Welwyn Katz's Reviews > Replay

Replay by Ken Grimwood
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Oct 17, 2010

did not like it
bookshelves: adult-fantasy, novel-adults, spiritual-fantasy
Read in October, 2010

I read this book for a book club I'm in, and it surprised me that I hadn't heard about it before. I bought the book and I read it and I wanted to like it. There had been a lot of hype when it came out in 1986 and won the World Fantasy Award of 1988. I like fantasy. I write fantasy. But I don't think this book is actually real fantasy. I don't think it's science fiction either. I think it is a failed attempt to write a story where a human being finds redemption through an unusual method.

I feel in a way as if I should not review this book, because so many people have given it such high ratings that a negative comment will make me seem inconoclastic and picky or, worse, small-minded since it comes from a fantasy writer. I don't think I'm any of those things. I want to be surprised in fantasy, that's all. I would like to be surprised in every book I read, excited by a beautiful turn of phrase, startled by a concept, taken to a new place in my own mind. And Replay didn't do that for me.

There are three things wrong with Replay, in my opinion.
(a) the character
(b) the plot
(c) the writing.

The character never excited me by any growing maturity. He was ordinary, dull, selfish, and he just knew too much and not enough. For instance, after 23 years of life, he wakes up as a teenager remembering bits and pieces of his old life, and he 100% remembers what horse won the Kentucky Derby that year. I could have accepted that, if the character had shown a major interest in horse racing all the way through the book. But no. He never even notices a horse anywhere else, except that each time he wakes up he needs some cash so he bets on that same horse. Did I believe that? No. Did it surprise me not to believe it? No. Why not? Because the writing is pedestrian, and I do not expect surprises from pedestrian writing. I will merely say that each time this character "replays" his 23 years (no spoilers on this since you find out about replaying on page one) he remembers the important things that any normal person would remember from his life before dying. The memory of his old replays could help him change: could make him see the need to grow, to become something better than he has been before. But he never uses what he knows about world events for the good of others, only for his own self-destructive "good". He always falls into the same trap, even when he decides to go and live off the land (a decision we're not privy to, and therefore find totally out of character for this sexually charged man).

The trap? It's selfishness.

What we know about this man can be expressed in one sentence. He has to have what he wants. What he wants is usually sex. Clarification? Okay, he has to have sex with perfect women. Clarify still more? Okay, if they are only perfect on the outside, he tires of them and goes on to choose exactly the same kind of woman he had before.

Eventually, and this may be a spoiler, though I do think it is predictable (but if you haven't read the book maybe you shouldn't read from here: he finds a woman who is a replayer too. Together they make the world a much worse place. They don't intend to, but anyone with half a brain could see that their actions together were bound to result in terrible things. Spoiler ends here.

And at the end of the book, has it changed him? Page 309 of 310: and I quote: "Christ, how he yearned to hear a song, any song, that he had never heard before!"

Think about this. A man has lived a lifespan consisting of his first childhood and - let's say - ten replays. Let's say that gives him 240 years of human existence. There is no way that in 240 years he could ever manage to listen to every single song ever sung or written, even at a full 24 hours a day. Even if he changed his preferences from, say, the Beach Boys to blues and rock and roll or even to medieval chants, there is a whole world of blues and rock and roll and medieval chants out there. That's what I think is wrong with this guy. He never changes his preferences. He keeps re-doing what he always did, which is to find stuff for himself, and it's always the same kind of stuff for himself. He's unable to choose the right stuff to make him happy, because he doesn't realize that he has to use that stuff to make other people happy too. Only once does he try to use his foreknowledge unselfishly: regarding the assassination of President Kennedy. Otherwise, he doesn't really care about the world and its issues; he doesn't let himself worry about changing the future. The whole book - with one major exception - is about how he wants stuff for himself. Only by divine intervention (why, please?) does this change. And even after he's given what he wants, the chance at a whole, full life without repetition, he whines about his past (all those songs, all the same).

Redemption has to do with choices, with people choosing to change. I won't say that the hero of this book never chooses to change anything at all, but basically, he never chooses to change himself. Things happen to him. He lets them. He lives from one thing to the next. He never says, "Enough of this. I'm going to figure out why it's always me who is replaying." He never even changes his attitude toward it. It's always a torment. It's never possible for him to see it as a gift. Had he done this, the book would perhaps have lived up to the movie Groundhog Day, which despite its fluffy name, is a movie worth watching at least once a year for the rest of your life.

The plot? I say it doesn't work. Why? Because a plot asks why and why not. Does the hero ever do anything to try to find out why he has to replay this section of his life? I'm going to say something that I imagine most thinking people will expect, having read this far, but if not, this next part could be thought of as a spoiler. Here it is: The hero meets another replayer. A woman, natch. Together they start looking for others. They find one. It's the only truly great bit of writing in the book. I loved it. It gave us an explanation for the replayers. It even almost made sense, despite the fact that many readers won't be familiar with the concept as yoga understands it and as it is explained using the Bhagavad Gita by the one person who understands. But since most people who don't understand the yogic concepts have read Shakespeare (I'll paraphrase the next part): "All the world's a stage, and we but men and women acting on it... taking our exits and our entrances...." This reasoning, provided by someone who even tells our two replayers how and why the world is a stage for a certain group of people watching the replayers in the bloody stage of history they live in, a stage they make even worse, is an exciting concept! I so hoped it wouldn't turn out to be a cop-out. But, sadly, it did. The thought never runs through our replayers' minds again... The explanation was just insane. But I hung onto it. I hoped. I saw that there was an epilog. I didn't dare read it ahead of time in case I was wrong... I got to it at last. And no. The whole explanation had been presented and thrown away. End of spoiler.

So, to me it is a total mystery why this book won the world fantasy award. It is mediocre writing that forces you to live with a guy you really don't much like for all those pages, and there is never an explanation for the plot hook, and the hero is a sad, flawed character who never takes his own life by the horns and makes himself strong.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Sandy Welwyn, you should stop writing. You have been so busy thinking up the review to this, you forgot to read the book. When was the last time any real, fallible human learned from every mistake? Wouldn't be a very interesting plot. If you can only follow the story of the good guy, may I suggest some Disney titles for you...

Chad Spady Welwyn,
I respect your opinion of the book and don't believe that any one book will please EVERY single person out there. There is always the "It just wasn't for me" syndrome; and that's ok. I personally loved the book and it truly was one of my favorite reads. But that doesn't mean that it has to be your favorite book, and you don't have to justify yourself.
However.....since you DID try justifying your feelings on the book, I couldn't help but comment on one of your observations. You spent a fair amount of effort portraying that he didn't do anything to benefit the world as a whole and you seem to feel strongly that he should have done that; and here is the portion of your review of the story that I take issue with:

Only once does he try to use his foreknowledge unselfishly: regarding the assassination of President Kennedy. Otherwise, he doesn't really care about the world and its issues; he doesn't let himself worry about changing the future.

You site this as the one time that he did try to change the world for the better; but how did this attempt work out? This happened during his first replay and turned out to be a pointless effort on his part, because regardless of his attempts to thwart the assassination, it happened anyway. And the lesson taken away from that experience (which if memory serves, he specifically articulated) was that major historical events couldn't be altered and it was pointless for him to try.
I find that frustration and surrender to be a perfectly human response and wouldn't expect any more from a character. But even though I understand and would expect him not to try, let's not forget that he DID try to change the world again.
Towards the end after he met up with the woman replayer and they "came out" together and tried working with the government to make the world a better place; how did that turn out? They became prisoners and in the end of that replay were pitted against each other and had a wedge put in their relationship. So again, experience was no encouragement for trying to change world events.
While I respect your opinion about this book and understand that you didn't like it, I think you missed the mark on this issue that you took with the character's actions. And while I don't expect that this would or even should change your opinion of the story, I don't think it's fair to use that specific example as a motivating factor in your dislike of the story.

Carol I totally agree with your review. I never cared about the character because he seemed shallow, I started to lose interest after the 3rd replay.

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