Chess, K. “Famous Men Who Never Lived”, Tin House Books, 2019.
The Effect of Displacement
In “Famous Men Who Never Lived”, we explore the effects of displacement on our identities, the communities that come together through circumstance, and the power of art to save us.
Hel sees New York City is both reassuringly familiar and terribly wrong. She is one of the thousands who fled the outbreak of nuclear war in an alternate United States―an alternate timeline―and now finds herself living as a refugee in our own not-so-parallel New York. The slang and technology are foreign to her, the politics and art are unrecognizable. While others, like her partner Vikram, attempt to assimilate, Hel refuses to reclaim her former career or create a new life. Instead, she obsessively rereads Vikram’s copy of “The Pyronauts”, a science fiction masterwork in her world that now only exists as a flimsy paperback. Hel becomes determined to create a museum dedicated to preserving the remaining artifacts and memories of her vanished culture.
But the refugees are unwelcome and Hel’s efforts are met with either indifference or hostility. And when the only copy of “The Pyronauts” goes missing, Hel must decide how far she is willing to go to recover it and at last face her own anger, guilt, and grief over what she has truly lost. Reality is destroyed by nuclear catastrophe and the two characters here are chosen as two of the Hundred Fifty-Six Thousand “lucky” ones to cross into another dimension in the multiverse, to today’s New York City via “the Gate.”
Life is split into the Before and the After, a mysterious conflagration of events that sent reality on different trajectories for each layer of life in the multiverse. Now two of those layers collide and he result is…
The UDPs (Universally Displaced Persons) are refugees, many of them unable to settle into the new life they’ve been granted, all of them made to feel “other.” There is “the required Reintegration Education classes, the discrimination, the disdain, the leering fascination to contend with; not to mention the emotional trauma and isolation of suddenly finding themselves alone and out of their element.”
Much of the book concerns Helen and Vikram as they find their way in the new to them world. There is discrimination against the “aliens”, as their kind is called, and there are the many big and little differences between the worlds to navigate. Other characters get briefly highlighted also. An overriding theme is the power of art. In this world of overwhelming amounts of information, it was very interesting to consider the value of something that exists only in a single delicate physical form, and how we might value literature and art differently if that were the case in our own world.