The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen
My mission as Books Editor at Paste has always been broader than books. I’ve devoted six years at the magazine to the consideration of good writing and good writers from a Southern perspective—to literary review with a southern accent, if you will.
Don’t tell me I’m parochial. I’m happy that we have smart and able reviewers like Lev Grossman at Time and Jon Thurber at the L.A. Times, reviewers who care a great deal about good writers and good books and, even more, who care about why books matter—how they reflect our culture or how they shape it. Reviewers like these matter too.
Still, I weary of fellow writers and readers who grow completely dependent on literary opinions from NYC and L.A. Ideas from those swarming anthills of anxiety uniquely affect national notions of what’s good and bad, relevant and not, in art and culture. Those cities are clearly the epicenters of our American aesthetic, but their pervasive influence creates an unfortunate side effect—a geographic hegemony of taste-making. It means that artists far distant from NYC or L.A. too often do their best to create art acceptable to those cultural palates. Southern-fried creation becomes purely a side dish. So does Seattle creation, and Des Moines creation, and Miami creation, and so on.
Sometimes one can feel New Yorker magazine singlehandedly sets the standard for acceptable writers, painters, photographers, ballet, symphonic music, and other arts. The New Yorker opinions matter, of course—I subscribe, I pay attention to those smart, assessing viewpoints. But why shouldn’t opinions matter equally when they’re created here in Atlanta and the Deep South?
I mean to make them matter. Paste Magazine means to make them matter. It’s good for the world to hear opinion that doesn’t come from Manhattan or Hollywood. More opinion from more places? It means more good art.
A second aim as Books Editor is to swing the review spotlight of Paste around to light the achievements of underserved, underappreciated writers. I’m often pitched titles for possible review that appeal largely to mainstream readers. Shining pitches for the newest Stephen King arrive with every new title. My inbox fills with volunteers to review every new Dylan bio. I received many pitches last year to review new books about The Beatles. (Remember them?) Often, my answer is this: These artists are famous enough. Let’s pay attention to others so they’ll be famous one day too.
All this brings me to this week’s book review. For reasons previously discussed, it’s a double pleasure to bring attention to an underappreciated fiction writer in the Atlanta area—Decatur, actually, the home town of Paste—who may one day be one of our very best, a major figure in the making before our very eyes.
Thomas Mullen’s third novel, The Revisionists, hasn’t gotten much attention. After a big bang of a first book, The Last Town on Earth (Random House), named by USA Today as Best Debut Novel of 2006, and a solid follow-up novel, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers (Random House, 2010), named Amazon Best Books of the Month January 2010, reviews for Mullen’s latest have somehow been elusive. The rise of a promising literary career has—briefly, in my opinion—hit a plateau. It’s a high plateau, at any rate. The Revisionists is a fine book with an inventive plot and an often brilliant probing of the complexities of history, of the trillions of dominoes that tumble to make history turn out the way it does. Imagine John LeCarre writing Blade Runner, with the espionage and dirty-pool politics of Washington D.C. the backdrop instead of futuristic Los Angeles—that’s The Revisionists.
The plot introduces an agent from the future, Zed, who comes back to our present time as a hit man. Zed’s job? He stops other rebellious time travelers from altering history. Zed works to preserve a future, called Present Perfect, in which all problems have been solved. No war. No hunger. Hakuna matata.
To preserve the Present Perfect, Zed must do his part to make sure events of history, including events that occur in our own time, take place just the way they’re recorded. To have a perfect future, the Holocaust must wipe out 6 million Jews. The Kennedy assassination must wrench the nation. Little Boy must incinerate Hiroshima. If events happen any other way, the future changes and Present Perfect will presumably be plagued by as many hideous Pandoran ills as present-day Washington. Mullen unfolds those ills in a tricky maze of a book, a spy vs. spy game inside the Beltway. The plots and intrigues of Washington make les liaisons dangereuse of the Parisian courts of Louis XIV look, well, like a bunch of fops in leotards and lace collars clanking swords and swearing in French.
Zed must cover his tracks, of course, leaving no trace of the work he does. That work involves killing “hags,” those rebel agents hell-bent on changing the stream of history so that in Present Perfect, the cause they represent has supremacy. But how does a man leave history unchanged when he lives in it? Mullen entangles Zed with a beautiful high-powered Washington lawyer grieving over the mysterious death of her brother, a soldier, in Iraq. A converging plot portrays a young Indonesian girl held in slavery by a Korean diplomat and his wife. Mullen subtly shows that beauty can change history, as beastliness so often does. Even more, Mullen succeeds in smartly presenting time as a kaleidoscope, where any simple twist of fate throws every future outcome into a new configuration.
Mullen looks hard at some uncomfortable issues. Corruption in high places, for instance, and the domino effect of vice on lives and fates. The butterfly effect of one single love, or a single inattention, or a single knock on a door. The power of grief to alter events, to change fates.
As I read The Revisionists, I wondered about something. Stephen King’s current novel, 11/22/63, gives us a time travel theme much like Mullen’s. In King’s book, a teacher visits the past in an effort to prevent the assassination of President Kennedy. King’s dreadnaught of a novel—it’s 894 pages, and with his other weighty books begs whether the author’s secret career goal is preserving the paper mills of Maine—leapt immediately into the top five on the New York Times best-seller list. Here in late 2011, the tumult of publicity and attention surrounding 11/22/63 has drowned out any other shots fired from the grassy knoll of overlooked writers not named Stephen King.
Hey, don’t think I’m dissing King. He’s a great storyteller, a generous and broad-minded critic, a faithful supporter of young and deserving writers, and he deserves the spot on literature’s Mt. Rushmore he’s earned. I salute him, respect him, and greatly admire his work.
Meanwhile, I know a writer named Tom Mullen who may fantasize, forgivably, of going back in history and publishing a very good book about time travel maybe one year earlier or one year later than King’s blockbuster. Or maybe Mullen would simply like to humanely trap King and release him in west Texas.
It will be a shame if readers decide they only have time for one good read about time travel, assassination and intrigue this fall. At least two are out there. One has Mullen’s name on the jacket.
Charles McNair is Books Editor at Paste Magazine and author of the novel Land O’ Goshen.