Barrelhouse Reviews: The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager

Review by Thomas Gresham


Publisher: Dzanc Books
160 pages
Release date: May 7, 2019

Halfway through Lindsey Drager’s third book, The Archive of Alternate Endings, I wanted to call my sister to tell her I love her. When I finished the book, I did. Because this is a book about siblings and the undying connection that siblings share––and the disconnect that inevitably devours siblings like a disease. It is about the shifts that come with time. But it is also about how time changes nothing, how each generation has a new story that shares the same DNA as the generation before.

The Archive of Alternate Endings spans the time and space between 1378 and 2365, phasing in and out every 78 years––each time Halley's Comet passes within Earth’s view. Upon each pass, the narrative engine (which might be the comet itself) presents to us the lives of siblings in various stages of discovery and despair––including historical persons such as the Grimm Brothers, Johannes Gutenberg, and Edmond Halley. Dealing with these historical persons, Drager rewrites their narratives, presenting new versions of potentially well-known figures. The novel becomes part revisionist history, part exploration of an alternate universe. Drager delves deeply into the Hansel and Gretel story, starting with its “real” creation and ending with how the fairy tale, and the idea inside it, will be passed and translated across history. Each of these narrative threads shifts the way in which we view the story.

This is a book that had me saying What the hell in the way that books should. This is postmodern territory without the irony. This is true sincerity. It’s sad and amusing and confounding. It’s a haunted atmosphere, each pass of Halley's Comet reawakening the ghosts of the previous pass.

As the novel moves outside Earth and passes into infinite space, this haunted feeling carries intimacy, as two siblings are now the only beings alive for millions of miles––this time in the form of “two space probes disseminat[ing] [...] into the infinite beyond.” Drager makes these space probes emotional. Not in like a Disney, Wall-E, let-me-manipulate-you-for-a-moment kind of emotion. This is deep hurt country. She takes the human narratives that occur in the novel and applies the same isolation and impossible bond to two drifting space probes. The probes tell each other––in binary code that is then translated––the story of Hansel and Gretel. These two sibling probes are traveling forward together in space and time, mathematically prevented from ever colliding or connecting, telling each other the story of lost siblings.

Running through the novel are undertones of disease and damnation, of queer identification and the dangers associated with that identity. Some parts of the narrative explore how to navigate the dread of slow and painful death due to terminal disease, while others touch on the uncertainty of how a person will exist in an aggressively heteronormative world as homosexual. Still others touch on the lasting infection of love––sometimes said, but more often unknown and forbidden.

Drager also teases the idea of the end of the world, creating a haunting doomsday clock.  And as time runs dry, the Earth hits a hard reset. And the world that exists after the collapse, one that seems to run backwards, regains some of the magic lost in the aggressive world of Now. It’s the same kind of magic found in tales written by the Brothers Grimm. Drager fully points the finger at us, states that it’s “the eternal predicament of humankind to only see what it wants to.” We ignore the disease. We are the witch that eats the children. We are our own ending.

The result of all these interwoven vignettes is that it presents time as a single point, each story existing in the same space, yet spanning nearly a thousand years. These moments are connected by jumpcuts equal to the bone/spaceship juxtaposition of 2001:A Space Odyssey. And, as skillfully as Kubrick does in film form, she makes these narrative crosscuts not only possible in novel form, but believable. It’s an extraordinary feat to be able to bridge centuries within a sentence, to jump among characters and time and space in a natural way. Drager succeeds with confidence. It is a leaner, tighter, more emotionally impactful take on connectedness and purpose and the immensity of existence than David Mitchell created with Cloud Atlas––done in a quarter of the pages, with a more sincere, human touch. There isn’t a grand conspiracy or plot here. This is a book about life. The result is a bold novel that challenges the idea of storytelling, time, identity, love, family, and history.

Someone once told me that the best books haven’t been written yet. This one has. And the next time Halley's Comet comes around, I can almost promise we’ll still be reading it.

Thomas Gresham’s work has appeared in Hobart, Punk Lit Press, Maudlin House, and Permafrost. He lives in Las Vegas.