but leaves her – with the wisdom that to continue the cold war between them will slowly destroy both of them.
I think perhaps we all look backward to a ‘golden era’, defined by innocence and optimism. These things sometimes become eroded by the simple process of living. We call it baggage, we become jaded. But surely the message of Replay is that even in middle age, we still have options. (I’m not middle aged yet, by the way!) Isn’t that what happens when Jeff stops replaying and starts living the rest of his life? The certainty of the replays is replaced by the uncertainty of the future. Rather than be disturbed by what’s ahead of him, Jeff embraces the fact that all bets are off.
For me, Ken Grimwood created a masterpiece of modern fiction. Replay is a time travel story that reflects lifetimes of opportunity and regret. For all the requisite science-fiction elements, it’s the passage of time and its effect on people. Maybe I’m at an age when I can appreciate the contrast between a young and optimistic me and the current, older model complete with regrets and sometimes jaded by the events in my life.
It’s the human element in the book that speaks to me – the ‘what if’s and possibilities that Grimwood explores. He’s one of those rare authors who immerse you in their fictional world to the point where you wonder if they’ve experienced this world.
There aren’t many books that I have this kind of relationship with. Replay has been an inspiration to me on some levels, a cautionary horror story on others. But one thing’s for sure, Replay is the most important, thought-provoking book I’ve ever read. I hope that others who’ve picked it up through the Unreality Shout book club enjoy it the same way.