Alternate timelines and multiple realities vibrating at different frequencies are mostly associated with science-fiction narratives and especially with superhero stories. They’re fun in part because they involve big changes around big historical events and important, powerful people. What if the Nazis won World War II? What if the Fantastic Four turned into zombies? Everything would be different! (And more apocalyptic!)
Kate Atkinson’s 2013 slow-paced tour de force Life After Life, in contrast, is less about how big changes affect everyone, and more about how small changes affect small people. Ursula Todd, the protagonist, is born in a snowstorm to an upper-middle-class British family in 1910. The doctor can’t get to the home, and Ursula strangles on her own umbilical cord. That’s the end of her story. “A helpless little heart beating wildly. Stopped suddenly like a bird dropped from the sky. A single shot. Darkness fell.”
And then the story starts again. Ursula Todd is born to an upper-middle-class British family in 1910, and the doctor gets to her home just in time to cut her umbilical cord. Or maybe her mother knows, for some dim reason, that she’ll need scissors handy, and cuts the cord herself. Ursula takes her first breath and goes crawling into history, a quiet miracle. Much like every birth.
The novel continues on like that, strolling forward until a childhood accident on the roof (“Darkness fell”) or the 1918 pandemic (Darkness falls, a lot) or a house collapsing in the blitz. Death reaches out, and Ursula is reborn in snow, and goes ahead, the same, but a little differently.
Ursula does shoot Hitler once, but she’s killed quickly herself, and history goes back on its grim 20th-century path. She’s not a superhero or a world leader, and though she remembers a little bit from her past lives, she can’t in general do much to alter the course of time.
But history and chance can alter her. In a heartbreaking storyline, one of her brother’s friends rapes her quietly in a stairway when she’s 16. She becomes pregnant, loses her mother’s love and respect, becomes an alcoholic, and marries an abusive man. Her whole life is ruined by one large, cheerful boy’s callous entitlement. And then she comes back and knows enough to fend that original attacker off. The loop of time make her into her own protector— a protector that puritanism and patriarchy denied her the first time through.
For Atkinson, the question “what if?” doesn’t open on adrenaline-charged excitement. It’s bittersweet. The novel loves Ursula so much it can’t let her die in the snow, or of flu, or in Germany, after realizing who her Nazi husband was too late to get back to England. So she comes back and tries again. And she sometimes finds friendship and love. But wherever she goes, there’s also sadness, betrayal, disappointment and death. She gets more life after life, but it’s still life, which means darkness still falls. The multiverse isn’t a pulp adventure plot device. It’s a wish to protect what can’t be protected and fix what can’t be fixed. Every other world is as kind and as cruel as hope.
That’s perhaps even clearer in the Todd family sequel A God In Ruins (2015). The book follows Ursula’s brother, Teddy, a pilot shot down on a raid in World War II. Ursula thought he had died, but he was rescued by the Germans, and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp. Then he comes home, marries, loses his wife to cancer, has an unsatisfying relationship with his daughter, who neglects his grandchildren—lives, in other words, a full, long life, with the usual allocation of joy and sorrow. Or, possibly (spoiler!) he died in the war, and his daughter and grandchildren were never born, because that’s what war is—a shuttering of possibilities and lives, one by one, multiplied by tens and hundreds of thousands. “All the birds who were never born, all the songs that were never sung and so can only exist in the imagination.”
The Todd family books are almost certainly inspired by our pop-culture obsession with multiverses and alternates. They’re an expansion of multiverses rather than a critique of them. Imagination is infinite, like the mirrored Captain Kirks, or Spider-Men or every Loki you can think of, whether child or woman or alligator. Each life dreams dream after dream. We’re all multitudes. Which means that multitudes wink out whenever darkness falls.