K Chess’s debut novel, Famous Men Who Never Lived (Tin House, 2019), instantly intrigues with its ambitious and unique premise. Only 156,000 universally displaced persons (UDPs) have fled nuclear war in an alternative New York City, and they find themselves—alienated and full of grief—in our New York. The novel focuses primarily on two UDPs who are compellingly imperfect people. Vikram is a scholar whose life’s work on the novel, The Pyronauts, remains unfinished, and Hel is a former doctor who had to leave her son behind. Hel has no interest in returning to being a doctor, but instead becomes obsessed with The Pyronauts, a work of science fiction by Ezra Sleight, who is a household name in Hel’s world, but who died young and never published in ours. This obsession leads her to another; she wishes to create a museum to memorialize and inform others about her lost culture. But when the only copy of The Pyronauts disappears, Hel struggles to find allies and grows increasingly frustrated and disillusioned by this other world.
Although the premise promises high-speed adventure and high-concept science fiction, Chess’s writing delivers a more intimate and nuanced exploration than a reader might expect. This is a real strength of the novel; instead of entertaining readers with predictably emotional scenes of loss or end-of-the-world antics, Chess explores the quietness of grief and the slow drudge of trying and failing to adapt to a new world. Though the writing is often clean and efficient, Chess has an uncanny ability of knowing when to slow down and deliver memorable, cutting, and poetic lines. I often found myself lingering in passages at the end of chapters and returning to the subtle beauty or sadness of quiet moments. For example, when Hel remembers the day where she traveled through realms, from her New York to ours, she recalls a family who was left behind. Like Hel, the mother had been selected to be a UDP, but unlike Hel, she refuses to leave her family behind. Hel recounts, “I couldn’t see them when I stepped into it, into pearlescent haze like an oil slick suspended in the air, when I stepped from one snowy day into another. But I knew they were in the crowd, watching the ninety-nine of us leave them behind.” Although the novel rarely explicitly depicts Hel’s complex guilt and grief over leaving her son, moments like this evoke the ways her decision haunts her. And such descriptions truly are haunting as Chess shows us the quiet and impossible grief of being trapped in an alien world.
What drives this novel forward isn’t necessarily high conflict or tension (although these aren’t missing from the novel), but meaningful philosophical and thematic questions. Science fiction estranges a reader by depicting a defamiliarized world and/or culture, but Chess inverts this to offer readers a defamiliarized perspective of a familiar world. This play on convention encourages introspection to create an important discussion of immigration that resists being or feeling didactic. From Hel’s and Vikram’s perspectives, readers must experience New York City as if we were immigrants. We must ache and revel in Vikram’s make-the-best-of-it attitude, as he works as a security guard and tries to forget that his PhD dissertation on The Pyronauts is useless in this other world. His life’s work is both forever unfinished and obsolete. And Hel simultaneously frustrates and compels us as she refuses to talk about her son and tries to distract herself with pursuits that seem impossible.
Chess isn’t satisfied with offering readers only two perspectives, and instead takes a more heteroglossic approach by including numerous stand-alone transcripts of interviews of other UDPs. These outside narratives emphasize the significance of Hel’s dream of creating a museum. Artifacts, whether they are writings, paintings, or other remnants, are necessary ways to keep the past alive. This dialogic approach offers a more complete and complex depiction of the UDPs and consequently encourages us to imagine others—whether international or inter-dimensional—as more complexly human.
Where this novel is most compelling is in its commentaries on the importance of art. Both Hel and Vikram treasure The Pyronauts so fiercely because it is essentially their only connection to home. Fragmented excerpts from The Pyronauts populate Famous Men Who Never Lived to provide readers with a glimpse of how the text crafts its world and to make us feel the true tragedy of its loss. There’s such pleasure in fictional novels within novels, because they allow a reader to experience multiple worlds simultaneously and to consider the ways fiction interacts with reality. The interplay between our New York, Hel’s and Vikram’s alternative New York, and the fictionalized world of The Pyronauts quixotically reminds readers that what we are reading is fictional—at all levels—but also that fiction itself is real and necessary.
Writing isn’t the only important artform in the novel. In one of the most evocative scenes, Hel tells a story about Sleight’s childhood, where he obsessed about a painting of a ship that hung in the grand entrance way of his school. In the foreground of the painting, a tiny pale hand and forearm extends from the sea. This image consumed Sleight’s thoughts, and this fear of drowning stopped Sleight from ever swimming in the school’s lake. When Hel enters the new world, she learns that this painting saved the writer’s life; the Sleight in our world died young by drowning. And so, in this moment and in so many others in the novel, we learn that art sustains us emotionally and physically. Art is both beauty and salvation. Without it, we might suffer the same fate as our Ezra Sleight, lost in the murky dark of the sea.