My reading year was interrupted by the caesura of an interstate move, as we traded in lobster rolls for Maryland blue crabs, Legal Seafood for Ben’s Chili Bowl, Leonard Bernstein for Duke Ellington, and the shadow of Harvard University Memorial Hall for that of the Capitol dome. Don’t take the last sentence as an obnoxious humble-brag; I didn’t attend Harvard, though I often caught the T near there, as now I regularly commute underneath the Capitol South Metro Station, and that proximity to my “betters” is enough for me to fart a bit higher than my posterior. Now that I’m a proud denizen of the District, as us locals apparently call it, I’m not just a citizen who is constitutionally prohibited from voting for my own congresspeople, but also a resident of America’s unheralded literary capital.
Where else have Americans so often fervently oriented both their dreams and increasingly nightmares? What other hundred square miles (well, with a bite taken out of the bottom of it) has so clearly mapped onto the geography of national aspirations? Who doesn’t basically know the shape of the Mall, the look of the Lincoln Memorial, the feel of the White House? New York is the only other city I’ve lived in to give the same sense of spatial “fame-overload,” as perambulations take you by any number of structures so iconic in their import that you can’t help but develop a continual vertigo.
As with my retrospective last year, I’m going to limit my consideration of books read in 2019 to those I’ve taken out from my local library, whether near Cambridge or in Capitol Hill (also, support your local library). In the interests of dutiful fairness, I’m not mentioning any of the exceptional books that I already reviewed this year. I’m also making one alteration; previously I limited myself to focusing only on novels. This year, with the logic that our social reality is as disturbing and surrealistic as any fabulist gothic, I’ve decided to make an exception for one class of nonfiction by including books on politics. Chief among these was the gorgeous Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution by Ben Fountain. Justly celebrated for his brilliant novel Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk, which smashed American idols from militarism to sports-obsession with a deft empathy (not an attribute often associated with smashing), Beautiful Country Burn Again heralds Fountain’s return to journalism.
Since the 2016 election, certain elite publications have taken to reading the tea-leaves of American malaise, going on what some wags have terms “red-neck safaris” so as to better understand the sentiments of those of us who originally come from “flyover country.” Texas-born Fountain understands that the reality is often far more complicated, and he provides a distressing, heart-breaking, poignant month-by-month reading of the election that saw nascent authoritarianism sweep into Washington. “2016 was the year all the crazy parts of America ran amok over the rest,” Fountain writes, “Screens, memes, fake news, Twitter storms, Russian hackers, pussy grabbers, Hillary’s emails, war, the wall, the wolf call of the alt-right, ‘hand’ size, lies upon lies upon lies and moneymoneymoney—the more money, the more likes, is this politics’ iron rule?—they all combined for a billion-dollar stink of an election.”
Disorienting as well as disturbing to read the account of recent history which all of us lived. Fountain has somehow defamiliarized it, however, and the rhetoric of retrospective history strikes us in its sheer nightmarish surrealism. Turning to historical and economic analyses, but filtered through the consciousness of a poet, Fountain’s account isn’t that of other classic campaign works like Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, ’72 or Matt Taibbi’s Spanking the Donkey. Fountain isn’t embedded with any campaign; he doesn’t eat barbecue at Iowa state fairs or whoopie pies in New Hampshire. He’s an observer like the rest of us, and somehow Beautiful Country Burn Again is all the more powerful because of it.
William Carlos Williams wrote that “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” If I can stretch my amendment that allowed for political non-fiction to include poetry as an example therein, holding to the position that poetry may not be factual in the same way as journalism, but it is often more truthful, than the most powerful book on current events that I read this year was Terrance Hayes’s collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.
Because Hayes, currently a professor at New York University and the poetry editor at The New York Times Magazine, was on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon when I got my Masters there, I sometimes like to pretend that I actually know him, though the extent of our discourse was me saying hello to him once on the winding, red-bricked stairwell of Baker Hall. Hayes had a mohawk then; the haircut has changed, but in the meantime, he’s gotten a National Book Critics Circle Award, the TS Elliot Prize, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and a Macarthur Fellowship. No doubt he’ll one day soon (deservedly) get a position as the Library of Congress’ national Poet Laurette of the United States. When I pretended to know Hayes, he was simply a brilliant poet, but since then he’s announced himself as a potentially canonical one. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin was in part Hayes’s reaction to the election of you-know-who, but more than that it’s his grappling as a black man with America’s legacy of violent institutional racism. Writing in a poetic form that goes back to Petrarch and defined by Wyatt, Surrey, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth, Hayes intones, “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” If it’s true that “Poetry is news that stays news,” as Ezra Pound once claimed, then American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin has distressingly been news for a long time, in 1619, in 1776, in 1860, in 1960, in 2019.
So upside down is our current moment that politics must of course be explored by that engine of empathy which literary critics long ago deigned to call the “Novel.” Some of these considerations are in the form of historical fiction, some through the vagaries of science fiction, but if poetry like Hayes’s is at one pole of human expression then surely the very opposite must be that of dry, government report. That’s the genre chosen by the political scientist Jeffrey Lewis, who moonlights as director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Lewis’s first “novel” is the surprisingly engaging and pants-shittingly terrifying The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. Borrowing the form, feel, and language of actual governmental documents from the “Warren Commission,” the “9/11 Commission Report”, and the “Mueller Report,” Lewis imagines a series of miscalculations, blunders, strategic missteps, and plain political idiocy (in part due to you-know-who) that leads to a brief nuclear exchange that sees the destruction of Seoul, Tokyo, Yokohama, and the virtual obliteration of North Korea. Added to such horror are the detonation of nuclear warheads over Honolulu, Palm Beach (Mar-a-Lago is a target), Manhattan, and northern Virginia when a missile intended for Washington is a few miles off course. Lewis writes with eerie and prescient verisimilitude that “We present this final report and the recommendations that flow from it mindful that our nation is more divided than ever before, particularly over the question of responsibility for the chain of events that led to the first use of nuclear weapons in more than eight decades—and their first use against the United States of America.” Evoking other examples of “official document” fiction, from Robert Sobel’s textbook from a parallel universe For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga and Max Brooks’s pastiche of Studs Terkel’s reporting World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Lewis novel is among one of the most disturbing I read this year, in part because of its dispassionate, objective tone.
Speculative fiction was also the chosen genre for Leni Zumas’s startling, upsetting, and unnervingly realistic Red Clocks. Yet another representative example of a novel written as part of our ongoing golden age of feminist science fiction, Zumas joins Naomi Alderman, Louise Erdrich and (of course) Margaret Atwood in examining trends regarding reactionary gender relations, reproductive rights, and institutional misogyny by extrapolating out from our current moment to a possible (and believable) near-future. Red Clocks is science fiction for a post-Kavanaugh era, taking place sometime in the next decade or so after Roe v. Wade has been overturned, LGBTQ and single Americans have been denied the right to adopt, and creeping theocratic logic infects even the liberal environs of the Pacific Northwest where the novel is set. The novel is focalized through four major characters: a single high-school teacher and historian approaching middle-age who wants a child but is infertile and is running up against the government’s bans on IVF and adoption by the unmarried; her pregnant teenage student who wants to get an abortion; the wife of one of the teacher’s colleagues who finds herself in a stultifying marriage; and a local midwife with witchy affectations who runs afoul of the increasingly draconian state. One of the strengths of Red Clocks is how deftly it shows the lie that pro-choice politics are anti-pregnancy, and how what lies at the center of any defense of reproductive rights is the freedom to make the best decision for yourself. At the core of Red Clocks is the conviction that women must have their right to bodily autonomy be recognized, and that we don’t have to be living in Gilead to admit that things can get just a little bit worse every day.
If Zumas imagines a not-so-distant future to explore her political themes, then Joshua Furst takes us to the not-so-distant past in Revolutionaries. Evoking recent novels such as Nathan Hill’s The Nix, Furst’s second novel is arguably part of a trend of millennial writers attracted to the political radicalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, while refusing to simply embrace the mythology of the Woodstock Generation as being the primogeniture of all that is just and free. Revolutionaries is narrated by Fred (ne “Freedom”) Snyder, the put-upon, manipulated, emotionally abused, and often ignored son of notorious countercultural radical Lenny Snyder.
“Call me Fred,” the narrator says, “I hate Freedom. That’s some crap Lenny dreamed up to keep people like you talking about him.” If Revolutionaries were in need of a subtitle, I’d suggest “OK Boomer.” Snyder is a not-so-thinly veiled version of Abbie Hoffman, founder of the Youth International Party (or Yippies), jailed member of the Chicago Seven, and arguably the anarchic spiritual ancestor of the Dirtbag Left. As with Hoffman, Snyder organizes trollish pranks against the establishment, such as raining dollar bills down on the New York Stock Exchange to demonstrate the petty greed of the brokers who scramble after literal change, or in his demonstration against the Pentagon in which a group of warlocks and witches attempts to levitate the massive structure. He’s idealistic, utopian, and committed to freedom, equality, and justice. Snyder is also occasionally cruel, narcissistic, self-indulgent, and unequivocally a terrible father. Revolutionaries neither condemns nor celebrates Snyder, taking him with all of his complexities while asking how any radical is able to be committed equally to both family and their movement.
Recent political history was also the theme of Jennifer duBois’s The Spectators, and as with Furst she excavates the previous decades to give intimations of what the genealogy of our current age might be. The Spectators isn’t interested in hippie hagiography and its discontents, however, preferring rather to toggle between the gritty, dystopian world of New York City in the ’70s when the Bronx was burning and Gerald Ford proverbially told the five boroughs that they could drop dead, and the belle epoque of the mid-’90s when Americans took their first hit of mass marketed infotainment. DuBois’s central, mysterious, almost Gatsby-esque character is Matthew Miller (born Mathias Milgrom), who in the 1993 present of the novel is the host of a day-time talk-show with shades of Jerry Springer. Before his current iteration of peddling shock television—all baby-daddy reveals and Satan-worshiping teens encouraged to brawl in front of a live studio audience—Miller was an idealistic city councilman in New York between the Stonewall uprising and the AIDS pandemic. His ex-lover Semi recollects that Miller “radiated a subtle electricity—something slight and untraceable that kinectified the air around him—and it was easy to mistake this, then, for the particular dynamism of compassion.” Like the actual Springer, Miller was an idealistic, progressive, crusading politician; unlike the actual Springer he was also a closeted gay man. The Spectators’ attention shifts between Semi in the ’70s and ’80s and his publicist Cel in the ’90s, their two stories converging in the novel’s present as Miller faces a reckoning after it has been revealed that a midwestern school shooter was a fan of his show. DuBois writes with a tremendous humanity, a novelistic consciousness whereby she almost magically occupies with equal aplomb both the experience of young gay men on the Lower East Side in the early ’70s and an anxious career woman who grew up dirt-poor in New England. Within The Spectators something else emerges, a portrait of a nation obsessed with violence, spectacle, and ratings, but where sometimes there may still be something noble, since “compassion took work, he always said, and anyone who told you otherwise wasn’t really trying to be good at it.”
Furst and duBois have written historical fiction of a kind, but they’re just two examples of what’s been a growing crescendo of excellent examples of that often-forlorn genre. Like all of the genres that are too often condescended to or ghettoized, historical fiction has been critically disparaged, passed over as the purview of petticoats and carriages. Yet the last few years have seen an explosion of the form, from Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill: A Novel of New York to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. What these titles share is a sense of playfulness within the dungeon that is history, as well as a reverential imitation of the often-labyrinthine prose of the 18th and 19th centuries. Such historical fiction isn’t written as a palliative for the contemporary moment, but rather as an excavation of our fallen, modern age.
Edward Carey’s achingly melancholic Little takes as its subject Marie Grosholtz, an 18th-century Alsatian peasant girl adopted by an esteemed physician who mentors her in the art and science of making realistic wax sculptures of humans. Marie’s autobiography, exemplary and talented as she is, is still from the perspective of one of us commoners, even as she Zelig-like intersects with the great personages and events of her age. Brief appearances of Enlightenment luminaries punctuate Little (as do Carey’s own delightful line drawings), including cameos by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, Diderot, and Marat, Napoleon and Josephine (and the latter’s pug), and by the very end, as if to demonstrate the sheer scope of her life, a young writer named Charles Dickens. So begins her account that “In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761…was born a certain undersized baby.” By the conclusion of Little, Marie is known by her married name of Madame Tussaud, and while her children encourage her to embrace a new technology invented by Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, she believes that nothing as ephemeral as photography can replace the warm fleshiness of molded wax.
Across the English Channel from France, and Imogen Hermes Gower describes a fantastic 18th-century world marked by exploration, trade, and mystery, but also by exploitation and cruelty, in her humane and beautiful The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock. Gower’s maximalist door-stopper of a book tells the tale of Jonah Hancock, comfortable merchant and member of London’s rising bourgeoise, who finds himself in possession of a “mermaid” brought back by one of his sailors from the sundry regions of the globe. Hancock’s London is no less enraptured by spectacle than Matthew Miller’s New York, and so the “mermaid” becomes the linchpin of various schemes, even while the bumbling, good-nature, and fundamentally conservative financier finds himself falling in love with Angelica Neal, a courtesan and adept student of the School of Venus, as if a character right out of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. London in The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is described by Gower with almost supernatural precision, “The white-sailed ships strain upon it, and the watermen have gathered their bravado to steer their little crafts away from the bank and race across the current… the winking glass of the Southwark melon farms; the customs house, the tiered spire of St Bride’s the milling square of Seven Dials, and eventually… Soho.” A mermaid of sorts does eventually arrive in Jonah and Angelica’s life, but she is neither symbol nor synecdoche, metaphor or metonymy, but something else, with the whiff of ineffability about her.
Across the Atlantic Ocean from Great Britain, and Esi Edugyan imagines a different 18th-century world, though perhaps no less wondrous, even if similarly marked by exploitation and cruelty in her equally humane and beautiful Washington Black. Since her stunning debut Half-Blood Blues, which imagines the fate of a biracial jazz musician living through the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, the Canadian novelist has become one of the most lyrical interpreters of race, identity, and the troubled legacies of history. Washington Black arrives as one of the greatest fictional accounts of slavery’s too-oft ignored role in the establishment of the “New World,” recalling both Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, if choosing to hew away from those books’ parodic sentiments towards a more baroque, quasi-magical realism.
Edugyan’s titular George Washington Black is born enslaved on the Caribbean island of Barbados, witness to the unspeakable cruelties of a sugar plantation overseen by a British master. When Washington is indentured to the master’s brother, an aspiring scientist with an interest in hot-air balloon transportation, as well as being a secret abolitionist, it provides him with a means of acquiring his freedom, which propels the narrative of Edugyan’s ingenious picaresque. Washington, in a manner that made him more deserving of his name than the man whom his master had ironically christened him after, was “of an ancient faith rooted in the high river lands of Africa, and in that faith that the dead were reborn, whole, back in their homelands, to walk again free.” Washington Black, never content to obscure the evils which marked the emergence of the modern world, also revels in the wide-roaming nature of freedom itself. Edugyan takes her characters from Barbados to Virginia, the Maritime Provinces of Canada, west Africa, the Sahara, and even an aquarium which Washington constructs in London (perhaps Jonah’s mermaid could live there). Throughout Washington Black a tension is brilliantly held: ours is a fallen world which sometimes can still produce such wonders.
Taking place during the same time period as Washington Black, but a few thousand miles north of sweltering Barbados, is Carys Davies’s minimalist novella West. Pennsylvania farmer Cy Bellman reads an account of giant fossilized bones discovered on the Kentucky frontier, and though the recent accounts of Lewis and Clarke returning from the west tell no tale of massive monsters roaming the American plains and mountains, the gentle widower assumes some remnant of the megafauna must still live beyond the horizon, and so compelled by an obsessive sense of wonder he journeys to find them.
“He paced about every half hour, he took the folded paper from his shirt pocket and smoothed it flat on top of the table and read it again: there no illustrations, but in his mind they resembled a ruined church, or a shipwreck of stone—the monstrous bones, the prodigious tusks, uncovered where they lay, sunk in the salty Kentucky mud,” Davies writes. Bellman’s heart is set on both his dead wife, and the dinosaurs he imagines foraging in a fantastic American west, but he leaves his daughter behind with a long-suffering sister, the young girl both pining for her father’s affections and struggling to survive her approaching adolescence in a young nation not amenable to any weakness. West alternates between the accounts of young Bess, and Cy and his teenage Indian guide as they fruitlessly search for the creatures. As a British author, Davies has an ear for American weirdness that can sometimes elude domestic novelists, and West functions as a parable of lost innocence in the era of bunkum, of medicine shows and tent revivals. Davies writes with the clarity of a fairy-tale, but West never reduces its visceral characters to the level of mere allegory.
Sharma Shields tells tale of a different loss of American innocence, not the terra incognita of Manifest Destiny and all that was projected onto an already occupied west, but what the United States did with that land and by proxy all of humanity well into the twentieth-century. Set in the same Pacific Northwest country as Red Clocks, Shields’s novel takes us to the most pertinent Year Zero in human history of 1945, when the United States first unleashed the power of matter, when atomic fission possibly set the world towards the inevitable tragedy of nuclear annihilation. The Cassandra is Shields’s retelling of the ancient Greek myth about a woman condemned to prophesize the future, but to never be believed by those in power.
In Shields’s novel, the role of the oracular Sibylline is played by Mildred Groves, a secretary at the Hanford Research Center on Washington’s Columbia River, an instrumental laboratory in the Manhattan Project. Mildred is preternaturally odd, prone to strange trances, visions, and fits, and with a heartbreaking ability to charitably misinterpret her family’s abuse in a benevolent light, as a means of preserving her fractured psyche. One of the most engaging narrators I encountered in my past year of reading, Mildred is simultaneously innocent and terrifying; Shields performs a deft alchemy that makes her protagonist seem both unreliable and omniscient. The Cassandra is at its heart a book about violence in all of its myriad forms—the violence of the natural world, the violence of emotional abuse, sexual violence, and the annihilating nuclear violence to end all violence. In prose that recalls Patmos, Shields intersperses the narratives with Mildred’s terrifying visions, of “dark forests, wild dogs, long-clawed hags, cottages with candy-coated exteriors belying menacing contents: cages, skeletal remains, a hot stove reeking of burnt flesh, cutting boards strewed with bloodied fingers.” With language that owes so much to the vocabulary of nightmare, The Cassandra is commensurate with the bottled violence of potential nuclear holocaust. What makes the novel all the more terrifying is when you realize that Mildred’s visions are of an event that has yet to happen.
Taylor Jenkins Reid’s titular protagonist in Daisy Jones & the Six is a radically different kind of oracle from Mildred Groves, but an oracle all the same. Reid’s novel is a brilliant and ridiculously entertaining account of a fictional rock band in the ’70s with shades of Fleetwood Mac, with the beautiful, troubled, brilliant Daisy Jones a stand-in for Stevie Nicks, who has “got an incredible voice that she doesn’t cultivate, never takes a lesson.” Written as if it were the transcripts of an MTV Behind the Music-style documentary, Reid’s characters include bandmates, roadies, producers, and family, switching off between perspectives and dramatizing the variability of memory, with effects both poignant and funny. All of the rock and roll stations of the cross are visited—the combustive bandmates, the groupies, the addictions, and the inevitable rehab—but the result is anything but cliched, rather reminding us why we don’t change the dial when something from Rumors comes on the classic rock dial.
The overall effect of Daisy Jones & the Six recalls classic rock journalism, such as Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: An Uncensored Oral History of Punk, and Reid’s obvious encyclopedic knowledge of the singer-songwriter tradition of that decade, combined with her love of musicians like Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon, Carol Kane and so on, creates the uncanny familiarity where you almost remember the music of Daisy Jones as if it were real. In a gambit that almost seems like bragging about her incredible talent, Reid includes as an appendix the lyrics to every song on Daisy Jones & the Six’s seminal album. “When you look in the mirror / Take stock of your soul / And when you hear my voice, remember / You ruined me whole.” Just like the white-winged dove you’d swear you heard that track before. To reduce Daisy Jones & the Six to being a mere roman a clef about Stevie Nicks would be an error, because what Reid provides is nothing less than history from an alternative universe, a collaborative, polyvocal, multitudinous rock epic—it’s an experimental masterpiece.
Ottessa Moshfegh explores self-destruction as well, in My Year of Rest and Relaxation which reads a little as if Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground were written by a terminally depressed, beautiful, wealthy Gen-X orphan living in New York at the turn of the millennium. Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator lives in an Upper East Side penthouse, and ostensibly works as an assistant for a gallery owner downtown, but her days are spent endlessly watching the same discount VHS tapes over and over and moldering away in her hermetically sealed apartment. My Year of Rest and Relaxation’s protagonist reads like an Aubrey Plaza character scripted by Albert Camus, and part of the novel’s freshness and misanthropic joy comes from encountering a woman who embodies all of the existential ennui of those masculine characters of twentieth-century modernism.
Rather than a French Algerian smoking in a café or a Russian dissident wondering what the meaning of life is, Moshfegh’s narrator is a Columbia graduate with model good looks who is able to be as much of an antisocial anti-hero as Camus’s Meursault in The Stranger. “I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I fell asleep again. I lost track of time in this way. Days passed. Weeks.” Her narrator suffers from an almost terminal case of sleep irregularity, between insomnia and somnolence, culminating in a performance art piece that in the hands of a lesser author could read as parody, but in Moshfegh’s novel becomes a metaphysical exploration. My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by giving us a woman who can behave as badly as a man, has its own type of transgressive power. But to reduce it to a Ghostbusters reboot of a J.G. Ballard novel is to miss that My Year of Rest and Relaxation, not in spite of but because of the jaded affect, is a potent novel about depression and grief.
Cofounder of the site N+1 and brother to the LGBTQ activist, political commentator, and Russian dissident Masha Gessen, Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country explores the chimerical Russia of the last decade. The novel is categorizable among the same tradition that led to fiction by first-generation Russian immigrants to the United States who arrived right before the fall of the Berlin Wall, such as in Gary Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutants Handbook or Ellen Litman’s The Last Chicken in America. Gessen’s novel is similar to those precursors in that the nation actually under scrutiny in the title is arguably the United States. A Terrible Country focuses on New York comparative literature graduate student Andrei Kaplan, who has absconded to the Moscow of his youth as dissertation funding begins to dry up, ostensibly to assist his shady oligarch-adjacent brother Dima in the care of their grandmother with dementia.
“My parents and my brother and I left the Soviet Union in 1981,” Andrei says, “I was six and Dima was sixteen, and that made all the difference. I became an American, whereas Dima remained essentially Russian.” The differences between those two cultures, as with Shteyngart and Litman’s writing, is the tension of A Terrible Country; the novel reading as a sort of fictional companion piece to journalist Peter Pomerantsev’s chilling Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Set during the 2008 financial collapse, Gessen’s novel traces the gloaming period between the dawn of the Soviet Union’s collapse and the current midnight of Vladimir Putin. In A Terrible Country Putin’s regime is not yet exactly a “regime,” the authoritarian tendencies of the former KGB officer still tangibly “Western” if you’re drunk and squinting, but one of the things Gessen does so well is dramatize the myopia of the individual before history. “I pictured myself protesting the Putin regime in the morning, playing hockey in the afternoon, and keeping my grandmother company in the evening,” Andrei says, though of course the reality of history is that it rarely keeps to our neat schedules.
No novel from the past few years quite so clearly provides a map of the terrain of national divisions, and what it means to simply try and lives life for yourself and your family in light of those divisions, as much as Lydia Kiesling’s first novel The Golden State. Former editor for The Millions, Kiesling’s novel is an engaging, empathetic, and honest exploration of the stresses of motherhood, professional life, family, and regional identity. Much to the benefit of this beautiful novel, The Golden State relegates current events to the role that they actually play in our lives, as a distant vibrational hum, even when those events can and do have profound personal effects on us. New mother Daphne is a low-level administrator for an Islamic studies program at a school that appears very much like UC-Berkeley, while her Turkish husband has been denied reentry into the United States after harassment by the Department of Homeland Security. While her husband attempts to disentangle his visa situation (while Daphne wonders how hard he is really trying), she absconds with her daughter Honey from San Francisco to her grandparent’s former home of Altavista located deep within the dusty, brown interior of the state. The Golden State explores a California not often revealed to outsiders; it’s not the brie and merlot set of the Bay area, nor the quinoa and avocado bowl folks of L.A., but a different place entirely, accessed through “nearly four hundred miles of road, leading up to the high desert.”
Altavista bears more similarity to Idaho or Nevada than Palo Alto or Malibu, a place beyond the “top of Donner Pass and some kind of geological divide, [where] suddenly the forest are gone and the land is brown and stretching out for miles and miles.” Daphne’s interactions with the locals, specifically a woman named Cindy who is a leader in a quixotic secession movement not dissimilar to right-wing survivalist militias, provides a perspective on national splits more potent than the typical “bubble” discourse favored by the aforementioned major newspapers. The Golden State is the most accurate portrayal of the red-state/blue-state dichotomy published since the election of you-know-who, and all without mentioning you-know-who. Kiesling’s portrayal of that split never pretends it isn’t real, there is no rapprochement or understanding with Cindy, but there is an awareness that none of us are as sheltered as the New York Times editorial page pretends. A denizen of San Francisco can be totally aware of what lay off 400 miles down the road. What’s even more crucial in Kiesling’s novel is the wisdom that politics is always personal, that more than what appears on 24-hour news it’s expressed in the fear of a wife waiting for her husband’s safe-return, or in a mother’s tender love for her daughter.
For reasons not even totally clear to myself, I’d always thought that successful, local restaurants providing accessible food to a large number of people could be material for a great American tragedy. When I lived in small-town eastern Pennsylvania, there was a regional chain of restaurants, only three or four of them, owned by these Greek brothers. The food was basically Applebee’s redux, but I was obsessed with the chain, not least of which because I thought there must be so much drama between the siblings; who got to manage which restaurants, vying for the affection of their immigrant parents, even arguing over the composition of the slick, laminated menus—for so much depends on the jalapeño poppers. Lillian Li basically wrote that novel for me, transposed from the Lehigh Valley to suburban Washington, D.C., with a sports bar replaced with a once high-end Chinese restaurant undergoing increasingly hard times.
Complicated family arrangements are at the heart of Li’s engrossing Number One Chinese Restaurant, a novel which peels back the jade-green curtain at the institution which is the mid-century Chinese-American eatery to provide an epic narrated by a chorus. Manager Jimmy Han, prodigal son of the Beijing Duck House, hopes to close the restaurant down in favor of opening an elegant, hipper location on the Potomac waterfront, but he’s set between the machinations of his perfectionist, professional brother Johnny, his calculating mother, and the underworld figure “Uncle” Pang whose investments had saved the restaurant since its founding. Johnny’s restaurant, to his disdain, is a place of “gaudy, overstuffed décor,” defined by a “deep, matte red colored everything, from the upholstered chairs to the floral carpet to the Chinese knots hanging off the lantern lightning, their tassels low enough to graze the heads of taller customers.” Rockville, Maryland’s Beijing Duck House is the sort of restaurant omnipresent at one time, the affordable, quasi-sophisticated repository of Yankified Mandarin cuisine, all chop suey, and egg foo young, moo goo gai pan, and of course the crispy, greasy, delicious duck which gives the establishment its name. Li interrogates questions of ethnic identity and food, class and food, and family drama and food. What elevates Number One Chinese Restaurant to greatness is that Li never forgets the humanity of these characters, from the long-repressed love of the elderly kitchen staff to Johnny’s vices and hubris.
Patrick deWitt knows that family is complicated in French Exit: A Tragedy of Manners, which bears less similarity to Number One Chinese Restaurant than it does a novelization of Charles Addams’s The New Yorker cartoons, or as if a Wes Anderson movie produced by Tim Burton. Author of the under-heralded (though filmed!) post-modern western The Sisters Brothers, deWitt is a master minimalist for whom every comma is cutting, every semicolon a scythe. French Exit initially takes place in a seemingly timeless Upper East Side, all jackets with crests and loafers, inhabited by the wealthy widow Frances Price, a “moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone” and her adult son Malcolm, “looking his usual broody and unkempt self,” who become Parisian expats after their wealth evaporates. Joining the Prices is Frances’s cat Small Frank, whom she (correctly) maintains is the reincarnation of her despised husband. Frances would seem to be a role made for Jessica Walter, even as Wikipedia dutifully informs me that Michelle Pfeiffer has been cast in the adaptation being developed by deWitt himself. French Exit is a delicious mint-flavored green-pastel macaron of a novel, with just a hint of sweet arsenic.
A benefit to being a nonfiction essayist reading and reviewing novels is that there is a degree or personal distance that you can affect to avoid pangs of professional jealousy which sometimes accompany reading great writing, and which any honest scribbler would have to cop to. When I read something as tender as The Golden State, as astute as A Terrible Country, as innovative as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, or as wondrous as Washington Black, I can console my envious conscience with the mantra that “Well, I’m not a novelist.” With K. Chess’s mind-blowing, psychedelic Famous Men Who Never Lived I can’t quite do that, because her narrative conceit is so brilliant, it’s so good, that I can’t help feeling jealousy at having not conceived of the story first.
Famous Men Who Never Lived gives account of Hel and Vikram, two refugees from a parallel universe who alongside thousands of others are in exile in our own reality (or at least a version which seems nearly similar) after their world was destroyed, living in a New York City that diverged in the earliest years of the twentieth-century. These refugees between universes remembered their “world history… the rumors about forced labor at America Unida’s hidden education camps, about what the Power Brothers in Ceylon had done in the jungles to city-dwelling elites. And she’d remembered the KomSos clearing the shtetls of the Pale from east to west.” As with those dislocated by history in her world, Hel and Vikram are dislocated from the very idea of history itself, where you must “Leave what you own behind.” The result is a novel with not just a clever science fiction conceit, but also one which is a moving meditation on loss and dislocation. Hel comes to believe that the point of divergence involved Ezra Sleight, who died in childhood in our universe but grew to be a popular science fiction author in her and Vikram’s reality, with the later an expert on his The Pyronauts. Chess’s ingenious nesting stories recall Emily St. John Mandel’s similar speculative fiction masterpiece Station Eleven, with Famous Men Who Never Lived giving voice to the dislocations of exile, whether in our world or between our worlds. What Chess accomplishes is nothing less than a demonstration of how literature creates new universes, while expressing that which is consistent for humans regardless of which reality we may be living in.
“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.