Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History

By Phong Nguyen


Queen's Ferry Press
January 2014

Reviewed by James Orbesen


The phrase "written history" is, partly, a contradiction. Written words are exceedingly good at constructing a narrative. This is because words contain a certain logic. As pattern-obsessed creatures, the written word is all about this sense of order; hence the reason we read from side to side, or up to down, rather than back and forth, diagonally, or in obtuse spirals.

But history isn't so clear cut. There is no logic or overarching structure to history's unfolding. Progress and narrative are things we map on to the course of events. They don't exist in some sort of Platonic ether, so understanding history as a narrative, in its written form, is going to be inherently limited and filled with self-contradiction. If history did have a shape, it would be a haystack, not a narrative.

Near the end of Phong Nguyen's Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History, this impulse to understand history as a serried order of events is channeled in a feeling practically everyone has experienced: "Every generation believes that the whole of history culminates in them: their conflicts, their tragedies, their follies and triumphs."

Everything has led up to this moment, we think. What was 9/11 or the election of our first black president but the penultimate act in history's grand stage show? History shouldn't be understood like this because it implies history somehow cares and crafts the course of events rather than just being their repository.

This sort of historical understanding runs deep in Nguyen's novel. Part anthology, part mystery, Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History begins with the discovery of a highly damaged flash drive by a computer programmer intent on salvaging its contents. On the flash drive, which the programmer finds at an Apple Genius Bar analogue under curious circumstances, is the entire history of a mirror world. His attempts to extract the data lead to its destruction and, possibly, the loss of the programmer's sanity. What results is this book—transcribed fragments briefly glanced at by the programmer, as he tries to reconstruct the history of this alternate world.

The programmer quips, "There is a reckless joy in undertaking what seems impossible." This is true of his project but also true of cataloguing any type of history.

Nguyen's work is sparse, given to understatement, and it shares similarities with Borges and Bolaño. Nguyen echoes Borges' interest in texts and histories, and Bolaño's darkly comic tone of confusion and second guessing is slathered over his descriptions and dialogue.

For instance, in a section about Hitler who, in this alternate reality, was actually accepted by an Austrian art school, Nguyen writes of the young Bavarian's experiences in World War I. Notice the way Nguyen doubles back and layers his scene with apprehensions and uncertainties, much like Bolaño:

Afterwards, as he [Hitler] entered the bombed-out bunker, Rader [Hitler's comrade] describes Hitler as a man full of schiksal, or 'apprehensions of destiny.' He stood in the center of the carnage, rapt in glory-feeling, with a palpable sense of the beauty inherent in dead things. He looked (though 'look' is too slight in this instance) at the dead Belgians, with their insides turned out, and stood in awe at the chaotic red patterns on the wall.

But what really makes Nguyen's book poignant is that he ends every chapter with a list of discussion questions, much like a high school history text:

What evidence is there, from Kubuizek's account, that Adolf Hitler would become anything other than a minor painter or architect? Why did Hitler himself believe that he could achieve anything but a modest living selling art for pictures frames (see Figs. 3.3 and 3.4)? What did Hitler see as he stood enraptured at the center of that room full of dead Belgians? What do art and war have to do with each other?

As residents of this world and inheritors of our own history, we know the answers to these questions. Or, at least, we can take a stab at answers. What the questions do is twofold. First, they are jokes made at the expense of this alternate Earth. We laugh at how our understanding of their history is superior. We know their Hitler, but we also understand him better because we have our Hitler. In that way, we chuckle at their limited vision, demonstrated by the questions that stump them but not us.

However, the second function is a bit trickier. Because this alternate Earth poses questions we can easily answer, it stands that our own questions, which confound us, can handily be understood by other (theoretical) us-es. And who is to say there's only this other Earth? Why not two other Earths complete with their own textbooks? Or a hundred? Or an infinite number?

The implication of all this is that to truly understand history, one must be totally removed. But that's impossible. Again, history is not like a written sentence that confirms to a certain sense or logic that humans expect. History just is. We can try and understand it, but our picture will never be complete, since recreating the original context just isn't possible.

Nguyen's meditation on history throughout this book is nuanced and provocatively fatalistic. Perhaps it is best summed up in his account of colonial founder John Smith, of Pocahontas fame.

John Smith, as he is readied for execution, says a final few words: "No matter what you do for the colony, it is the land that will decide her fate. The only thing you can do is to live openly and inspire men; you cannot direct history; you can only act your part."

The chronicler understands: "Perhaps this is why Smith acquiesced so readily to the noose."

This read is not only engaging but a fine demonstration of how easily history slips through the narratives shaped by writers.