And now a reading from the book of Ecclesiastes:
"1 The words of Qoheleth, king in Jerusalem:
Vanity of Toil without Profit
2 Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!
3 What profit has man from all the labor
which he toils at under the sun?
4 One generation passes and another comes,
but the world forever stays.
[ . . .]
9 What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun. 10 Even the thing of which we say, ‘See, this is new!' has already existed in the ages that preceded us. 11 There is no remembrance of the men of old; nor of those to come will there be any remembrance among those who come after them.
[ . . .]
12 I, Qoheleth, was king over Israel in Jerusalem, 13 and I applied my mind to search and to investigate in wisdom all things that are done under the sun.
A thankless task God has appointed
For men to be busied about.
14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a chase after the wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be made straight;
what is missing cannot be supplied.
16 Though I said to myself, ‘Behold, I have become great and stored up wisdom beyond all who were before me in Jerusalem, and my mind has broad experience of wisdom and knowledge’: 17 yet when I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly, I learned that this, also, is a chase after wind.
18 For in much wisdom there is much sorrow;
and he who stores up knowledge, stores up grief." (Ecc. 1:1-18, New American Bible)
I don’t remember whether any of these verses are the ones my Modern Fantasy professor referenced in relation to this novel. But I feel they are an appropriate setup for such a provocative story nonetheless.
The year is 1988. Forty-three year-old radio journalist Jeff Winston is in the middle of a tense phone conversation with his wife when, all of a sudden, he dies of a heart attack. But that does not mark the end of Jeff. To his utter shock, Jeff reawakens not only alive and well, but inside his eighteen-year-old body in 1963. Even more incredible, he has full recollection of his “previous” existence, including every significant world event that did and will transpire in the next twenty-five years, from natural disasters and political scandals to sports winnings and stock market outcomes. He seizes the opportunity to improve this second life with his “past” and “future” knowledge. But this prospect turns out to be quite literally short-lived when he finds that, no matter where he is or what historical changes he’s made, he will keep dying in the exact same time in the exact same year as before, only to revive in the past of an entirely new timeline, with every memory of every life still intact. With billions of unanswered questions and seemingly no way to survive beyond 1988, what Jeff faces going forward will either strengthen his will to live, or destroy it.
I first read this sci-fi fantasy novel when I was studying alternate history in fiction. Author Ken Grimwood’s most famous book, Replay is often thought to be a precursor to a similarly structured film, Groundhog Day. Believe it or not, it was actually while he was writing a sequel to Replay that Grimwood died of a heart attack himself. I have no words for that except: Woah. Grimwood’s specialty as a writer was the exploration of philosophical and existential ideas through a metaphysical lens. In fact, Replay was just one of at least three of his stories in which he used time travel as a means for his characters to contemplate the true meaning and purpose of human existence. His 1976 debut, Breakthrough, tells the story of an epileptic woman whose experimental brain implants enable her to read the mind of her past self from 200 years ago, and Elise, the title character of his very rare 1979 book, is an immortal woman who is shaped by her experiences with the numerous lovers she involves herself with over the centuries. What sets those examples apart from this, however, is that they feel much better controlled, and more voluntary. When Jeff finds himself back in time, it is not only the events of his past appearing again in tangible form that unnerve him so. The architecture, the fashion, the people, the social norms, the mannerisms, his own body; the sheer differences of such ordinary things between the decades make them feel utterly alien to him, especially those he has a personal connection with:
“The door of the room swung open, and the inner knob banged against a bookcase. Just as it always had.
‘Hey, what the hell are you still doing here? It’s a quarter to eleven. I thought you had an American Lit test at ten.’
Martin stood in the doorway, a Coke in one hand and a load of textbooks in the other. Martin Bailey, Jeff’s freshman-year roommate; his closest friend through college and for several years thereafter.
Martin had committed suicide in 1981, right after his divorce and subsequent bankruptcy.
‘So what’re you gonna do,’ Martin asked, ‘take an F?’
Jeff looked at his long-dead friend in stunned silence: the thick black hair that had not yet begun to recede, the unlined face, the bright, adolescent eyes that had seen no pain, to speak of.’
[. . .]
‘Jeff sat alone at a table for two in a UFO-shaped Polaris bar atop the Hyatt Regency, watching the denuded Atlanta skyline rotate past him every forty-five minutes. The cab driver hadn’t been ignorant, after all: The seventy-story cylinder of the Peachtree Plaza didn’t exist. Gone, too, were the towers of the Omni International, the grey stone bulk of the Georgia Pacific Building, and Equitable’s great black box. The most commanding structure in all of downtown Atlanta was this one, with its widely copied atrium lobby. A brief conversation with the waitress, though, had made it clear that the hotel was new and as yet unique.
The hardest moment had come when Jeff had looked into the mirror behind the bar. He’d done so purposefully, knowing full well by then what he would see, but still he was shocked to confront his own pale, lanky eighteen-year-old reflection.
Objectively, the boy in the mirror looked somewhat more mature than that; he’d seldom had problems being served liquor at that age, as with the waitress just now, but Jeff knew that was merely an illusion caused by his height and his deep-set eyes. To his own mind, the image in the mirror was of an untried and unscarred youth.
And that youth was himself. Not in memory, but here, now: these unlined hands with which he held his drink, these sharply focused eyes with which he saw.
‘You ready for another one yet, honey?’
The waitress smiled prettily at him, lips bright red beneath her heavily mascaraed eyes and antiquated beehive hairdo. She wore a ‘futuristic’ costume, an iridescent blue mini-dress of the sort that would be worn by young women everywhere in another two or three years.
Two or three years from now. The early sixties.
Jesus Christ.” (pg. 6-11)
Grimwood utilizes his own expertise in journalism to add authentic import to the narrative. The sheer amount of historical events he makes reference to is impressive by itself, but even more so is the manner in which he makes those references hit so close to home through Jeff’s eyes. Even the most turbulent eras, once they end, can and do lose their emotional impact in the collective consciousness, as the progression of time may at least soften the blow, if not completely heal the wounds. But for Jeff, the knowledge that such terrible events will happen over and over again, whether isolated incidents like the Independence Day floods of Lake Erie or world-changing catastrophes like JFK’s assassination, and that everything positive he achieves will be completely erased as soon as he dies, weighs more heavily on his mind with every replay.
Now lest you’re afraid the repeating time loops will make the storytelling go stale fast, Grimwood throws in some clever curve balls by offering Jeff a cosmic double-edged sword of sorts, a revelation that confounds and devastates him even as it eases his temporal loneliness. Against all odds, he locates another “replayer”, a woman named Pamela Phillips, who began her own replaying at age fourteen. (No question, she got this way worse than Jeff did; imagine the trauma of having to constantly relive your teen years. Ugh.) The two take the greatest joy in the fact that neither of them are alone in this terrifying phenomenon, that even with the inevitability of their “deaths” looming over them they can look forward to finding each other’s love and comfort. But yet another shocking discovery obliterates what little structure they create. While their times of death are always right on the dot, their replays occur later and later in their original timelines to the point where they each wake up with only months, weeks, and days instead of years to live a “new life”, what the two call a “skew” in time. And as their individual skews grow longer and longer, the time they have at all, let alone with each other, becomes all the more precious. But with that preciousness comes the regret that accomplishing one thing, even a wonderful and gratifying thing, means not accomplishing another, the mourning of so many possibilities unrealized and so many wishes unfulfilled, even in the midst of a life well lived:
“Pamela turned to Jeff, let flow the tears she’d been holding back. ‘I don’t want them to go. It’s still another month before . . . before . . .’
He embraced her, smoothed her hair. ‘We’ve been through all this before,’ he told her gently. ‘It’s best for them to have a few weeks to adjust to being with their father again, to make new friends . . . That may help them absorb the shock a little.’
‘Jeff,’ she said, sobbing, ‘I’m scared! I don’t want to die! Not . . . die forever, and—’
He hugged her tightly, rocked her in his arms and felt his own tears trickle down his face. ‘Just think of how we’ve lived. Think of all we’ve done, and let’s try to be grateful for that.’
‘But we could have done so much more. We could have—’
‘Hush,’ he whispered. ‘We did all we could. More than either of us ever dreamed when we were first starting out.’
She leaned back, searched his eyes as if seeing them for the first time, or the last. ‘I know,’ she sighed. ‘It’s just . . . I got so used to the endless possibilities, the time . . . never being bound by our mistakes, always knowing we could go back and change things, make them better. But we didn’t, did we? We only made things different.’ (pg. 287)
[. . .]
Now that Pamela was gone, the fears and regrets she had expressed came back to trouble him as deeply as they’d disturbed her toward the end. He’d done what he could to reassure her, to ease the grief and terror of her final days, but she’d been right: For all that they had struggled, all they’d once achieved, the end result was null. Even the happiness they had managed to find together had been frustratingly brief; a few years stolen here and there, transient moments of love and contentment like vanishing specks of foam in a sea of lonely, needless separation.
It had seemed as if they would have forever, an infinity of choices and second chances. They had squandered far too much of the priceless time that had been granted them, wasted it on bitterness and guilt and futile quests for nonexistent answers—when they themselves, their love for each other, had been all the answer either of them should have ever needed. Now even the opportunity to tell her that, to hold her in his arms and let her know how much he had revered and cherished her, was eternally denied him. Pamela was dead, and in three years’ time Jeff, too, would die, never knowing why he’d lived.
He roamed his city streets, watching, listening: tough-eyed bands of punks, furious at the world . . . men and women in corporate attire, hurrying to accomplish whatever goals they had established for themselves . . . giggling swarms of children, exuberant at the newness of their lives. Jeff envied them all, coveted their innocence, their ignorance, their expectations.” (pg. 291-292)
To write Replay off as simply another “be careful what you wish for” scenario involving a guy going through a specific time period over and over again would do it a very grave disservice. I feel it’s less about striving to “edit” and “re-edit” the mistakes or undesirable situations of a given timeline until some “perfect” Hollywood ending is achieved, and more about experiencing different ways of life and understanding that there is no single right way to live it to the fullest. Extraordinary circumstances aside, I think Grimwood’s story is one that any adult can relate to because its protagonist is someone we can all empathize with: an ordinary but good man who wonders why he exists, whether there are greater forces at work that either guide or coerce his decisions, and what he can and should live for. The book’s primary trope may be old hat by now, but what we can learn from this example truly is timeless.
Credits: All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended.
Unless noted otherwise, all book excerpts are from Replay by Ken Grimwood (First Quill Edition 1998, published by William Marrow Paperbacks, New York).
“The Call” — Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
“Split Screen” – Silent Partner
“Time Stops” – Silent Partner
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