All art is a conversation. One of my teachers said that to me once upon a time. She was specifically talking about fine art, but literature is also a conversation, and I love it when I stumble upon works that feel like they’re speaking directly to each other, even without (as far as I can tell) any direct connection between their authors. Of course I love works that speak to each on purpose too, like “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll, which is in conversation with the poetry of Christopher Smart, and “Things With Beards“, which is in conversation with John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” But it always feels like discovering something extra special, a bit synchronicity, proof that the artistic conversation has a life of its own to find works that speak to each other accidentally. As such, I wanted to take a moment to highlight two recently published books that do just that.
The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager published by Dzanc Books in May 2019 and The History of Soul 2065 by Barbara Krasnoff published by Mythic Delirium in June 2019 both straddle the line between collection and novel, telling a series of interconnected stories that move fluidly through time and echo with themes of family and repeated history. Drager builds her narrative around the occurrences of Halley’s Comet and the story of Hansel and Gretel, two siblings unwanted by their parents and lost in the woods. That sibling pairing is a thread throughout the stories, from the fairy tale characters themselves, to the Brothers Grimm recording their story, to Edmond Halley’s niece and nephew, and in the distant future, in the vastness of space, two probes talk to each other in binary code, telling the story of Hansel at Gretel. At its core, The Archive of Alternate Endings is a story about stories, those we tell ourselves to keep ourselves safe from the darkness and the woods, those we tell to comfort each other when we’re lost, and those we tell in order to make others monstrous and justify abandoning them alone in the dark.
In the sky, a glowing rock propels itself through the years, learning the way stories grow, calcify, and dissolve. It looks on, thinks: What of the bodies that home on the rock of that world? What of the bodies who craft their lives around the logic of the orbit? They must not know the first law of their sphere: that they are never gone, but just eclipsed.
The Archive of Alternate Endings is also a book that looks at queerness from various angles. It considers what sort of child might be seen as strange and unnatural enough in his time that his parents might want to abandon him in the woods. It considers what sort of a man might want to preserve such a story, seeing something essential in it that needs to be told and retold until it is finally understood. It considers what sort of person might need to hear such a story, who might find permission and freedom in all the spaces between the words, and the things left unsaid.
Ultimately, the stories nested within The Archive of Alternate Endings are about longing for love and connection, and about people and even probes finding each other across the vastness of space and time. It is about the way we orbit around each other, and the way certain patterns and tales recur and the meanings we infuse them with, or the meanings they impart to us that give us the strength to make one more circuit through the stars.
Unlike most of The Archive of Alternate Endings, the individual pieces that make up The History of Soul 2065 can be read as stand-alone short stories, and most were originally published as such, including Krasnoff’s Nebula nominated “Sabbath Wine”. However, a new richness is added by reading them all together. Descendants and ancestors weave in and out of each others’ lives, drawing in extended family and found family, friends and neighbors and community. In the acknowledgements, Krasnoff notes that she was inspired by her own family history, but none of the stories are “absolutely true”. Even so, they ring with truth and the weight of history – not just personal and family history, but the weight of a people’s history.
The horrors of the Holocaust and antisemitism are a shadow over the lives in this book, and as such, the stories aren’t always an easy read. There is loss and grief and heartbreak, and some of the most powerful and devastating emotion in the story is conveyed through what the characters leave unsaid, or the layers of story they wrap around the truth in order to protect those around them. For a young boy afraid of nuclear war, the number inked on his mother’s forearm becomes a spell to protect him. A young girl frightened by a stage production of Hansel and Gretel (more synchronicity) is given a “magic jewel” that whispers to her, showing both horrible visions of things to come, and how she herself will escape the war, rescued by the very actor who played the witch who frightened her.
The theme of aging, disappointment with life, and lost opportunities repeats through many of the characters’ lives, but Krasnoff balances these with stories of love, hope, and friendship. Ancestors and descendants meet each other through time and provide comfort and guidance. Neighbors help each other out, and use a little bit of mystical power to right injustices and correct the course of lives. The thread tying all the stories together is the chance meeting of two girls whose lives – despite living in geographically distant cities – intersect in a magical wood and who swear a life long friendship. Even though events conspire to keep them apart, and prevent them from ever seeing each other again, in the distant future, their great-great granddaughters meet, marry, and live long, happy lives together at the center of a group of family and friends who share a powerful connection.
“So I was looking for something to watch the other day,” Abram said, as he started opening a bottle of wine, “and I stopped at a channel where a writer, a rabbi I think, was talking about a legend that there were originally only 600,000 sounds in the universe. At some point after the creation, each soul broke into many pieces. Which means we are all actually made up of pieces of a soul, and when all the pieces of that soul find each other, part of the universe is healed and made whole.”
The cyclical and fluid nature of time, the importance of family, the power of friendship, and the stories that bind us and repeat through history, live at the heart of both of these books. Although they are different in style and individual subject matter, they feel very much in conversation with each other. Both are beautiful and powerful reads, and speak to the way the narratives we pass down from generation to generation, and among family and friends, shape us and the world around us and connect us all together, no matter how far apart.