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Heavenly Bodies: The Queer Time Of Lindsey Drager
Rachel Hill , June 23rd, 2019 09:11

Structured around the appearances of Halley's comet, The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager opens itself up to a different experience of time, finds Rachel Hill

Halley's comet glances upon the Earth once every seventy-five years, a celestial visitation which structures the 1,000 year-spanning plot of Lindsey Drager’s newest novella, The Archive of Alternate Endings. Under this periodic gaze, the close bonds of siblingship echo across times, magnitudes and bodies, to form a poetic investigation of queerness and a philosophical meditation on the mercurial nature of stories.

With its menagerie of non-linear times, spawning multiple alternate endings strung across different dimensions, Drager’s small but impressive oeuvre has proven her to be a writer of the quantum. Her debut, The Sorrow Proper, charts the possible ends of a public library, as told through three entangled storylines, and establishes Drager’s preoccupation with how knowledge is generated, maintained or lost. Her second novel, The Lost Daughter Collective, expands on these themes of knowledge, loss, and grieving, in a möbius strip-shaped story which does, undoes and redoes itself endlessly. Reminiscent of both Borges and Esher’s looping eternities, Drager’s collections enact feats of metafictional prestidigitation which render time porous and reality slippery.

The Archive of Alternate Endings begins in 1835 with The Brothers Grimm collecting stories for what will become Hansel and Gretel. One woman’s iteration of the story claims that Hansel was abandoned due to his burgeoning homosexuality, with Gretel following to become his woodland protector. The Brothers are left bemused by this revelation, where “Jacob will think: What is at stake in sharing this story? And Wilhelm will think: What is at stake in leaving this story untold?” After some indecision, in part complicated by Jacob Grimm’s own queer desire for “uncommon lips”, they choose to exclude this parental rejection from the story. In so doing, they symbolically enact an erasure of queer history which nonetheless haunts them, and the story, throughout time.

Sibling solidarity counterbalances parental and societal rejection; it is where the intention to save meets its limits to protect. Here, the tension between care and abandonment, becomes the foundation upon which a sophisticated, intergenerational plot, is structured. Operating recursively, this pattern of embrace and exclusion is played out through the rewritten lives of other historical figures, including printing-press inventor Johannes Gutenberg, astronomer Edmond Halley and AIDS awareness advocate Ruth Coker Burns. In a further recuperative gesture, Drager also foregrounds voices from the largely silenced queer community of New York during the 1980’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. Like Halley’s elliptical orbit, this shared pattern cuts across conventional timelines, to form new hyperlinked alliances and resonances, whilst exemplifying the notion that forbidden “longing, like gravity, takes work to detect”. In so doing, Drager refuses to reproduce (and thereby refutes) the standardised time of historical continuity. Instead The Archive of Alternate Endings is structured by what Professor Elizabeth Freedman has termed “queer time”, which is characterised by “non-sequential forms of time”, where queer desire folds “subjects into structures of belonging and duration that may be invisible to the historicist eye...movements that bring past and present together...in the sense of both making and counterfeiting - history differently.”

Drager’s queer time troubles the official narratives of history normally produced and stabilised by knowledge systems, such as libraries, collections and archives. Instead, the generation of knowledge in The Archive of Alternate Endings is produced through the entanglement of bodies and stories, which are co-constitutive and forever in flux.

But what is an archive? And what does it mean for an archive to showcase alternate endings?

Etymologically, ‘archive’ is descended from the Greek arkhē, meaning both the place of government and of beginnings. Archives are repositories shaping the contours of memory and make meaning, dictating what is retained and what is consigned to collective forgetting. In The Archive of Alternate Endings, an unnamed woman, commenting on the nature of recording, states “what gets translated into the code of letters and locked in the coffin of a book, becomes truth while everything else dissolves into the abyss of history.” Rather than a static institution however, for Drager it is the Hansel and Gretel story, the mapping of its spread and mutations across multiple bodies, which becomes the ultimate form of archive.

“The story must move through many bodies and get shaped, become taut and succinct through those bodies, perfecting and honing its shape. Does the story reach this final state ever, or is its final state the malleable form in which it never calcifies?”

Making palpable the vast stratigraphies of time encrypted within objects, one stream of the narrative follows the trajectory of a particular print edition of Hansel and Gretel, as it passes through a meandering sequence of multiple hands. This telescoping out across time situates the book as a verbal museum, with each word needing to be handled to be maintained.

The transmission of Hansel and Gretel’s story through cosmic, human and technological bodies, forges new resonances across scales of being. With a nonhuman perspective, Halley’s comet looks on the Earth from above and wonders about the happenings below. Later, in a speculative future after the end of the Earth, an intergalactic Voyager probe broadcasts Hansel and Gretel’s story to a distant “sister world”, represented on the page as extended passages in binary code. On a more anthropocentric level, attempts to form lacunae of safety from embattled positions is illustrated through the care and protection of bodies that have been selected for sacrifice to maintain a violent status quo. Irrespective of their size or composition, the story passes through all these bodies, uniting them with the shared resonances of yearning and grief.

These resonances demonstrate how disparate bodies can be harmonised into another layer of being, expanding the notion of siblingship beyond bloodlines, to found alliances between different human/nonhuman entities. Thus, Gretel states, “when I feel most alone, I remember I am part of the cosmos, a celestial event. I know we are part of a system, a story.” Bodily resonance also constitutes a mutual reciprocity in which bodies inhale, disseminate and mutate stories, whilst stories exhale, shape and define the parameters of what a body can be.

Drager has accomplished the rare feat of creating a very delicate and sophistically plotted novella, which threads back and forth across centuries, months and days, in a way that nonetheless remains followable for the reader. Equally impressive, the narrative elucidates complex, philosophical ruminations on how stories function and interact with human ontology, rendered through simple but poetic language. Weaving together fairytale archetypes, astronomical phenomena and queer history, The Archive of Alternate Endings is a uniquely rewarding balance between literary experimentation and human emotion, whilst remaining a riddling sphinx of a book.

The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager is published by Dzanc Books

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