You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, as they say, but there’s something to be said for not judging a book by its size, either. Lindsey Drager’s The Archive of Alternate Endings is just over 150 pages long, short enough to read during a lazy afternoon, but carries the emotional gut-punch of something two or three times its size.
Built around appearances of Halley’s Comet, which is visible every 75 to 79 years, The Archive stretches from 1378 to 2365, all the way from when Hansel and Gretel are wandering in the woods to when our words (and probes) continue to travel through space even when we’ve long since destroyed ourselves and our planet. In the nineteenth century, the Brothers Grimm take the story of Hansel and Gretel and immortalize it in their collection of folk tales; two appearances of the comet later, that story inspires an artist to create haunting artwork that will inspire, and then haunt, a man dying of AIDS.
At almost every appearance of the comet, siblings find each other, and sometimes become estranged from each other as life—or secrets—come between them. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are united in their goal to record the stories told in their homeland, but fundamental differences and the shame around them mean they can’t be as honest with each other as they’d like. In the twentieth century, a brother and sister dig up an ancient nautilus shell, and swap it between themselves for presents and commemorations of life events until it becomes the permanent marker for one’s grave. Seventy-five years later, another character severed too young from his sibling wonders how life would have been different if they hadn’t had to flee their home when they did. Even after humans exit the story, twin probes travel together, siblings even if they aren’t made of flesh and bone.
Sexuality is another frequent theme throughout the comet’s predictable appearances from our planet, too, as is sexual assault. Sometimes these are stated plainly, but are usually more hinted at, letting the relative silence shout volumes about the taboo that these topics present in their respective eras. They’re not exploitative, but they can be heavy for the person keeping that secret—and the person trying to keep that person happy and whole.
There’s a lot of imagination that spins this tale into gold, but Drager has wisely borrowed from history. One chapter spends a lot of time at a lightly fictionalized version of a real-life woman and her unexpected graveyard who became a veritable angel for AIDS patients in the 1980s, which is a powerful story outside the emotional narrative in which it appears here. In another chapter, Johannes Gutenberg’s sister becomes his twin, contemplating the way her face and his are as alike as the scrolls he printed on his new invention.
The Archive is a novel, but its parts, while interconnected, are fit together in such a way that they can be separated from each other. And they have been—six of the ten chapters have appeared in some form in various literary journals as standalone stories. This also makes it a challenge to succinctly explain the plot, and get people interested in it without trailing off and saying, “Ugh, you just have to read it.” But all of these parts, though excellent on their own, come together to make a whole far grander than their sum. Reading chapter after chapter, story after story, rewards the alert reader with more heartbreaking, and heartening, details that unfold as the book progresses. This is a novel, but it is also a knot of humanity. It is art in the best, most human way possible.
Ugh, you just have to read it.