July Read of the Month: “The Archive of Alternative Endings,” by Lindsey Drager

Lindsey Drager

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

How to describe it? Exquisite. Literary. Experimental. Perfect in its own unique way, The Archive of Alternative Endings is unlike any other novel I’ve ever read.

It’s different. Really different. It doesn’t have a plot, not in the usual sense. The characters don’t invite you to crawl into their skin, walk around in their shoes, or identify closely, at least not in the usual way. In fact, the novel maintains a severe degree of narrative distance—almost as if the impersonal cosmos speaks as the narrative voice. The 137 pages—brief for a novel—don’t qualify as page-turners. So how can the novel be perfect in its way?

A complex story about the nature of stories, The Archive of Alternative Endings explores the evolution of storytelling, tracing its roots in oral tradition all the way to probes in outer space attempting to relay humanity’s story to other worlds. The novel’s opening page suggests “soft arcs are deceptive, in stories or on paths.” The Archive has a soft arc, a subtle arc, and yes, it is deceptive.

Layered and dispersed within this brief novel are many stories. Parental rejection.  Sibling love and loyalty.  Heroic caregiving of strangers. The novel weaves together the history of the writing of Hansel and Gretel with biographical elements from the lives of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Johannes Gutenberg, Edmond Halley, and Ruth Coker Burkes. The appearance of what became known as Halley’s Comet every seventy-five years serves as an organizational device, and sexual politics develops into a powerful theme. If this sounds like an expansive novel covering a lot of ground, consider what one character says: “the best stories are told, with enough space to make them say several things at once.” For all its brevity, this book manages to convey a multitude of things.

Drager illustrates the process by which widely varying oral tales harden into one form once they are printed. The Archive suggests the Grimm brothers chose one version of Hansel and Gretel over others. They decided against an account that offered, not famine, but Hansel’s homosexuality, as the reason his parents cast him out. Gretel accompanies him out of sibling love, offering him protection when she can. Jacob Grimm, never married with hidden longings for other men, is similarly protected by his brother Wilhelm. The novel is replete with philosophical gems like this one: “there is no closer bond than that between siblings because they derive from the same cosmic formula and grow in the same flesh home.”

Gutenberg’s invention that changes the world—and certainly the world of storytelling—serves as one spiraling thread in The Archives. Gutenberg’s sister uses the tale of Hansel and Gretel to share her dark secret of abuse with the inventor. He is the only one who believes her, who listens to her.

The portion of the novel showing an unnamed caretaker of AIDS patients at work is exceptionally moving. The cosmic narrator explains why a woman would take mortally ill strangers into her home to care for them when even families and medical personnel rejected them: “this is the plight of women, to be always drawn to a variety of different forms of hurt.” Details like the chipped cookie jars, the red caution sign in the hospital, the cemetery are all authentic depictions from the life of Ruth Coker Burkes.

Part of the novel is written in computer code, followed by translation. One character is an unnamed programmer who is “developing a digital forest with virtual property. The plots for each bit of property are called pages and they are free. The idea is that everyone can access the forest and build on it, plant and tend the seeds.” Thus is born the World Wide Web. Just as Gutenberg’s invention revolutionized stories, digitization brings changes, still unfolding. The novel even ventures into space with twin probes disseminating humanity’s story in binary code.

The novel suggests the changes in storytelling, the inventions, will forge on into “modes we can only vaguely grasp”:  “We’re using the same internal code of curiosity engrained in our veins that once pushed our species to keep roaming the world. It’s that tendency we have to look at a vista in admiration, but just a beat afterward wonder what lies beyond.”

But the reason we tell stories remains the same: “most of the stories that have survived the ages are told for one purpose only, and that purpose is to say this: ‘Being human is difficult. Here is some evidence.’”

The Archives of Alternate Endings is not an easy read, nor an ordinary one like genre fiction, yet it is fascinating, gorgeous, and well worth the effort to follow its spirals into the cosmos, into a future we can neither see nor know.

Lindsey Drager is the author of The Sorrow Proper, winner of the 2016 John Gardner Fiction Award, and The Lost Daughter Collective, winner of a 2017 Shirley Jackson Award and a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.

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