Friday, July 31, 2015

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

99% of readers and reviewers 
love her, but here’s the 1%

     I loved Kate Atkinson’s first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995) because it was a funny, intelligent, biting family saga covering the 1950s through the 1990s in York, England.  The main character was the same age as Atkinson over those years, but I never felt she was a stand-in for the author or that the story was autobiographical.  Instead, the details of middle-class England at that time both resonated and reverberated.  There’s a hilarious sequence when the family goes on a car vacation and things go wrong, both logistically and emotionally.  I also enjoyed her second novel Human Croquet (1997), though it was almost too inventive with its time travel armature.  Everything about Shakespeare, however, was excellent.

Kate Atkinson
     What I noticed about Atkinson was that her novels always had a tricky resolution plot-wise.  In mysteries and thrillers, writers employ what I’ll call ‘shadow plotting.’  What I mean is that the reader is being led down one path by the author, who is creating a completely different pathway that will result in the climax and be explained in a denouement.  For instance, Agatha Christie created a different path for each of her suspects and either Poirot or Miss Marple or Tommy and Tuppence explained who had done what from before the beginning.  Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler practiced this technique, usually through the set up of what seemed to be a simple case, but which was really the lead into something far more treacherous, dangerous, and complex.  Edmund Wilson’s problem with Chandler’s writing was the weakness of the resolution in comparison to the degree of depravity or decadence suggested by the mystery.  In Wilson’s opinion, the resolution would never live up to the intrigue.

     Atkinson would throw in an element that didn’t really add anything to what she had brilliantly created:  penetrating, witty portraits of petit bourgeois Britain.  She’d reveal something at the end that instead of seeming like a Joycean epiphany, just felt peculiar and unnecessary.  I ignored her next couple of books until Stephen King went wild about Case Histories (2004) in Entertainment Weekly.  This was back when his column “The Pop of King” was probably the best all-around accessible popular criticism since Pauline Kael’s 1970s movie criticism.  The difference is that King acknowledged his preferences upfront before critiquing works.  I wish a collection of “The Pop of King” would be published as a book, especially since EW is pretty much dead in the water and has been ever since Jess Cagle left as the editor.

From the BBC Series Case History
with Jason Isaacs and Millie Innes
     Case Histories was extremely well written, but Atkinson juggled four different cases (twice what most of the classic mystery authors generally presented in books) and, though Ian Rankin does the same in his Rebus series, Atkinson creates more complex characters than Rankin so the connections between the cases were more tenuous or indirect than in contemporary mysteries that are more seriously focused on the genre.  I skipped the next three, though I wondered why she was so intent upon writing private eye books, rather than the tragicomic family sagas with which she started.  By the way, the PBS series starring Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie, the private eye, was highly entertaining, though I still didn’t think there was a strong connection between many of the characters (primarily the suspects in the multiple simultaneous cases).

         Life After Life (2013) received adulation on both sides of the Atlantic.  It showcases Atkinson’s elegant, funny style while trumpeting her ‘shadow plotting’ to the nth degree.  In this case, the main character keeps getting killed off and we return to the basic premise – upper-middle class English family from 1910 – 1968 trying to survive and thrive during the tumultuous 20th century, though primarily during World War II.  The English stiff upper lip and genteelly fighting spirit provides the undertow throughout the novel.  The one constant (besides Ursula – named for the little bear star, the protagonist that’s killed off more times than Bill Murray in 1993’s Groundhog Day, but finds herself in a different situation somewhere in Europe during the period every time she’s resurrected) is the family house.  This is no accident.  ‘An Englishman’s house is his castle’ is the old saying and it’s as culturally endemic as ‘American as Mom, the flag,  and apple pie.’  

     For a sense of Atkinson’s style, here are two sequences involving the parents Hugh and Sylvie and their first attachment to the house:

     ‘Lottie (Sylvie’s mother) died with less fuss than was expected and Hugh and Sylvie married quietly on Sylvie’s eighteenth birthday.  (“There,” Hugh said, “now you will never forget the anniversary of our marriage.”)  They spent their honeymoon in France, a delightful quinzaine in Deauville, before settling in semirural bliss near Beaconsfield in a house that was vaguely Lutyens in style.  It had everything one could ask for – a large kitchen, a drawing room with French windows onto the lawn, a pretty morning room and several bedrooms waiting to be filled with children.  There was even a little room at the back of the house for Hugh to use as a study.  “Ah, my growlery,” he laughed.’

And a little later (and, yes, the English love to name their homes):

Fox Cubs
     ‘”Look,” Sylvie whispered.  Two small cubs sprang out onto the grass and tumbled over each other in play.  “Oh, they’re such handsome little creatures!”
     “Some might say vermin.”
     “Perhaps they see us as verminous,” Sylvie said.  “Fox Corner – that’s what we should call the house.  No one else has a house with that name and shouldn’t that be the point?”
     “Really?”  Hugh said doubtfully.  “It’s a little whimsical, isn’t it?  It sounds like a children’s story.  The House at Fox Corner.”     
     “A little whimsy never hurt anyone.”
     “Strictly speaking though,” Hugh said, “can a house be a corner?  Isn’t it at one?”
     So this is marriage, Sylvie thought.

     Though I think that Atkinson is an excellent writer and Life After Life is the best book I’ve read by her, I don’t think she’s great.  The London Blitz sequence, while incredibly detailed and graphic, is not as memorable for me as the one in Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch.  Part of this may be that Atkinson ambitiously takes on most of the 20th century in this book, while Waters presents only a few characters in London during and immediately after the Blitz.  In her latest, Atkinson revives Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother and an RAF pilot during the War, as her protagonist.  I hope she focuses her plot centrally.  I look forward to it.

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