THE ARCHIVE OF ALTERNATE ENDINGS
by Lindsey Drager
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Lindsey Drager's short novel The Archive of Alternate Endings is a cross-time story that structurally is reminiscent of Milorad Pavic's The Dictionary of the Khazars or David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. As with those books, Drager's novel takes place in multiple separate times, although cause and effect can sometimes be blurred as the novel moves between its chronological settings.
Drager's mechanism for sliding between times is the 76 year cycle of Halley's Comet. Each chapter opens with a listing of all fourteen appearances of Halley's Comet from 1378 through 2365. Drager highlights the years, and most chapters take place during multiple years, that are covered in that chapter. Although she indicates the years in that manner, within the chapter she frequently slides between times, the only indication of which is a chance in the characters who are the focus.
Several of Drager's stories and themes are visited in multiple times and their links help drive the narrative. In the 1835 section, the Brothers Grimm are collecting version of the story of Hansel and Gretel, the originals of which are seen in the 1378 sections. A woman in 1910 illustrated a book based on the story which showed up in the library of one of the Grimm's descendants in 1986. The version of the story which was captured and passed along by the Grimms would eventually be placed on a spaceship leaving the solar system in 2211.
Although setting her story in various historical times, the feeling of the historicity of those settings never fully comes across. It is more a way of looking at the way stories build and continue through the years. Drager's depictions of historical characters such as Johannes Gutenberg and Edmond Halley don't feel particularly tied to the historical personages, although her Grimm brothers are better and, ironically, the unnamed woman based on Ruth Coker Burks is very recognizable.
In fact, the section which has the most verisimilitude is the one set in 1986, perhaps because it is within living memory. Drager completely captures the beginning of the AIDS crisis when the disease wasn't fully understood, terrorized a community, and caused parents to turn their back on their children, leaving them to die far away from their families and would-be loved ones. This time period is also packed with the most characters, the writer descended from the Grimms, a computer programmer, a dancer, the Burks analog, all form a chain that shows a very different gay culture than the one that exists today and also shows a glimmer of humanity.
On the other hand, the terminology used by Hansel and Gretel in the fourteenth century is not the language of the time, but rather modern linguistic theory. It may encapsulate how the characters are thinking, but it is jarring for them to be discussing the codification of language, just as it is in the fifteenth century sections focusing on Johannes Gutenberg and his twin sister. In these sections, Drager is definitely letting the narrative be the driving force above and beyond any sense of setting.
A final theme that emerges in most of the sections is the marginalization of people. The tale of Hansel and Gretel that is woven throughout the book is depicted by Drager as one of how a mother deals with children who she views as extraneous. Later characters see themselves in the cast-off children because their own parents have molested them (Gutenberg's sister), committed them to an asylum (the artist), or turned their backs on them (the AIDS crisis). All of these characters are trying to connect to other people, sometimes made easier by having a sibling (Hansel and Gretel, the Gutenbergs, the Brothers Grimm) and other times because they have managed to find someone to care for them, often cast as the witch in the story, despite being the only nurturing person in their lives.
Drager's writing doesn't always stand up to the challenges she has set for herself in creating this multithreaded sliptime novel, but her characters and their situations are well defined and she has made them easy to embrace by the reader. There are more links between the stories than initially appear, which means, as with the other volumes mentioned, The Archive of Alternate Endings very much lends itself to multiple readings.
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