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The Truth of a Thing

By (July 1, 2015) 7 Comments

A God in Ruinsagodinruins
By Kate Atkinson
Doubleday, 2015

In Kate Atkinson’s acclaimed novel Life After Life, the heroine is reborn again and again, living out multiple variations on the theme of her biography. This premise makes a true sequel impossible: what can logically follow a novel that chooses recurrence over chronology? Her new novel, A God in Ruins, is thus best understood (as Atkinson herself has said) as a companion volume, one that complements Life After Life not only through their shared characters but also through their shared thematic interests: the complex nuances of family connections; the vexed relationship between war and heroism, and between war and civilization; the nature of time and the implications — for life and for fiction — of its theoretical unraveling.

The novels are particularly complementary in the ways they enact the commitments of fiction itself — or so it initially seems. A God in Ruins reads like a confident rebuttal to the dissatisfaction Life After Life shows with the novel as a literary form. While Life After Life explores multiplicity, using repetition and revision to emphasize the contingency of any single story, A God in Ruins explores the multifaceted richness of singularity itself. While the brilliant storytelling of Life After Life is ultimately subsumed by its awkward metaphysics, A God in Ruins restores our faith in narrative, not with any metafictional gimmickry, but by engaging us in the humanity of its characters: in the beautifully evoked heartbreak of their lives, in the stories of their loves and losses, traumas and triumphs. It does this, that is, until suddenly it doesn’t — until with one flamboyant but gratuitous flourish Atkinson reveals that she has once again chosen cleverness about fiction over simply writing great fiction.

lifeafterlifeLife After Life takes place in Britain — and, sometimes, Germany — during the first half of the twentieth century. Ursula is born (over and over) in 1910, and depending on whether she lives for weeks, years, or decades, she experiences influenza, the Blitz, the Allied bombing of Berlin, in a spiraling sequence that, cumulatively, becomes teleological: if “practice makes perfect,” then, Ursula realizes, she can change the course of history. A God in Ruins turns our attention to Teddy, Ursula’s beloved younger brother, covering the same historical territory and then continuing much further ahead, into a future Ursula never reaches. The novel recounts Teddy’s experiences from childhood to death, though not in a strictly linear way: instead, Atkinson relies heavily on both anticipation and retrospection. This strategy reflects her ongoing interest (taken to an extreme in Life After Life) in time as what Teddy’s daughter Viola calls “an artificial construct.” In 1947, still relatively early in Teddy’s story, “people still believed in the dependable nature of time.” By the time Teddy lies dying in 2012, Viola meditates instead on time as “Zeno’s arrow”: “in reality, that arrow had no target, they weren’t on a journey and there was no final destination where everything would suddenly fall transcendentally into place, the mysteries revealed.”

The movement of our attention between past, present, and future also has more personal significance as a way of conveying the intermingling of the three in Teddy’s life and consciousness. Looking back draws our attention to memory as the guardian of identity, providing continuity across time and change. Glancing ahead, in contrast (“but that was in the future,” the narrator frequently remarks) creates dramatic irony, often tinged with pathos, that distances us from Teddy’s experience:

Teddy supposed his own son would have to go [to boarding school] too, although this boy existed in a future that Teddy couldn’t even begin to imagine. He didn’t need to, of course, for in that future he had no sons, only a daughter.

Atkinson does not use these intrusive gestures to add insight into Teddy’s life the way, say, Dickens’s use of retrospective narration in Great Expectations infuses Pip’s recollected childhood with evidence of how much he has learned in the years since. But A God in Ruins is not offered as a Bildungsroman: Atkinson’s interest is not so much in Teddy’s moral evolution as in his endurance.

agodinruinsAnd Teddy has plenty to endure, from the vicissitudes common to childhood through the stress and horror of war, then the smaller-scale trials of domestic life — his wife’s illness and death, his daughter’s callous disregard for him (no easier to forgive because we learn its traumatic source), his grandchildren’s erratic upbringing. Through it all, Teddy aspires to live first with courage, and then with kindness:

He had made a vow, a private promise to the world in the long dark watches of the night, that if he did survive then in the great afterward he would always try to be kind, to live a good quiet life. Like Candide, he would cultivate his garden. Quietly. And that would be his redemption. Even if he could add only a feather to the balance it would be some kind of repayment for being spared.

As this passage suggests, the Second World War is central to Teddy’s novel, as it was to Ursula’s. His time as a pilot in the Royal Air Force generates some of the most dramatic moments in the novel, and also some of the most startlingly poetic:

The outside temperature dropped dramatically and ice started to form on the wings. Ice was a fierce enemy, it could appear rapidly and sometimes without warning — several tons of it, freezing the engines and controls and covering the wings in thick white slabs. It could make an aircraft so heavy that it simply fell out of the sky or broke into pieces in the air.

The intercom was alive now with involuntary ‘Jesus’s and ‘Christ’s and ‘Fuck’s as they were thrown around and, too, the murmur of Psalm 23, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,’ which was interrupted by several gasps of astonishment as J-Jig was abruptly ejected from the thunderhead only to find herself possessed by a phantom.

Touched everywhere by St. Elmo’s fire, bright blue and unearthly — an eerie luminescence that flared along the edges of the wings and even whirled round with the propellers, spinning off them and making strange feathery trails in the darkness, like ghostly Catherine wheels. It was ‘dancing’ between the tips of his guns, Kenny reported from the rear. ‘Up here too,’ from the mid-upper.

The crew is privileged, they think, “to see the world in a way that few people ever had. A privilege they were paying a terrible price for, Teddy thought.”

2Teddy’s war experiences, with their paradoxical blend of violence and wonder, brutality and grace, are transformative, but because A God in Ruins continues so many decades past the end of the war, they aren’t definitive of either Teddy’s character or his biography. A God in Ruins includes war, but it is not in any conventional sense a “war novel.” That’s a subtle difference, perhaps, but it’s one that allows Atkinson to take advantage of the fact that, as one of her characters notes, “people always took war novels seriously,” while resisting precisely that literary hierarchy: war is one thing, not the only, or even the most important, thing — in life or in books.

The most important thing in A God in Ruins is, quite simply, Teddy. In Life After Life, Ursula is, of necessity, something of a cipher, a protean figure enabling the novel’s fractal special effects. Her persistent presence provides unity, but the novel’s momentum comes from curiosity and suspense about outcomes, not from internal revelations that would depend on a more conventional approach to chronology. For better and for worse, Life After Life is a novel of ideas. In contrast, A God in Ruins is a novel of character. What is it like to be Teddy, asks the novel: who is he, what is his life, how is it connected to and diffused across other lives? It answers these questions by showing us Teddy in his entirety: child, brother, soldier, lover, writer, husband, father, grandfather; innocent, kind, curious, brave, loving, strong, selfish, terrified, ruthless, helpless. The novel is not told exclusively from his point of view, but we are brought so intimately into his life that when we step outside his perspective it can leave our feelings as painfully exposed as he suddenly is. It’s jarring, for instance, to see Teddy through Viola’s eyes when he is on his deathbed:

Her father was clearly exhausted, sleeping almost all the time now, like an aged dog. Why didn’t he just go? Was he hanging on for a hundred? Two more years of this? It was mere existence — an amoeba had more life.

The endless recurrence of Life After Life might have justified such indifference to death, but A God in Ruins returns us to the difficult truth that, as Ursula observes (in one of Atkinson’s many coy nods to Life After Life), “life isn’t a rehearsal.” Knowing this, and having known Teddy through all his nearly one hundred years, how can we wish him to “just go”? As his granddaughter Bertie (so much kinder than her mother) reflects, “Grandpa Ted may have been pulsing slowly towards the end of his life, but he was still palpably himself.”

Photo: Andrew Crowley

Photo: Andrew Crowley

Atkinson is wholly successfully at communicating that palpable humanity and, even more, the overwhelming melancholy of its inevitable decline and death, which may come quietly, as for Teddy, or with rage and confusion, as it does for his wife Nancy: “She started screaming, an unholy noise, unstoppable, her wide-open mouth a black maw, as if she finally had become the demon that was in her brain.” For all Teddy’s careful kindness, A God in Ruins is a tremendously bleak book, even a tragic one. His kindness perhaps even makes things worse: against the cruelties we see — some deliberate, but many just the fallout from bad luck, bad health, or the intrinsic callousness of life itself — kindness doesn’t seem like much. There’s also art, though, to set as a bulwark against the sad ephemerality of existence. “When all else is gone, art remains,” says Teddy’s aunt Izzie, who writes her own version of Teddy’s life in a children’s series called The Adventures of Augustus; “fiction,” she reflects, “could be both a means of resurrection and of preservation.” The novel’s own conclusion echoes Izzie’s words: “When all else is gone, Art remains.”

Until nearly the very end, A God in Ruins seems to be a testament to that consoling promise, and to the power of fiction to offer us vicarious life — to be, as George Eliot said, “a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot.” But Atkinson apparently can’t resist the lure of the metafictional gesture, and the trick she plays here is disconcerting in a different way than the overt gimmickry of Life after Life because it’s played at her unknowing readers’ expense. (Readers who have not yet experienced the twist for themselves may wish to defer reading the remainder of this review.) “Pouf!” says Atkinson, with galling insouciance, as at the novel’s moment of greatest tenderness she whisks back the curtain to reveal the artifice of her scheme, and herself as its presiding genius. The story we’ve been reading, it turns out, is not just a fiction but a lie, for Teddy did not actually survive the war:

F-Fox fell with Teddy still inside her, a blaze of light in the dark, a bright star, an exaltation, until her fires were finally quenched by the waves. It was over. Teddy sank to the silent sea-bed and joined all the tarnished treasure that lay there unseen, forty fathoms deep. He was lost forever, only a small silver hare to keep him company in the dark.

atkinsongodinruinsLooking back, we can see how Atkinson prepared us for this discovery: the very first chapter of A God in Ruins is called “The Last Flight,” after all, and Aunt Izzie hinted, too, at the need for Teddy to be resurrected through fiction. But the impact of Atkinson’s revelation depends on our not having guessed the game she was playing, which is to imagine what Teddy’s life would have been if it hadn’t, like so many others, been lost:

Fifty-five thousand, five hundred and seventy-three dead from Bomber Command. Seven million German dead, including the five hundred thousand killed by the Allied bombing campaign. The sixty million dead overall of the Second World War, including eleven million murdered in the Holocaust. The sixteen million of the First World War, over four million in Viet Nam, forty million to the Mongol conquests, three and a half million to the Hundred Years War, the fall of Rome took seven million, the Napoleonic Wars took four million, twenty million to the Taiping Rebellion. And so on and so on and so on, all the way back to the Garden when Cain killed Abel.

Atkinson has made up Teddy’s story to fill a void, to compensate for an absence:

All the birds who were never born, all the songs that were never sung and so can only exist in the imagination.

And this one is Teddy’s.

In its own way, then, A God in Ruins is exactly like Life After Life after all: it’s an experiment in what might have been, an evasion of what really happened in favor of an extended “what if?”

Of course, it makes no sense to talk about “what really happened” in the context of fiction. “So that’s how Ursula actually died,” I thought for a minute, when I read in A God in Ruins of her death — but there is no Ursula, there is no “actually,” it is no more true that she died of a stroke than that she caught influenza, was bombed in the Blitz, or was shot while assassinating Hitler in a Munich café in 1930. Why is it, then, that I found what Atkinson calls the “conceit” of A God in Ruins ingenious but also disappointingly — and pointlessly — duplicitous? Without following Atkinson too far into the dangerous territory of metaphysics, I would start with one of her own epigraphs (drawn, self-referentially, from Teddy and Ursula’s mother Sylvie):

The purpose of Art is to convey the truth of a thing, not to be the truth itself.

The truth A God in Ruins conveys is about Teddy’s life, which we believe in not because we don’t understand that novels are made up, but because Atkinson’s skill makes him real to us. That is the real magic trick of fiction: it’s a trick of the imagination, and (as George Eliot recognized when she called art “the nearest thing to life”) it’s essential to our ability to expand the boundaries of our thought and feeling beyond solipsism. Atkinson’s metafictional twist turns our gaze back on ourselves, and on the process of storytelling.

vanityfairThat’s not necessarily a wrong move, of course: many great novels — from W. M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or George Eliot’s Middlemarch to Ian McEwan’s Atonement — expose their own artifice in order to challenge us artistically, morally, or philosophically. Atkinson’s surprise ending, however, is only surprising, not thematically revealing. In her author’s note Atkinson proposes that what she has done could be seen as a “refutation of modernism or post-modernism or whatever has superseded post-modernism,” but I think it is the opposite: it’s a concession to mistrust of story. It suggests an anxiety that without some move that shows she’s not fooled (and that we shouldn’t be either) by the illusion she has created, her novel (the one that’s not a war novel) won’t be taken seriously. Maybe she’s right about that: there’s certainly a tendency to call novels that “just” tell their stories (in however sophisticated a manner) “old-fashioned.” But the pejorative implication comes, surely, from anxiety of a different kind. It’s actually easier to be clever than to be convincing, and Atkinson’s gift is that she writes great, convincing fiction. She doesn’t need to shore up her novels with self-conscious posturing — not if the only purpose it serves is to remind us that fiction is fictive.

My real complaint, though, is that Atkinson played on my emotions, on my belief in her story. I wept as Teddy lay dying — not just for him, but for all of us who will one day diminish as he does, “mind and body crumbling a little more every day,” all of our accumulated experience dissipating as our consciousness falters, all of our possessions losing their meaning as they scatter to new owners, all the people we knew and loved receding until we are quite alone, “a feathery husk, ready to blow away.” It’s terrible and beautiful and sad and true, as Atkinson surely knew, and at the same time it’s all a manipulative mirage. And the final irony is that while the death I cried over wasn’t really Teddy’s, neither was his fall into the North Sea, which is every bit as much a fiction, every bit as much a moment of Atkinson’s imagining, so we’re caught in an infinite regress of disbelief, and thus left puzzling over abstractions instead of thinking about Teddy. “I believe we have just one life,” says Ursula, “and I believe that Teddy lived his perfectly.” If only Atkinson had been as confident about her book.

Rohan Maitzen teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.