My first encounter with a reset story was a very long time ago. When I was an undergraduate, I took a couple of years of German for my language requirement. I watched Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt) in the language lab and was completely blown away by a story that was told, over and over again, with slight changes to the plot that changed the ending of Lola’s attempts to get her boyfriend back after he screws up a money drop.
The next time I found a reset story was years later. In 2013, I read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, a book that polarized the bookish community at the time. Some readers hated it because it was strange or because they didn’t like how often the story of the sometimes doomed/sometimes heroic Ursula Todd kept starting over with her birth. I was utterly enthralled by the book. Usually, I don’t like books in which the author has too much of a presence. I like books that are more subtly constructed. I think what I love about resetting stories like Life After Life, Run Lola Run, Madame Victoria by Catherine Leroux, and Middlegame by Seanan McGuire is that they allow me to think about one of my favorite questions: what if this instead of that?
There is a proverb that dates back to the middle ages: “for want of a nail.” (The full version of the problem explains how the loss of a single nail can lead to the loss of a battle and, thus, a kingdom.) Small decisions can have huge consequences. A moment of forgetfulness on a bus, as in Run Lola Run, can lead to murder. The arrival or failure of a doctor to arrive at a birth can doom Ursula Todd. In actual history, there are stories of near misses and disasters that were caused by these little decisions or accidents in spite of historians and economists telling us that big things happen because of people in power or because of mass movements of people—but tell that to the chauffeur who took a wrong turn and basically delivered Archduke Ferdinand to his assassins.
In fiction, as opposed to speculative history, not only do I get to wonder “what if?” I also get to see authors at play. Instead of creating a fitting ending to cap off their narratives or carefully set up foreshadowing, they can freely experiment and send the plots in all directions. It’s almost as if the characters have room to play, too, once the author has tweaked their trajectories. There’s no telling where things will end up and all of the plots we see are equally “true.” I can see how this would be maddening to some readers, but this is one of the few exceptions to my personal dislike of looking at the sausage factory of literature.
What do you think, readers? Do you like stories that reset themselves? If so, do you have other books you might recommend to me? This is a vanishingly small genre-let.