“He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times.”—Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (1942)
“And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful house’/And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful wife.’”—Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime” (1980)
1.By the release of their 17th album, Everyday Chemistry, in 1984, The Beatles had been wandering for years in a musical wilderness. Their last cohesive venture had been 1972’s Ultraviolet Catastrophe, but the ’70s were mostly unkind to the Beatles—an output composed of two cover albums of musicians like Ben E. King and Elvis Presley, rightly derided by critics as filler. Meanwhile, The Rolling Stones released their brilliant final album before Keith Richards’s death; the disco-inflected 1978 Some Girls which marked them as the last greats of the British Invasion. By contrast, The Beatles’s Master Class and Master Class II were recorded separately and spliced together by engineers at Apple Studies; a two-star Rolling Stone review from 1977 arguing that “Lennon and McCartney don’t even appear in the same room with each other. Their new music is a cynical ploy by a band for whom it would have perhaps been better to have divorced sometime around Abby Road or Let it Be.”
Maybe it was the attempt on John Lennon’s life in 1980, or the newfound optimism following the election of Walter Mondale, but by the time the Fab Five properly reunited to record Everyday Chemistry there was a rediscovered vitality. All of that engineering work from the last two albums actually served them well as they reentered the studio; true to its title with its connotations of combination and separation, catalyst and reaction, Everyday Chemistry would borrow from the digital manipulations of Krautrock bands like Kraftwerk, and the synthesizer-heavy experimentation of Talking Heads. The Beatles may have missed punk, but they weren’t going to miss New Wave.
With a nod to the Beatlemania of two decades before, Lennon and Paul McCartney sampled their own past songs, now overlaid with flourishes of electronic music, the album sounding like a guitar-heavy version of David Byrne and Brian Eno’s avant-garde classic My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. A formula that would define this reconstituted version of the band, now committed to digital production, and whose influences are seen from Jay Z’s Lennon-produced The Grey Album, to the tracks George Harrison played with James Mercer in Broken Bells.
By asking Eno to produce their new album, The Beatles signaled that they were once-again interested in producing pop that didn’t just pander. Always pioneers in sound effects, the modulation on Revolver, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, and Ultraviolet Catastrophe were a decidedly lo-fi affair, but by the era of the Macintosh, the Beatles had discovered the computer. Speaking to Greil Marcus in 1998, Ringo Starr said “You know, we were always more than anything a couple of kids, but John was always into gizmos, and something about that box got his attention, still does.” Billy Preston, officially the band’s pianist since Ultraviolet Catastrophe, was also a zealous convert to digital technology. In Marcus’s Won’t Get Fooled Again: Constructing Classic Rock, Preston told the critic that “They were a bar band, right? Long before I met them, but I was a boogie-woogie guy too, so it was always copacetic. You wouldn’t think we’d necessarily dig all that space stuff, but I think the band got new life with that album.” From the nostalgic haziness of the opening track “Four Guys” to the idiosyncratic closing of “Mr. Gator’s Swamp Jamboree,” Everyday Chemistry was a strange, beautiful, and triumphant reemergence of The Beatles.
2.Such a history may seem unusual to you, because undoubtedly you are a citizen of the same dimension that I am. Unless you’re a brave chrononaut who has somehow twisted the strictures of ontological reality, who has ruptured the space-time continuum and easily slides between parallel universes, your Beatles back-catalog must look exactly the same as mine. And yet Everyday Chemistry exists as a ghostly artifact in our reality, a digital spirit uploaded to the Internet in 2009 by some creative weirdo, who cobbled together an imagined Beatles album from the fragments of their solo careers. A bit of Wings here, some of the Plastic Ono Band there, samplings from All Things Must Pass and Sentimental Journey, edited together into a masterful version of what could have been.
Most of my narrative above is my own riffing, but claims that the album is from a parallel universe are part of the mythmaking that makes listening to the record so eerie. “Now this is where the story becomes slightly more unbelievable,” the pseudonymous “discoverer” James Richards writes. Everyday Chemistry is a seamlessly edited mashup done in the manner of Girl Talk or Danger Mouse, but its ingenious creator made a parallel universe origin of Everyday Chemistry the central conceit. Richards claims that a tape of the album was swiped after he fell into a vortex in the California desert and was gifted Everyday Chemistry by an inter-dimensional Beatles fan.
At Medium, John Kerrison jokes that “inter-dimensional travel probably isn’t the exact truth” behind Everyday Chemistry, even if the album is “actually pretty decent.” Kerrison finds that whoever created the album is not going to reveal their identity anytime soon. Unless of course it actually is from a parallel universe. While I mostly think that that’s probably not the truth, I’ll admit that anytime I listen to Everyday Chemistry I get a little charged frisson, a spooky spark up my spine. It’s true that Everyday Chemistry is kind of good, and it’s also true that part of me wants to believe. Listening to the album is like finding a red rock from Mars framed by white snow in your yard—a disquieting interjection from an alien world into the mundanity of our lives.
Part of what strikes me as so evocative about this meme that mixes science fiction, urban legend, and rock ‘n’ roll hagiography, is that we’re not just reading about a parallel universe, but the evidence of its existence is listenable right now. Tales of parallel universes—with their evocation of “What if our world was different from how it is right now?”—is the natural concern of all fiction. All literature imagines alternate worlds. But the parallel universe story makes such a concern explicit, makes it obvious. Such narratives rely upon the cognitive ability to not accept the current state of things, to conjecture and wonder at the possibility that our lives could be different from how we experience them in the present.
Such stories are surprisingly antique, as in Livy’s History of Rome written a century before the Common Era, in which he conjectured about “What would have been the results for Rome if she had been engaged in a war with Alexander?” Even earlier than Livy, and the Greek father of history Herodotus hypothesized about what the implications would have been had there been a Persian victory at Marathon. Such questions are built into how women and men experience our lives. Everyone asks themselves how things would be different had different choices been made—what if you’d moved to Milwaukee instead of Philly, majored in art history rather than finance, asked Rob out for a date instead of Phil?
Alternate history is that narrative writ large. Such stories have been told for a long time. In the 11th century there was Peter Damian’s De Divina Omnipotentia, which imagined a reality where Romulus and Remus had never been suckled by a she-wolf and the Republic was never founded. In 1490, Joanot Martorell’s romance Tirant lo Blanch, perhaps the greatest work ever written in the Iberian Romance language of Valencian, envisioned a conquering errant knight who recaptures Constantinople from the Ottomans. Medieval Europeans were traumatized as the cross was toppled from the dome of the Hagia Sophia, but in Martorell’s imagination a Brittany-born knight is gracious enough so that “A few days after he was made emperor he had the Moorish sultan and the Grand Turk released from prison.” What followed was a “peace and a truce for one hundred one years,” his former enemies “so content that they said they would come to his aid against the entire world.” Written only 37 years after Mehmed II’s sacking of Orthodoxy’s capital, Tirant lo Blanch presents a Christian poet playing out a desired reality different from the one in which he actually found himself.
In the 19th century, the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne did something similar, albeit for different ideological aims. His overlooked “P.’s Correspondence” from his 1846 Mosses from an Old Manse is credibly the first alternate history story written in English. An epistolary narrative where the titular character, designated by only his first initial, writes about all the still-living Romantic luminaries he encounters in a parallel version of Victorian London. Lord Byron has become a corpulent, gouty, conservative killjoy; Percy Shelley has rejected radical atheism for a staunch commitment to the Church of England; Napoleon Bonaparte skulks the streets of London, embarrassed and vanquished while kept guard by two police officers; and John Keats has lived into a wise seniority where he alone seems to hold to the old Romantic faith that so animated and inspired Hawthorne. P. is a character for whom the “past and present are jumbled together in his mind in a manner often productive of curious results,” a description of alternate history in general. Hawthorne’s is a message about the risks of counter-revolution, but also an encomium for the utopian light exemplified by Keats, for whom there remains so “deep and tender a spirit of humanity.”
Alternate history’s tone is often melancholic, if not dystopian. An exercise in this world might not be great, but think of how much worse it could be. Think of authors like Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle or Robert Harris in Fatherland, both exploring the common trope of imagining a different outcome to the second world war. Such novels present Adolf Hitler running rough-shod over the entire globe, crossing the English Channel and ultimately the Atlantic. Such narratives highlight the ways in which the evils of fascism haven’t been as vanquished as was hoped, but also as a cautionary parable about what was narrowly averted. In his own indomitable amphetamine-and-psychosis-kind-of-way, Dick expresses something fundamental about the interrogative that defines alternative history, not the “What?” but the “What if?” He asks “Can anyone alter fate?…our lives, our world, hanging on it.”
Such novels often trade in the horror of an Axis victory or the catastrophe of Pickett’s Charge breaking through that Confederate high-water line in that quiet, hilly field in Pennsylvania. Some of the most popular alternate history depicts a dark and dystopian reality in which polished Nazi jack-boots stomp across muddy English puddles and Confederate generals hang their ugly flag from the dome of the Capital building; where an American Kristallnacht rages across the Midwest, or emancipation never happens. Gavriel Rosenfeld in his study The World Hitler Never Made: Alternate History and the Memory of Nazism argues that such stories serves a solemn purpose, that the genre has a “unique ability to provide insights into the dynamics of remembrance.” Rosenfeld argues that alternate history, far from offering impious or prurient fascination with evil, memorializes those regimes’ victims, generating imaginative empathy across the boundaries of history and between the forks of branching universes.
Philip Roth in The Plot Against America and Michael Chabon in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union imagine and explore richly textured versions of the 20th century. With eerie prescience, Roth’s 2004 novel reimagines the genre by focusing on the personal experience of the author himself, interpolating his own childhood biography into a larger narrative about the rise of a nativist, racist, sexist, antisemitic American fascism facilitated through the machinations of a foreign authoritarian government. Chabon’s novel is in a parallel universe a few stops over, but examines the traumas of our past century with a similar eye towards the power of the counterfactual, building an incredibly detailed alternate reality in which Sitka, Alaska, is a massive metropolis composed of Jewish refugees from Europe. Such is the confused potentiality that defines our lives, both collective and otherwise; an apt description of our shared predicament could be appropriated from Chabon’s character Meyer Landsman: “He didn’t want to be what he wasn’t, he didn’t know how to be what he was.”
For Rosenfeld, the form “resists easy classification. It transcends traditional cultural categories, being simultaneously a sub-field of history, a sub-genre of science fiction, and a mode of expression that can easily assume literary, cinematic, dramatic or analytical forms.” More than just that, I’d suggest that these narratives says something fundamental about how we tell stories, where contradiction and the counter-factual vie in our understanding, the fog from parallel universes just visible at the corners of our sight, fingerprints from lives never lived smudged across all of those precious things which we hold onto.
While long the purview of geeky enthusiasts, with their multiverses and retconning, alternate history has been embraced by academic historians for whom such conjecture has traditionally been antithetical to the sober plodding of their discipline. In history no experiment can ever be replicated, for it is we who live in said experiment—which is forever ongoing. Temporality and causality remain a tricky metaphysical affair, and it’s hard to say how history would have turned out if particular events had happened differently. Nonetheless, true to its ancient origins in the conjectures of Herodotus and Livy, some scholars engage in “counterfactual history,” a variety of Gedankenexperiment that plays the tape backwards.
Economist Niall Ferguson has advocated for counterfactuals; arguing that they demonstrate that history doesn’t necessarily follow any predetermined course. Writing in his edited collection Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, Fergusson claims that the “past—like real life chess, or indeed any other game—is different; it does not have a predetermined end. There is no author, divine or otherwise; only characters, and (unlike in a game) a great deal too many of them.“
Seriously considering counterfactual history as a means of historiographical analysis arguably goes back to John Squire’s 1931 anthology If it Had Happened Otherwise. That volume included contributions by Hilaire Belloc, who true to his monarchist sympathies imagines a very much non-decapitated Louis XVI returning to the Bourbon throne; his friend G.K. Chesterton enumerating the details of a marriage between Don John of Austria and Mary Queen of Scots; and none-other-than future prime minister Winston Churchill writing a doubly-recursive alternate history entitled “If Lee had not won the Battle of Gettysburg,“ narrated from the perspective of a historian in a parallel universe in which the Confederacy was victorious, who roughly imagines a different version of our history.
Churchill concludes the account with his desired reunification of the English speaking peoples, a massive British, Yankee, and Southern empire stopping the Teutonic menace during the Great War. As with so much of Lost Cause fantasy, especially in the realm of alternate history (including Newt Gingerich’s atrocious Gettysburg: A Novel of the Civil War—yes that Newt Gingerich), Churchill’s was a pernicious revisionism, obstinate fantasizing that posits the Civil War as being about something other than slavery. Churchill’s imaginary Robert E. Lee simply abolishes slavery upon the conclusion of the war, even while the historical general fought in defense of the continuation and expansion of that wicked institution. Yet ever the Victorian Tory, Churchill can’t help but extol a generalized chivalry, with something of his ideal character being implicit in his description of Lee’s march into Washington, D.C. and Abraham Lincoln’s rapid abandonment of the capital. The president had “preserved the poise and dignity of a nation…He was never greater than in the hour of fatal defeat.“ In counterfactual history, Churchill had been cosplaying dramatic steadfastness while facing invasion before he’d actually have to do it.
Counterfactuals raise the question of where exactly these parallel universes are supposed to be, these uncannily familiar storylines that seem as if they inhabit the space at the edge of our vision for a duration as long as an eye-blink. Like a dream where unfamiliar rooms are discovered in one’s own house, the alternate history has a spooky quality to it, and the mere existence of such conjecture forces us to confront profound metaphysical questions about determinism and free-will, agency and the arc of history. Did you really have a choice on whether or not you would move to Philly or Milwaukee? Was art history ever a possibility? Maybe Phil was always going to be your date.
The frustration of the counterfactual must always be that since history is unrepeatable, not only is it impossible to know how things would be altered, but we can’t even tell if they could be. How can one know what the impact of any one event may be, what the implications are for something happening slightly different at Marathon, or at Lepanto, or at Culloden, or Yorktown? All those butterflies fluttering their wings, and so on. Maybe Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss in Candide is right, maybe this really is the best of all possible worlds, though five minutes on Twitter should make one despair at such optimist bromides. Which is in part why alternate history is so evocative—it’s the alternate, stupid. James Richards found that other world easily, apparently there is a wormhole in the California desert that takes you to some parallel universe where scores of Beatles albums are available. But for all of those who don’t have access to the eternal jukebox, where exactly are these parallel realities supposed to be?
Quantum mechanics, the discipline that explains objects at the level of subatomic particles, has long produced surreal conclusions. Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle proves that it’s impossible to have complete knowledge of both the location and the momentum of particles; Louis de Broglie’s wave-particle duality explains subatomic motion with the simultaneous mechanics of both particle and wave; and Erwin Schrödinger’s fabled cat, who is simultaneously dead and alive, was a means of demonstrating the paradoxical nature of quantum supposition, whereby an atom can be both decayed and not at the same time. The so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics is comfortable with such paradoxes, trading in probabilities and the faith that observation is often that which makes something so. At the center of the Copenhagen Interpretation is how we are to interpret that which physicists call the “collapse of the wave-function,“ the moment at which an observation is made and something is measured as either a wave or a particle, decayed or not. For advocates of the orthodox Copenhagen Interpretation, the wave-function exists in blissful indeterminacy until measured, being both one thing and the other until we collapse it.
For a Pentagon-employed physicist in 1957 named Hugh Everett, such uncertainty was unacceptable. That a particle could be both decayed and not at the same time was nonsensical, a violation of that fundamental logical axiom of non-contradiction. If Everett thought that the Copenhagen Interpretation was bollocks, then he had no misgivings about parallel universes, for the physicist would argue that rather than something being both one thing and its opposite at the same time, it’s actually correct to surmise that the universe has split into two branching forks. In Schrödinger’s fabled thought-experiment, a very much not sub-atomic cat is imprisoned in some sadist’s box, where the release of a poison gas is connected to whether an individual radioactive atomic nucleus has decayed or not. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, that cat is somehow dead and alive since the nucleus is under the purview of quantum law, and can exist in indeterminacy as both decayed and not until it is observed and the wave-function collapses. Everett had a more parsimonious conclusion—in one universe the cat was purring and licking his paws, and in an unlucky dimension right next door all four fury legs were rigid and straight-up in the air. No weirder than the Copenhagen Interpretation, and maybe less so. Writing of Everett’s solution, the physicist David Deutsch in his book The Fabric of Reality claims that “Our best theories are not only truer than common sense, they make more sense than common sense.“
Maybe mathematically that’s the case, but I still want to know where those other universes are? Whither in wardrobe or wormhole, it feels like Narnia should be a locale more accessible than in just the equations of quantum theorists. For myriad people who congregate in the more eccentric corners of the labyrinth that is the Internet, the answer to where those gardens of forking paths can be found is elementary—we’re all from them originally. Those who believe in something called the “Mandela Effect” believe they’re originally from another dimension, and that you probably are as well. Named after people on Internet message boards who claim to have memories of South African president Nelson Mandela’s funeral in the early ’80s (he died in 2013), whole online communities are dedicated to enumerating subtle differences between our current timeline and wherever they’re originally from. Things like recalling a comedy about a genii starring Sinbad called Shazaam! or the ursine family from the The Berenstain Bears spelling their surname “Berenstein“ (I think that I’m actually from that dimension).
Everett’s calculations concern minuscule differences; the many-worlds interpretation deals in issues of momentum and location of subatomic particles. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a universe where the Berenstain bears have a different last name—in a multiverse of infinite possibility all possibilities are by definition actual things—but that universe’s off-ramp is a few more exits down the highway. This doesn’t stop believers in the Mandela Effect from comparing notes on their perambulations among the corners and byways of our infinite multiverse, recalling memories from places and times as close as your own life and as distant as another universe. Looking out my window I can’t see the Prudential Center anymore, and for a second I wonder if it ever really existed, before realizing that it’s only fog.
Have some sympathy for those of us who remember Kit-Kat bars as being spelled with a dash, or Casablanca having the line “Play it again, Sam.” Something is lost in this universe of ours, here where whatever demiurge has decided to delete that line. Belief in the Mandela Effect illuminates our own alterity, our own discomfort in this universe or any other—a sense of alienness, of offness. The Mandela Effect is when our shoes pinch and our socks are slightly mismatched, when we could swear that we didn’t leave our keys in the freezer. And of course the Mandela Effect is the result of simply misremembering. A deeper truth is that existence can sometimes feel so oft-putting that we might as well be from a parallel universe. Those other dimensions convey the promise of another world, of another reality. That just because things are done this way where we live now, doesn’t mean that they’re done this way everywhere. Or that they must always be done this way here, either.
What’s moving about Everyday Chemistry is that those expertly mixed songs are missives from a different reality, recordings from a separate, better universe. The album is a tangible reminder that things are different in other places, like the fictional novel at the center of K. Chess’s brilliant new novel Famous Men Who Never Lived, which imagines thousands of refugees from a parallel universe find a home in our own. In that novel, the main character clutches onto a science fiction classic called The Pyronauts, a work of literature non-existent in our reality. The Pyronauts, like Everyday Chemistry, betrays a fascinating truth about parallel universes. We may look for physical, tangible, touchable proof of the existence of such places, but literature is all the proof we need. Art is verification that another world isn’t just possible, but already exists. All literature is from a parallel universe and all fiction is alternate history.
Whether or not the Beatles recorded Everyday Chemistry, the album itself exists; if The Pyronauts is written not in our universe, then one only need transcribe it so as to read it. In the introduction to my collection The Anthology of Babel, I refer to “imagined literature;” an approach towards “probing the metaphysics of this strange thing that we call fiction, this use of invented language which is comprehensible and yet where reality does not literally support the representation.” Every fiction is an epistle from a different reality, even Hugh Everett would tell you that somewhere a real Jay Gatsby pined for Daisy Buchanan, that a few universes over Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy were actually married, and somewhere Mrs. Dalloway is always buying the flowers herself. The Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, and Mrs. Dalloway are all, in their own way, alternate histories as well.
Alternate history functions to do what the best of literature more generally does—provide a wormhole to a different reality. That fiction engenders a deep empathy for other people is true, and important, but it’s not simply a vehicle to enter different minds—but different worlds as well. Fiction allows us to be chrononauts, to feel empathy for parallel universes, for different realities. Such a thing as fiction is simply another artifact from another dimension; literature is but a fragment from a universe that is not our own. We are haunted by our other lives, ghosts of misfortune averted, spirits of opportunities rejected, so that fiction is not simply the experience of another, but a deep human connection with those differing versions on the paths of our forked parallel lives.
Image credit: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema.
In Ezra Sleight’s classic sci-fi novel The Pyronauts, the world ends in fire. Aliens in crystal spaceships arrive on Earth bearing peaceful solutions to humanity’s deepest crises: war, illness, racism, xenophobia. But the well-intentioned extraterrestrials bring along an unintended stowaway: a toxic parasite that destroys all plant life on earth. One by one, crops, flowers, and trees wither and die. Animals starve, and with them, humans. The scattered survivors resort to burning the infected landscape in hopes of killing the virus. The earth is left to smolder, charred black beyond recognition.
The Pyronauts is often heralded as a masterwork, a mournful allegory for the dangers of colonialism or the nuclear age. Sleight’s home in New York has been preserved as a museum, and his famous novel has been subject to one intricate analysis after another. There’s only one small problem if you want to read the book itself, which is that The Pyronauts doesn’t actually exist—at least not in this world. Ezra Sleight and The Pyronauts are part of an alternate timeline, a parallel universe that split off from ours in the early years of the 20th century.
Sleight and his apocalyptic masterpiece are at the center of Famous Men Who Never Lived, the debut novel by Providence-based writer K Chess. As the book begins, the parallel world in which Sleight wrote The Pyronauts actually has been destroyed by nuclear catastrophe, forcing 156,000 of its citizens to flee across the fabric of the universe to seek refuge in ours. These refugees—known as Universally Displaced Persons, or UDPs—find themselves in a world they both recognize and don’t. In their timeline, America is on the metric system, Latin America has organized into a powerful communist bloc called America Unida, airships are the preferred method of long-distance travel, online poker doesn’t exist, the Holocaust never came to pass, and the swastika, true to its Buddhist origins, is a universal sign of good luck. In this new world, New York is still New York. But the neighborhoods are different, the history has changed, the slang makes no sense, and Ezra Sleight died in an accident as a child, leaving his body of work unwritten.
Famous Men, like New York itself, jostles with the voices of many of these recent transplants as they struggle to assimilate. But it focuses in particular on two: Vikram Bhatnagar, a Ph.D. student whose field of study as he knew it—20th-century American literature—no longer exists, and Helen “Hel” Nash, a surgeon who was forced to leave her son behind in the evacuation and has sunk into depression. Forced to start their lives anew in an unfamiliar world that alternates between hostility and indifference, Hel and Vikram flail for solid ground. Vikram takes a dead-end job as a night watchman at a storage warehouse, where he’s haunted by glimpses, down darkened hallways and behind locked doors, of a mysterious blue light that seems to signal a way back home. Hel, meanwhile, stays at home rereading the last remaining copy of The Pyronauts in existence, and becomes obsessed with founding a museum dedicated to the “vanished culture” of her home world. But her plan is derailed when the sole copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, a development that drives her to take increasingly desperate and reckless measures to get it back.
Despite a premise Philip K. Dick would’ve admired, Famous Men isn’t quite a sci-fi novel, but something more like its inverse—a book less concerned with alternate universes than their absence. The disappearance of this parallel timeline, the trauma of its swift erasure, haunts the survivors, and haunts us in turn. Chess unspools her characters’ memories and points of reference with minimal context, foisting the UDPs’ disorientation onto the reader and leaving it up to us to discern the differences between two separate, competing universes. And as the book details the perilous crossing, demeaning jobs, and constant prejudice that Hel, Vikram, and the other UDPs face, it draws a clear parallel between their experience and our present-day refugee crisis—the wrecked cities of Famous Men’s alternate world recalling nothing so much as images of a leveled Aleppo or bombed-out Baghdad. In this way, Famous Men joins the recent surge of politically-minded speculative fiction, from the fantastical doors of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West to the ravaged landscapes of Omar El Akkad’s American War and the electrical jolts of Naomi Alderman’s The Power. What sets Famous Men apart is the scope of its ambition: Here we have a story about immigration wrapped inside a post-apocalyptic fable with multiple universes that also manages to be a meditation on art, fate, trauma, and loss. All this, in a scant 300 pages.
Indeed, the book’s focus on The Pyronauts—whose plot forms its own meta-narrative within the story—allows Chess to move beyond mere allegory to ask deeper questions about loss, integration, and belonging. Because what are we if not our culture, the stories we spent a lifetime consuming? Forced migration not only robs people of their geographical foundation, the book reminds us, but their social and cultural ones too. As Sto:lo elder and scholar Lee Maracle observes in her book Memory Serves Oratories, Western culture demands that non-white immigrants, and non-white people in general, “must disavow their own story, belief, and authority” if they wish to fit in. (It is surely no accident that many of Famous Men’s UDPs are queer or people of color.) But what does one do then with all those memories? Let them go and attempt to form new ones, at the cost of one’s identity? Or hold onto them and risk social alienation? Famous Men makes this trap explicit, forcing its characters to choose between the devastated world they left behind and, literally, “a whole separate twentieth century.” At one point, Vikram is struck by a repeating design of Barack Obama’s iconic Hope poster—a politician whose very existence is new to him. “So specific, that pattern,” he muses. “And in its own way, beautiful.” Left unsaid are all the patterns and slogans and beloved figures that shaped Vikram and his world, an ocean of history lost forever.
Famous Men is so chock-full of ideas that its plotting and characters come across as an afterthought at times; a scattered third act and too-neat conclusion in particular feel like they were taken out of the oven a little too soon. But the book also illustrates a side of immigration that often gets left out of the news reports: how refugees, seeking safety and security, first must paradoxically sacrifice those very things; how homesickness and grief linger without relief. How any of us, through wildfire or civil war or nuclear disaster, could unexpectedly find ourselves on the other side of that line, our family and possessions lost, and face the paralyzing choice of looking forward or looking back, unsure which is right, which choice will lead us, at last, to a place we belong.