Novel: Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess

Parallel universes are an appealing prospect right now, what with reality being so terrible. This drew me to K Chess’s debut novel Famous Men Who Never Lived (2019), an elegiac, literary take on a classic skiffy premise. The story follows Helen and Vikram, two refugees from an alternate reality, among the winners of a portal lottery which enabled them to flee the nuclear devastation of their world to find sanctuary in ours. While Vikram is attempting to move forward and make a new life for himself in what to him is a strange mirror universe, Helen is having a harder time adjusting. A former doctor, she’s become obsessed with uncovering the point of divergence between her lost world and the one she’s now trapped in. Key to her theory is the life of science fiction novelist Ezra Sleight, who was famous in Helen and Vikram’s world but unknown in ours, where he died as a child. Helen’s fascination with this loss leads her to attempt to track down Sleight’s home and turn it into a museum commemorating the lost universe.

Chess paints an eerie, memorable picture, and the scenario is compelling at first. Helen and Vikram are accessible, sympathetic protagonists, and I liked the novel’s thoughtful take on the premise, with the portal travelers struggling to adapt as refugees in a disorienting alternate universe. The novel never builds much narrative momentum, unfortunately; structurally, I found it wanting. But the sentence-level prose is lovely, and I responded to its meaty thematic crux: an actual, destroyed alternate world as a symbol for roads not taken, a timeline of lost opportunity. The journey is occasionally distancing, but there’s a quiet, well crafted message baked effectively into its dreamy atmosphere.

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