History. A Mess.
By Sigrún Pálsdóttir
120 pp. Open Letter Books. $14.
One has to presume that this book’s title is actually “History” but that it was accidentally swapped by the printer with the headline of an appropriately negative review. This is why, emblazoned on the front of all English editions of the book, are the words “History. A Mess.”
Say what you want about history, but this book really is a mess.
And not in a fun way. After all, “a mess” offers the potential for cheer, chaos, catharsis. No, this “History” is a bore.
Yes. “History. A Bore” would have been a much better title. Ambitious, yes, but a bore nonetheless.
Which is a shame. I like Iceland, where Miss Pálsdóttir is from, and I like stories in this particular genre. You know the one I mean, the genre in which our protagonist, in an effort to achieve personal fame and fortune, or perhaps just advance a particular cause, makes a “discovery”, takes a few too many personal liberties, writes a biography of a famous individual without actually consulting said famous individual, resulting in the historical event or person in question becoming distorted, fictionalized.
Think Lee Israel’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger, Clifford Irving’s The Hoax, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, or the Vanity Fair article by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist H.G. Bissinger detailing the rise and fall of New Republic journalist Stephen Glass, who was found to have plagiarized many of his articles.
Deception sells. Especially, it would seem, after the deceiver has admitted to the deception. Why is that? Do we just love discovering that the wool has been pulled over our eyes? That someone previously thought to be heroic or trustworthy did something villainous?
Regardless of the reasons for the popularity of this genre, making up events or altering a person’s biographical details doesn’t usually end in the person or event being made boring. It’s almost always the opposite.
So why then is “History. A Mess” such a bore? Such a slog? Such a … mess?
The plot essentially concerns an art history student researching her thesis. She reads a diary, which is about as bone dry as the book we’re reading, discovers the diary belongs to a famous English portrait artist and, based on its content, comes to believe the portrait artist to be a woman, at that time a nigh unheard of thing. It’s all very exciting news for our protagonist who, flooded with attention, gears up to hit the speaking circuit and revel in the fame and admiration long due her.
Except … except two pages got stuck together, hiding one crucial page with its crucial detail that reveals our “female” artist is, in fact, just a typical dime a dozen male artist. Our protagonist has made a critical error, and now she can just bid farewell to any thought of the fame that had been awaiting her.
Or maybe not. Because, damn, her thesis is just about to be published and she really can’t stomach admitting her mistake because it would be really embarrassing.
As interesting as all that sounds, I regretfully inform you that it is not. The truly interesting thing is how this novel manages to be just as lacking in amusing qualities on its last page as it was on its first.
I should have given up 50 pages in. At that point, I was already writing the review in my head as I read, trying to think of things that were dry that I could relate to the writing.
Sand in the Sahara, the Amazon under Bolsonaro’s watch, my skin in Arizona …
At 75 pages, I’d already developed a deep antipathy for the author. How can she expect anyone to read this? How dare she waste my time?
The blurbs all said it was a “slow burn”, a novel that “slowly reveals itself”, that the “slow unveiling of the plot is one of its charms” … slow, slow, slow. And yes, it was slow, but no, it is utterly without charm.
On page 35 our protagonist notes that she has only received six bottles of wine, despite the fact that seven women came to the gathering she is hosting.
Who didn’t bring a bottle?
THAT would have made for interesting reading. A book exploring that very question would trounce this one in terms of sheer interest. But no, it’s a single line, thrown away and now it’s gone and she’s off reciting the number of candlesticks on the mantelpiece, getting anxious about a door in the hallway that she hadn’t noticed before … slowly going mad the British way and making us all mad the American way in the process.
Don’t attempt to wade through this “mess”. If you do, just remember you were warned on the cover.