By Stephen Fry
Soho Press, 2014
464 pages, $10.58
Reviewed by Emily Golden
Sometimes, it’s easy to worry; it seems that with every new song or book or film, something is missing. In those periods, I look back at pieces that have influenced me, maybe even changed my course or my direction, and I compare. I consider how easy it is to gain attention, money, accolades without necessarily having to prove any sort of intelligence or artistic skill. And I worry. Then I find something like Making History, and I feel almost certain that we will be just fine.
I’ve always admired Fry’s ability to weave humor into whatever he happens to be working on. He has acted in films with a darker edge (V for Vendetta, for example), and always manages a bit of perfectly timed comedy which serves not only as comic relief, but as a wonderful highlight for any more serious moments. By happenstance, I recently came across Stephen Fry in America, a six-part television series devised around the idea of Fry traveling around America to get a closer look at different towns and cities throughout the country—not leaving any one of the places he visits until he has given us his “take.” In one moment of the series, he is sitting with actor Morgan Freeman, discussing how poverty and joblessness has taken over in Clarksdale, Mississippi, once home to Blues greats like Eddie Boyd, Muddy Waters, and Sam Cooke. Not much later in the series, he is performing improv and ordering hot dogs with member of Second City in Chicago. Fry knows how to utilize humor; he flavors his works with it, seems to understand how to use it for a greater purpose. It is no different in Making History.
We meet our young protagonist, Michael Young, on the day he is to hand in what he calls his “Meisterwerk,” his doctorate thesis at St. Michael’s in Cambridge. Early on, Michael sets us up for the dichotomy within his story by informing his reader thus: “a. None of what follows ever happened,” and “b. All of what follows is entirely true.” The paper, entitled “From Brunau to Vienna: The Roots of Power,” chronicles Hitler’s young life and rise through the ranks. It is this paper he scatters all over a parking lot in Cambridge in a somewhat awkward chance meeting with Leo H. Zuckermann, a physicist who, Michael soon learns, has built a time machine. The two men devise a plan to make it so that Adolf Hitler is never born. What follows in their success, then, is a glimpse at one possibility—one version of a world in which Hitler never existed.
Fry’s novel is engaging and smart and, not least of all, funny. Michael Young seems quite aware of the fact that he is, although relatively successful in his own right, a bit of a bumbling idiot; he is an anti-hero, self critical, sarcastic, and snarky. An approachable and unintimidating front man for the novel, and so as the reader it is easy to go along for the ride. You like Michael, and also feel a bit sorry for him from time to time, but he is a character who has learned to laugh at himself and the world around him, so there is never too much self pity or wallowing.
Making History is so smartly written that it, as many good stories do, drums up bigger questions about what drives us, about what we want. Michael’s own answers are universal, but presented in such a beautifully human way. “The whole rushing tornado of history funneled to a single point that stood like an infinitely sharpened pencil hovering over the page of the present. The point was so simple. It was love.” When the point is love, what else is there to worry about?