Here are your options:
1. You die. However, every time that you die, you are reborn and get to live your life over again with the ability to correct the mistakes of your past but condemned, as all humans are, to make new ones with each new life you are given.
2. You die. However, you return to your loved ones years later, completely interrupting and, in some cases, devastating the lives that they have created since your death.
3. You die. End of story.
What would you choose?
Options 1 and 2, respectively, represent the plots of two stories I’m into right now: Kate Atkinson’s novel Life After Life and Sundance’s importation of the French TV show Les Revenants (The Returned). In the wake of a year in which an unprecedented number of deaths occurred in my life or in the lives of people close to me, these meditations on life, death, and, for lack of a better term, the hereafter, are particularly timely, if not also slightly unnerving.
A thematic oversimplification of both the novel and the show is “be careful what you wish for.” Though Ursula Todd, the main character of Life After Life, does not ask or wish to be reborn each time that she dies, this is her fate nevertheless. Conceptually, this may seem like a darker version of Groundhog Day, but it’s much more complex than that. While Phil’s life improves with each repeat of his day, Ursula’s life remains complicated. With her foresight, she is able to avoid some of the errors that befell her the first time around; however, she is powerless to escape the new problems that unfold within the new versions of her life. Ursula’s story can be likened to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” which is often misread as an anthem of rebellion or unconventionality, when, in actuality, it’s really articulating a very simple truism: whatever path you take, there you are. Through Ursula, we come to understand that simply getting a do-over doesn’t guarantee a better life.
Similarly, none of the walking dead on The Returned specifically asks or wishes to be resurrected and reunited with their families. Like Ursula, for reasons unknown – and for better or worse – this is their fate. The “returned” are technically zombies, but not in the common sense of the word. In almost every way, they appear human: they can talk, emote, eat real food, and, (spoiler) up until the most recent episodes, their skin is intact. The true “horror” of this show is not the living dead themselves but the drama of what life becomes once you’ve gotten accustomed to the gaping hole of a lost loved one, only to have them suddenly reappear on your doorstep one day, sometimes thirty or more years later. Those who have suffered a loss know about the stages of grief, but The Returned imaginatively flips the script by focusing on the stages of acceptance (or attempted acceptance): disbelief/terror, elation, confusion, anger, and regrouping. Basically, The Returned is the cooler and classier version of Ghost…without the pottery.
At the beginning of this essay, I claimed that both Life After Life and The Returned center on the theme of being careful what you wish for. By YOU, though, I mean US – the living, the people on the outside. The characters themselves never explicitly ask to return or to be returned. That’s OUR wishful thinking. None of us can say that we haven’t at some point longed for a revision or for the chance to reunite with those we’ve lost. However, the implications of these wishes are greater and potentially more catastrophic than we can possibly imagine, hence why we don’t actually get these opportunities in real life.
So, the next time you find yourself wishing that you could just have another shot or just spend five more minutes with the dead, pick up a book or watch TV instead. Because the greatest gift of fiction is that it is one giant do-over. It gives us the chance to live experiences vicariously, to gain the insights or warnings that we would otherwise be incapable of seeing in reality.