I don’t know if other readers do this, but I often create a mental tapestry of plots for the books I read–especially the complicated books with multiple plots. I think of plots woven together to create a story. Lindsey Drager’s unusual and eloquent novel/linked short stories, The Archive of Alternate Endings, defied my usual method of visualizing a story. Part way through the stories (chapters) that make up this book, I had an epiphany. It is as though Drager wrote all of the individual stories that make up the overall book on different sheets of paper, then crumpled them all up together into a ball. Reading this book is like turning the ball around and around in one’s hands and seeing snippets of the stories. This may sound like a confusing story, but I didn’t find it that way at all. The Archive of Alternate Endings is astonishingly clear and I fell in love with what all of these stories had to say while they were all tangled up into one tale.
The chapters/stories that make up The Archive of Alternate Endings bounce around in time from the fourteenth century, in Germany, as two children wander in a great wood after being thrown out of the family house, to Johannes Gutenberg, to the Brothers Grimm, to Edmond Halley, to an American asylum in 1910, to the worst years of the AIDS pandemic, to the far future where a satellite repeats the story of “Hansel and Gretel” in binary, and to the ends of the world we know. And, just like its unusual structure, all of these stories absolutely work in juxtaposition. The collisions between the stories have so much to say about recording stories and the erasure of stories, about tolerance and abandonment, and how small things can have large consequences.
While The Archive of Alternative Endings is about all of the things that I listed in the previous paragraph, I found it to be, overall, a story about connections and interconnectivity, even between things that are spread out across vast periods of time and space. The collection of folklore is a strong theme in this book and one of the things that folklorists trade in are motifs: objects, events, and characters that appear in multiple stories. Motifs are a way of seeing the similarities and similar concerns of a variety of societies over time. In Drager’s novel/stories, there are motifs of gay characters cast out by their families, cookie jars, the act of listening to stories, and more. Each time I saw a motif, it shone a spotlight on the that that the same thing keeps happening over and over again. Essentially, we see the story of “Hansel and Gretel” play out repeatedly—but with a twist in who the real villains are—and the act of recording that story similarly repeat through time. The variations make each iteration unique and thought-provoking, while building on the feeling of grief and frustration I felt as I saw parents reject their children so many times. Thankfully, some of the variations introduce much-needed notes of hope, it seemed, just when I needed them.
The Archive of Alternate Endings is one of the most literary novels/linked story collections I’ve read in a long time. There are more places were it resembles a prose poem more than most fiction I encounter, with touches that capture the timelessness and universality of folk tales. Some readers will be frustrated by this collection because it is so different to most novels. But for readers who are, like me, obsessed with thinking about the nature of story, interconnectivity of seemingly disparate stories, and about the deep humanity that fuels our need for stories, this book will be pure intellectual joy. Now that I’ve finished reading it, I want desperately to go force my literature prof and former English major friends to read it so that we can talk about it. I loved every word of this strange, beautiful, emotional book.