By K. Chess

Tin House Books


324pp/$24.95/March 2019

Famous Men Who Never Lived
Cover by Diane Chonette

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Ezra Sleight was the author of several successful novels, perhaps most notably The Pyronauts, a book with intense meaning to Vikram Bhatnagar, who included a copy of the book among the few possessions he took with him when he fled his world as a refugee through a transdimensional gate in K. Chess's Famous Men Who Never Lived. Upon his arrival in his new world, Vikram came to discover that the novel was never written where he now made his home, and Sleight had died as a child in a boating accident when a child.

Events really start with Helen Nash (Hel) a surgeon from the other timeline who is now living with Vikram. Having left behind her family and her career, Hel, like so many others, is having a difficult time adjusting to her new world, where many Universally Displaced Persons (UDPs) are seen as unwelcome immigrants who are required to attend Reintegration Education classes. While Vikram is trying to find a new life for himself, Hel becomes focused on preserving the memories of her native timeline with the building of a museum in the house where Sleight lived.

To Hel's way of thinking, Sleight's death was the catalyst for the separation of the two timelines and therefore ideal for the location and focus of her museum. Her attempt to enlist Ayanna Donaldson, a museum curator, goes awry when not only does Donaldson lack interest in helping, but also apparently steals Vikram's copy of The Pyronauts, the only extant version in the new timeline. Hel's desire to build the library takes a back seat to retrieving the lost book.

Vikram, on the other hand, found himself roped into Hel's original plan, spending the time he isn't working as a night security guard helping Dwayne clean up the home were the young Sleight had lived until his death, where Dwayne's grandmother had lived until her own recent death as a packrat. Although Vikram doesn't appear to be helping Dwayne with the intention of it eventually becoming a museum, that thought is never really lost.

Chess has the UDPs standing in for any immigrant culture that is forced to take any job to make ends meet in their new culture. Some are able to make the adjustment, like Vikram, while others are unable to let go of the lives they once had, like Hel. Furthermore, every couple of chapters Chess includes a brief "interview transcription" in which other UDPs are given a chance to tell their stories, separate from the overarching story of Hel and Vikram trying to figure out where Sleight and they fit into the new world. These chapters add additional depth, with both their background and their emotion.

Chess paints a vivid picture of the immigrant experience, but also creates an alternative timelines that feels fully realized despite only being shown in quick glimpses through the writings of Ezra Sleight and the memories of Hel, Vikram, and the UDPs whose interviews are shared. The distancing of the immigrant experience by making them come from a different timeline rather than a specific country in our own world allows Chess, and the reader, to explore what it means to be an immigrant, and the levels of hatred, distrust, xenophobia, and unwelcomeness, that comes with immigration, on both an official and unofficial level.

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