What if you could live your life over again, but without the benefit of being Bill Murray? That's the dilemma that Jeff Winston winds up facing here. When we first meet him he's in his mid-forties, stuck in a job that he doesn't seem to find as fulfilling as he used to and his marriage isn't so much unraveling as ossifying, old arguments turning into a very solid resentment that will probably last for the rest of their lives. Jeff is primed for a mid-life crisis of sorts, but instead of getting a hot young girlfriend or a new car, he gets something entirely different: a massive fatal heart attack. And that's how we start.
But as you can probably tell since the book is called "Replay" and not "All the Bad Decisions I Don't Remember Making Eventually Haunt Me", Grimwood isn't so much interested in how we get here as much as what happens afterwards. And in this case, Jeff dies and wakes up . . . in 1963, with the body of his eighteen year old self and all the memories of his life from that point until he dies in the late eighties. At a loss for what to do, Jeff does what anyone else would probably do in the same situation: massively bet on the outcomes of future sports events to secure himself vast amounts of wealth and set himself up for a comfortable existence (if nothing else, this teaches me to pay more attention to who wins the World Series, as you really never know when it might come in handy) then making shrewd investments in companies that he knows will do well in the future. All is going swell, he's living his life almost exactly as he's envisioned it.
Then he reaches the eighties and dies again. Thus a slight snag in the plan appears.
And so it goes for this latter day Billy Pilgrim, who isn't so much unstuck in time as ricocheting back and forth like a rubber ball in the middle of two metronomes. Beyond the concept, which apparently did influence "Groundhog Day", Grimwood takes a deceptively simple writing style (I managed to polish the whole book off in about three hours max) and proceeds to milk the basic idea for all its worth. He applies a realistic filter to Jeff's first time through the merry-go-round, having him do all the things that most normal people would do in the same situation (including trying to change history . . . with unexpectedly interesting results) but by forcing him to repeat all that all over again (and again) he gives up an opportunity to keep revisiting the same scenario but with new wrinkles added each and every time. He attempts to rectify mistakes he made in his original life, tries to shake a sense of loss for what he left behind in previous run-throughs, all the while operating with the knowledge of the one thing that most of us will never know for certain: when he's going to die and how. He's not even sure if he'll come back each time but his constant struggle to both avoid his fate and try something different with his life each time makes for oddly engaging reading, as Grimwood keeps recreating the same scenarios but weighed with Jeff's knowledge of all his past lives layered on top of him, a burden he can't quite embrace nor escape.
And yet Grimwood keeps making it interesting, like a wheel running over the same track again, working the groove deeper and deeper. On one of his go-rounds, Jeff comes to realize he isn't the only one reliving his life repeatedly and that wrinkle of two people trapped in overlapping loops of the same cycle, falling in love and losing each other and having to figure out how to find each other again, greatly opens up the possibilities of the book. He varies the repetition just enough so that you notice the differences more than the similarities, managing to simultaneously convey the joy of having your whole life ahead of you again, the drudgery of having to plod through the boring parts once more (I didn't mind high school and college at the time but the thought of having to go through and study for all those classes again with my old and shriveled late thirties mind is terrifying on some level) and the anxiety that comes when knowing exactly how much time you have only means that you're more aware than anyone else how absurdly little it really is. For Jeff and the woman who becomes his companion its like riding a treadmill tilted downward and coated in oil, you can fight as hard as you want to stay upright and stay on the belt but eventually you're going to fall away back to the start again.
The fact that any of this succeeds is due to Grimwood's ability to give us forward momentum even when the plot is literally doubling back on itself. His imagination for the different scenarios is fantastic enough, like dropping the same actors into the same framework for a play over and over again and watching them improvise a different result based on what's gone before. He manages to keep the feel of it realistic by focusing on the characters themselves and how they react to something, both in their despairs and how they make it work (and for contrast he throws in a third person apparently experiencing the same phenomenon, whose reaction to it makes their wackiest moments seem like utter pillars of rationality), whether its buying stocks, betting on horse races, or making movies. What he doesn't do, and which I sorely appreciate, is make the focus on the book the characters' quests for the ultimate "why" this is all happening. Different explanations are floated and the reader can probably come up with their own theories, whether time itself is broken, or its aliens running an experiment or even some test from a higher power, but the characters quickly realize, as much as the reader probably will, that the explanation isn't the point. Knowing the why doesn't tell you anything beyond maybe that God as a weird sense of humor. Ultimately the characters are too busy living to worry about that and that's where the meat of the book lies, in the second and third chances that we all want but never get, the changes we make within ourselves with the weight of experience, the tragedy of loss and the joy of reconnecting and the grim certainty that even if you had all the time in the world, it would still be too little (something hammered home later when it becomes clear the intervals between dying and being reborn are becoming shorter and shorter).
There's a line in one of my favorite Robert Frost poems that goes "I'd like to get away from Earth awhile/and come back to it and begin over" and here Grimwood makes us ask ourselves, what would we do if we had to do it all over again? Is fixing your mistakes (or what you perceive to be mistakes) the point? Is it the opportunity to try new things, to see if all those paths we never took would actually lead us somewhere better? Or is it simply worth the chance to revel in the day to day progression once more and not worry whether we get it right the whole time. Jeff ends the novel in nearly the exact place he began it, and yet it would be difficult to suggest he's the same person. Still, were his opportunities any better or more open than ours? You don't have to feel trapped to want to make a change and you don't need a freak spasm of time to give you an excuse. In a sense, we have it better than Jeff does for a good chunk of the book. Forced to go over the same temporal ground repeatedly, he has to make the most of limited tools and see his progress, for good or ill, erased. But for us, every day forward gives a chance to move away from where we were and push ahead to a horizon that might reside where we need to be. Within the borders of our years, we are boundless, perhaps more than we realize.