Metaphors are a tricky thing. In the sense of K Chess’s novel Famous Men Who Never Lived, I mean that literally: its central conceit eventually turns out to be a sort of magic trick, in the sense of misdirection and revelation. At the heart of Chess’s book is a displaced population: a group of residents from a parallel Earth who find themselves refugees in a familiar place: contemporary New York. (For this reader, it was very familiar: lengthy sequences play out in several locations less than a mile from my apartment.) But while this idea might seem like grounds for a sweeping, thematically resonant work of fiction challenging readers’ ideas about refugee narratives, that’s not exactly what Chess is after here.
At the center of Chess’s novel are two lovers, Hel and Vikram. It’s been around three years since they and 156,000 others from their world crossed over into another universe. Vikram has a steady, albeit unexciting, job, and has largely settled into life here. Hel, meanwhile, is more restless: she’s fixated on the works of a writer named Ezra Sleight, who died in our world but became a beloved science fiction writer in hers. As the novel opens, she has assembled a plan to establish a museum dedicated to the Earth they left behind in Sleight’s childhood home – a place where relics of the other Earth might be displayed, and where residents of this Earth might learn more about these recent arrivals.
Only one copt of one of Sleight’s novels, a book called The Pyronauts, has made the crossing into our world. And — Macguffin alert — it goes missing about a third of the way through the novel. Hel becomes convinced that a curator she’s met with for her museum project has stolen it, and becomes dangerously obsessed with recovering it. Chess’s portrait of Hel’s frustration and depression rings true, and there’s a plausible ambiguity as to whether there actually is a conspiracy afoot or if Hel’s simply projecting nefarious motives where there are none.
And the differences between this world and the one from which they originated periodically surface over the course of the novel, some in passing and some via a series of testimonials from displaced people, which turns out to fit into the larger plot. In the world from which they came, Grand Army Plaza is a trolley station. Tarot cards and readings are a larger part of society and culture. The relationship of suburbs and cities is significantly different. Certain phrasings — “guilds” rather than “unions,” in particular — dominate the lexicon.
But the world they’ve left behind wasn’t a paradise; far from it. There are hints of a more stratified class system, and a sense of constant war. At one point, a reporter compares the emotions of the displaced “to the mourning of some East Berliners for their lost culture after the fall of the wall,” a metaphor that baffles those it refers to, who had no Berlin Wall in their timeline.
Throughout much of the novel, I found myself wishing for more glimpses of Hel and Vikram’s home timeline. And then I realized that these yearnings were the point: that Chess had figured out a way to trigger them in such a way that it might echo the yearnings for home that her characters so profoundly feel. Rather than full immersion, all that’s left are a few memories, stray associations and unexpected reminiscences. The frustration that we’re not given more glimpses of this other world isn’t a flaw – instead, it’s the point. And the empathy that it generates for her characters, which so many in their new society deny them, emerges from there. Perhaps it’s no surprise that a novel centered around a theoretical building would have such an impressive narrative architecture. Chess’s novel foregoes overt metaphor for something deeper, and it’s all the more moving for it.
Famous Men Who Never Lived
by K Chess
Tin House; 324 p.