Time Loops! These days, if you throw a rock at… haha, just kidding. I bet you thought you were in a time loop for a second there, didn’t you? How many minutes did you take to contemplate the mistakes of your past life before heading out to look for somebody new to sleep with? If it was more than a few, then congratulations! You are less horny than Jeff Winston.
I can’t remember exactly when I first read Replay – about 15 years ago, most likely – but I’m pretty confident that this was my third time through. This was also my first time suggesting a book to a book group, and the associated anxiety that brings – with the wisdom of age and all of you lot reading over my shoulder, I quickly became more aware of this book’s flaws. I still think it’s a fascinating and extremely enjoyable read but there’s definitely a bunch of stuff to pick apart here – so let’s start there.
So, before he became a published author, Ken Grimwood studied journalism and worked in radio news. He grew up in Florida and attended Emory college. It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to suggest that he put a lot of himself into Replay’s protagonist Jeff Winston, who grew up in Florida and studied journalism at Emory college, then got a job in radio news. They also both died of heart attacks, although I suppose Grimwood couldn’t have predicted this while writing the novel (unless… but surely not).
Both Ken and Jeff seem kinda like average square white guys, and while Jeff tries out various different lifestyles over the course of his many replays, you can always tell that they’ve been filtered through the viewpoint of an average, kinda square white guy. I remembered from previous reads that the concept and the way the story plays out were the Big Things for me, and not the prose – it’s pretty stiff and a little awkward in places, and when Grimwood shoots for more poetic themes (e.g. true love, life as a free-roaming hippie or the ancient communication between man and dolphin) it can be feel a bit clumsy. Some of that I find charming, to be honest – when Jeff first meets his fellow replayer, Pamela, it’s via her art; both the film she makes (with the help of then-unknown talent Steven Spielberg!) and her paintings sound like the kind of clichéd new age nonsense you’d find in a run-down store that also sells a large range of dreamcatchers and scented candles. It’s hard to imagine Starsea actually becoming the world’s most popular movie, but I like that Grimwood presents it in that way. And let’s be honest, with a couple of tweaks it could easily be Avatar, which did hold that title for a good few years.
Most of my criticisms fall into similar “I’m sure this doesn’t work for everyone, but I find it oddly charming” territory, I think. The workmanlike writing, the clunky sex scenes – they never detract from the fun. At times it feels like Grimwood is working through a checklist of Stuff To Do If Reliving Life Over – prevent an assassination, get rich, win a Pulitzer, sleep with every woman he’s ever found attractive – but that’s not a terrible sin for this kind of speculative fiction. He sets up the premise, he explores a bunch of possibilities, he throws in a few interesting wrinkles.
The sincerity with which he explores the premise is one of the key things that appeal to me, I think. I generally lean towards more irreverent sci-fi, but Grimwood keeps it straight, which helps it really hit home when he runs into the heartbreaking downsides of his replays. Having a child just… cease to exist is a truly nightmarish image, and the book also gets into some interesting territory when considering Jeff’s relationship with his fellow replayers – the conflicted, unique romance with Pamela and the horrible revelation of what Stuart is doing with his repeated lives.
I haven’t read any of Ken Grimwood’s other novels – I did pick up a copy of Into the Deep at some point, only to find out that it’s basically his attempt at writing Starsea for real, including “lengthy passages written from the point of view of several dolphin characters”. I’d like to give it another go at some point, but it might not be until my third or fourth replay. This novel feels like one that succeeds despite its author’s limitations to me – I’m pleased to find I’m still a big fan, but also slightly relieved that the author never got to finish his planned sequel. The teaser at the end of this book is a nice little bonus, but I feel like Replay does its job well and gets out at the right time. Besides, isn’t it possible that a book about time loops qualifies as its own sequel?