History is pulp. If Lavie Tidhar didn’t plant that notion firmly enough with his World Fantasy Award winning Osama, reinventing much of our recent history as a series of paperback thrillers, he reminds us of it throughout his strange superhero-historical fantasia The Violent Century: Hitler ‘‘rewrote the world like a lurid paperback’’; ‘‘It is too fantastical, this world, with its marching armies and its death camps. It’s just the world of a cheap novel’’; ‘‘like a lurid paperback the yellowed pages turn’’; ‘‘They bore into the Minister’s eyes as if they can read the contents of his mind, the way one reads a cheap paperback book’’; and perhaps most tellingly ‘‘We needed larger-than-life heroes, masked heroes to show us that they were the fantasy within each and every one of us.’’ There are subtler reminders as well; the historian who delivers that last bromide is none other than Joe Shuster, who in this world has written a history of supermen (or Übermenschen, or Surhommes) with his partner Jerry Siegel; another scholar who produces a biographical dictionary of supermen is named Stanley Lieber, the birth name of Stan Lee. Even Spider-man gets a brief walk-on, not to mention recognizable versions of the Hulk, the Flash, and several others.
What causes all these unlikely figures to inhabit a history that in many other respects is a grim, Guernica-like tapestry of our own, ranging from the early 1930s through WWII, the Holocaust, the Cold War, Vietnam, 9/11, and Afghanistan? The central conceit of The Violent Century is that a German quantum physicist named Vomacht (possibly from the suspended-animation Nazi daughters in Cordwainer Smith, given Tidhar’s penchant for allusion) created a machine in 1932 which propagated a kind of probability wave around the world, affecting everyone in minute ways but transforming a select few into ready-made Marvel franchises, complete with Stan Lee-like monikers: Tigerman, Whirlwind, the Electric Twins, the Green Gunman, Surfer Girl, Frogman, etc. And those are just the American ‘‘League of Defenders,’’ who manage to turn D-Day into an Avengers movie as reported by a frenetic sportscaster. There are also Soviet supermen (the Red Sickle) and a particularly obnoxious Nazi called Snowstorm. But the two central point-of-view characters are both Brits who, as the novel opens in the present, seem to have wandered into George Smiley’s world of tired, disillusioned, and superannuated spies (the agency they work for is even called the Bureau of Superannuated Affairs).
The Violent Century isn’t an alternate history, since none of the effects of the Vomacht wave seem to have derailed history from its familiar course, and it’s not a Tim Powers-style secret history, since the superheroes are large-scale public figures throughout. A few key alterations are recognizable – instead of working on codes at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing shows up as a trainer for the British superheroes preparing them for wartime service, and the Eichmann trial gets transformed into the Vomacht trial – but by and large Tidhar isn’t interested in showing us how things might have been different or how the real story is covert. Instead, we might call it enhanced history – a narrative which grafts pulp-comic fantasies onto the existing record, with just enough quantum gobbledygook to make it sound vaguely science fictional. It’s the sort of thing Quentin Tarantino did as bloody wish-fulfillment in Inglourious Basterds, multiplied by several orders of magnitude.
For example, Tidhar doesn’t hesitate to take us into Auschwitz itself, where one of his heroes, a Hulk-like giant named Tank, is subjected to Mengele’s horrific experiments, or into a Southeast Asia where the CIA partly finances its operations through a drug-smuggling operation under the guise of Air America. While passages like the latter would likely warm Oliver Stone’s heart, Tidhar’s almost facile evocation of events like the Holocaust sometimes results in a queasy disconnect between tone and substance. The most effective adventure scenes are more understated in their pop-cult allusiveness, such as Fogg working with resistance fighters in a Transylvania haunted by the specters of vampires and werewolves (and of course there’s a Nazi werewolf; Tidhar doesn’t much mind if his comic-book villains are largely clichés.) What really gives the novel its emotional center, and eventually its tragic weight, is the depiction of the decades-long friendships among the ‘‘changed’’ themselves, and especially between Fogg and Oblivion, as the world increasingly passes them by and as Fogg pursues what seems to be a doomed romance with Vomacht’s own daughter, who is associated with a literal dimension of brightness largely lost to the violent century itself. All this is presented in the present-tense, stage-directed style of a movie treatment which values efficiency over grace, but it manages some genuinely powerful moments, some memorable figures, and a thoroughly unhinged view of the 20th century that almost convinces you of its own demented logic.