- Intimate Histories
When I first opened Phong Nguyen’s Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History, I was immediately put-off by the book’s unusual format. I may be only one of a few people who dislike double-spacing generally, but while I grudgingly accept it as a drafting standard, I would hate to see it become common publishing practice. That said, after reading this intelligently liberal collection I must say that I have rarely seen a presentation so well-suited to its subject. We are familiar with the term “living history,” but history, with its cloying specificity, its air of rote memorization, has never offered so much room to truly breathe.
Nguyen’s conceit is playfully simple: thirteen alternate biographies of well-known historical figures, but the alternate endings themselves are surprisingly elegant in their simplicity. Columbus never finds America. Hitler is content with his small reputation as a minor artist. Einstein sabotages the atomic bomb and saves the city of Hiroshima. There is something magic in-between these double-spaced lines, where imagination and reality intersect in ways that might remind us of what fiction is really all about.
The book begins with a first-person introduction, in which we are told that all of these tales come from the same textbook, which the narrator, an unnamed data-recovery specialist, has salvaged from a badly damaged hard drive. The drive belongs to Obediah Lister, a man so consumed by his need to write these histories that when he is refused access to computers at a public library, he takes to writing on the walls in his own blood, until he has literally written himself dry. As for Lister’s book, our specialist has only managed to save these “few pages,” which he has hand-copied from memory after losing power to the drive.
The introduction, in its tone and sentiment, is a modern version of the intricate conceits found in classic gothic horror stories. Its narrator wants us to think there is something sinister about these histories—he is deeply intrigued by the name of Lister’s computer file, “HIC_SVNT_LEONES,” or “Here are Lions.” Many of these stories first appeared as individual works in literary magazines, and it may be that Nguyen thought they ought to have a large container narrative to bind them all up. This is unfortunate because they stand much better on their own. At his best, Nguyen possesses an authoritative, clever voice that easily commands attention. In contrast, the container story seems implausible and hasty. Its nagging incompleteness only undermines the admirable and deftly composed project it is meant to enhance.
Which is to say, of course, that these stories need no help. They are confident in their own elegance, alluring us with their stark invitation to consider history as malleable as we do the future—its record maybe not yet written, its great figures maybe not so great, and its truth the necessarily subjective construct that it is.
For readers well-acquainted with the mainstream versions of events, there is something satisfyingly mischievous about imagining a favorite character in a different role. I particularly enjoyed “Ben Franklin, Clergyman,” which imagines a debate between Franklin and the Calvinist theologian Jonathan Edwards. Franklin loses the debate to the elder Edwards, and gains a new belief in the existence of an angry God. Characteristically, Nguyen’s prose is energetic and engaging, managing to boil without ever losing its top:
There in Yale’s college house, a modest wooden building with small lead windows, standing shoulder to shoulder with Edwards, Franklin had experienced a painful revelation. He could not efface the image of hell in his mind. He understood now that he was merely an insect held over a fire by an angry and whimsical god. The pit awaited him, unless he repent, and kneel, and renounce his skeptical and freethinking ways, and turn his thoughts forever upon God. The flame of heaven had caught Franklin by the cloth, and the fire was spreading.
The stories are...