Monday, February 15, 2016

Perpetuum Mobile

            The anthologized version of Julia Garcia’s “Daughter of Invention” is written in first person from Yolanda’s point of view, rather than the third person in the novel, and has a different introduction. In that introduction, Yolanda describes Mami as “living proof of the perpetuum mobile machine so many inventors sought over the ages” (88). And although the footnote defines perpetuum mobile as “perpetual motion (operating continuously without a sustained input of energy” (88), perpetuum mobile also has musical definition (listen to a perpetuum mobile by Johann Straus), according to the World Heritage Encyclopedia: “a composition where (a large part of) the piece is intended to be repeated an (often not specified) number of times, without the ‘motion’ of the melody being halted when a repeat begins,” which seems to be an apt description of Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life.
            Ursula Todd is born, repeatedly; she appears to be the melody that is always in motion beginning with “Snow” on February 11, 1910. Smothered by the cat as a newborn; reborn. Drowned as a four-year old; reborn. Killed attempting to assassinate Hitler; reborn. Beaten to death by an abusive, insecure husband; reborn. Killed during the Blitz on London; reborn. Killed during the bombing of Berlin; reborn. Died from a migraine/aneurysm in London during the Six-Day War in Israel and Palestine; reborn. And although the synopsis on Kate Atkinson’s website states, “What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?” it doesn’t appear that Ursula has the luxury to get “it right” and then live a perfect life to its natural conclusion. In the final Ursula chapter “The Broad Sunlight Uplands” May 1945, Ursula has survived World War II in London, Nancy has survived the serial killer, Teddy has survived his bomber being shot down and prisoner of war camp, and Ursula may have a new love interest in Teddy’s friend Vic. No darkness falls. But the novel does not end; a final “Snow” chapter is included describing Mrs. Haddock having a third “glass of hot rum” (529), which implies another reborn episode.
            Ursula becomes increasingly aware of the perpetuum mobile of her life. In “The End of the Beginning” section (479-509), Ursula tries to right all the bad endings, but the narrator notes that “[s]ometimes it was harder to change the past than it was the future” (495). In her first appointment with Dr. Kellet in this episode, Ursula draws an ouroboros, “a snake with its tail in its mouth” that Dr. Kellet describes to Sylvie as “a symbol representing the circularity of the universe. Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present, only the now” (496). But Ursula’s increasing awareness of all possibilities overwhelms her with a sense of dread and a resulting mental breakdown. In her final meeting with the now retired Dr. Kellet, Ursula changes her shape of time from the ouroboros to the palimpsest to explain how or why evidence of the past, or her past lives, remain in her memory or present. To regain her sanity, Ursula commits suicide to deliberately repeat her life; she has come to terms with being “a witness” and recognizes that “the practice of it makes it perfect” (509).
            And what if (pardon the use) Ursula’s melody is not the only one being repeated? What if she is simply the only one overwhelmed or sensitive to the déjà vu, the ouroboros, the palimpsest? In the last “Snow” episode to describe Ursula’s birth, Sylvie “rummaged furiously through [the] contents” of her bedside table looking for scissors to cut cord strangling Ursula. Sylvie orders the young maid Bridget to “[h]old the baby close to the lamp so I can see”; Sylvie then snips the cord and the narrator states, “Practice makes perfect” (520). So Sylvie has not only experience Ursula’s birth and death numerous times, she has learned from those experiences whether or not she is conscious of that repetition. Also in “The End of the Beginning” section, Hugh makes a different choice in regards to Izzie’s baby; unlike every other repetition, he ignores Sylvie’s telegram, “DO NOT BRING HER TO MY HOUSE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES STOP” (483-484) and allows Izzie to stay with the family until she gives birth, at which time Sylvie and Hugh adopt the infant (484). And although we have already read that Sylvie did not leave the estate to eldest child and first-born son Maurice, her decision in this same section is caused by Ursula reporting that “Maurice shot the fox” and Sylvie replying, “I shall disinherit him one day” (501). Finally, in what could be the happily ever after ending of “The Broad Sunlit Uplands,” everyone seems to have survived through May 1945 and in the reuniting of Nancy and Teddy, Ursula believes Teddy has shouted, “Thank you,” to her across the pub (525). It could be thanks for bringing Nancy to the pub, but it could also be thanks for changing the past to keep Nancy alive, since Nancy is killed a few previous times by the serial killer.
            In the 1967 conversation with a nephew, Ursula states, “I heard someone say once that hindsight was a wonderful thing, that without it there would be no history” (474). It seems that Ursula is speaking for Atkinson. The only purpose that history serves is to learn from it; if we don’t use our hindsight to review the causes and effects, to compare and contrast the present with the past, or to analyzes the processes, then history is useless. There is no reason to examine where we came from if we don’t choose to utilize it to inform us. In her notes about the novel on her website, Atkinson states, “People move on, history remains” (2). While we do not live a life of perpetuum mobile, we would be remiss in not reflecting on the past, on the personal or societal history, to inform our decisions for the future. We do not have to repeat the past through perpetuum mobile or fractals (the term used by Atkinson to describe the structure of the novel); unlike Ursula and the Todd family, we can break the repetition.
            As an example, World War I was deemed the Great War because people assumed it would never been repeated. Unfortunately, within twenty years historians had to name it World War I because World War II had begun. But writer and analyst John Aziz believes that World War III, the concept of world war as perpetuum mobile, is not possible. In a column for The Week magazine, Aziz outlines a number of hindsights that would make a third world war unlikely: “mutually assured destruction,” “a huge rise in the volume of global trade,” democratic countries do not tend to go to war with each other,” “[p]ublic shock and disgust at the brutal reality of war broadcast over” social media, and “the world as a whole is getting richer.” Since the “incentives for world war are far lower than they were in previous decades, and the disincentives are growing,” we can reduce our fears of world war in repeating, unlike Ursula who relives World War II multiple times but from various points of views so that readers understand war from multiple perspectives. All of which add to our hindsight that world war should not be repeated.

Atkinson, Kate. Life after Life. New York: Back Bay Books, 2014. Print.

1 comment:

  1. I was pleased to see that you too pondered the possibility that characters other than Ursula are aware (if only in the vaguest sense) of being stuck in the cyclical "tune" of time. Because it was (and is) extremely difficult for me to pick out the several clues that highlight this shared, semi-sense of awareness (due to the complex nature of the novel), I appreciate you taking the time to cite specific instances.