Nostalgia and Famous Men Who Never Lived
Refugee stories at a time like this feel extremely relevant, and it’s hard to deny that science fiction dystopias these days are more and more becoming a bit too realistic. Out next month, K Chess’ debut novel Famous Men Who Never Lived tackles both topics with a luminous sensitivity that doesn’t terrify, but feels quite possible all the same.
In a “not-so-parallel New York,” thousands flee nuclear war across the universe to a New York split from their own timeline about a hundred years prior. A so-called “lottery” determines the option of those allowed passage, and so many flee not only their homes and property, but loved ones and friends as well. Arriving on the other side, they are treated as alien, immigrants with nowhere to be deported to but nevertheless unwanted and ostracized. While centered on Helen, or Hel as she is most usually called, Famous Men Who Never Lived tells the story of many quietly stunning characters, bits of their lives weaving in and out through the central plot, both capital “B” before and capital “A” after, and the unique losses each faced along the way. (In my reading experience, it was many of their stories that kept me invested when Hel couldn’t.) Some try to move on, while Hel intensely refuses to let go.
Hel’s struggle feels singular to her. She cannot bond deeply with fellow refugees, either from her lack of acceptance or her inability to attempt the assimilation everyone else finds comfort in. She is caught between not wanting to recreate her old life in her new world but also not wanting to let go of the few artifacts from her old world she has left. I found it hard to sympathize with Hel, simply because it was clear how often those around her were trying to help and I so wanted her to see it, but I also understand her sense of isolation. It feels a fairly painless thing to say but it’s true that nobody accepts anything until they’re ready for it. Hel never seems ready to move on, but the novel’s satisfying conclusion shows her embracing her own kind of acceptance.
I think as individuals living in a constantly changing world, we all experience nostalgia in separate ways. The concept of home in particular carries an entire lifetime of weight. Whether or not we can go back, places are never how we left them and we mourn for that, but the way Chess tears her characters from their universe, dropped into a literal other world entirely different yet hauntingly similar creates a new, acutely visceral level of grief. It is physically impossible to go back, but surrounded by the ghosts of their home, they cannot seem to leave. It’s not until they realize what to hold on to that they finally find their way through.
For fans of science fiction or realistic dystopias that deal with personal matters more than political, I’d highly recommend!
This post is not sponsored and all opinions are my own, however I was gifted an advance copy. Thank you once again to Tin House!
Raquel Reyes is Creative Director at The Attic on Eighth. She enjoys styling photo shoots, dramatic hair accessories, and old fashioned cocktails.