What would be the meaning of life if every time you died, you woke up to experience your life again from birth on? If your body suffered the same flaws and history swirled on around you, over and over again? Would you use the knowledge you had to your advantage–and to what advantage? To grow wealthy? To live longer? To exact revenge? To cure disease? End wars? What would you do?
Harry August belongs to a group of people for whom this is the case, as he learns when he is rescued by a member of the Cronus Club. The Cronus Club has rules, of course. Because they have rules, someone must break them.
Harry narrates the novel, but not in chronological order. He moves back and forth through his lives. He introduces us to characters who repeat, but play slightly different roles in his lives. He confesses his sins and lets us watch him learn his lessons. The World Wars become anecdotes rather than central, life-shaping events. Childhood becomes something to be waited out rather than all-important formative years. Death, cancer, strokes, HIV, become just another life event rather than THE life event.
Harry meets few people with whom he can be close and, when he does, the relationships nearly always end badly. His mother dies when he is young. His wife commits him to a mental institution. His best friend tries to end the world and kills him. Repeatedly.
I do not usually like reader’s guides included in books, but the questions in this pushed me because I found myself disagreeing with the premise of a question. I actually found myself wondering how my friends would answer these questions. I wanted to form a book club.
1. Do you envy Harry August in any way? If you were destined to live your life over and over again, would you see it as a blessing or a curse?
3. “There is no loss, if you cannot remember what you have lost.” Discuss.
13. Ultimately The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August serves to tell us that the search for meaning in life is hopeless. Discuss.
This one raised my hackles and sent me back into the book to a scene with a Russian prostitute. Sophia (hmm, should have noticed that earlier) says, “You talk about decent people living decent lives as if that doesn’t mean anything, like it’s not a big deal. But you listen–this ‘decent,’ it is the only thing that matters. I don’t care if you theorise, Mr. Scientist, a machine that makes all men kind and all women beautiful if, while making your machine, you don’t stop to help the old mother cross the street, you know? I don’t care if you cure ageing, or stop starvation and end nuclear wars, if you forget this–” she rapped her knuckles against my forehead “–or this–” pressed her palm against my chest “–because even then if you save everyone else, you’ll be dead inside. Men must be decent first and brilliant later, otherwise you’re not helping people, just servicing the machine.” Later she says, “For progress, we have eaten our souls up, and nothing matters any more.”
“Men must be decent first and brilliant later.” Decent is the only thing that matters. That, to a small person in this big world on this big timeline, is wonderful.
Claire North has a clear message about progress and some less clear messages about many other philosophical issues. Which is why I want to discuss this book with my friends, my family. Strangers. The only person I do not want to discuss it with is Claire North, because pondering the answers is what makes it so interesting.