Thursday, April 21, 2011

The History of History: High-Concept Fiction of the Highest Order

The History of History, Ida Hattemer-Higgins' debut novel, is, simply put, an awe-inspiring piece of fiction. The genius of this fiercely intelligent novel — other than the fact that Hattemer-Higgins' prose is absolutely gorgeous — is that it's an unconventional, postmodern (fractured narrative, bizarre dream sequences, unreliable narrator) tale that still crackles with mystery and page-turning intrigue. It's the kind of novel you really only should read 20 to 30 pages at a time and then put aside to digest and puzzle out the significance of what you've read. Normally, with "difficult" fiction, that's easy to do. Not here — it's a story with a magnetism that won't let you leave it.

Margaret Taub is a mid-20s American living in Berlin, Germany in the early 2000s. As the novel opens, Margaret stumbles out of a forest, not remembering how she got there. Fast-forward two years — Margaret has settled back into her life in Berlin as a history student and English-language tour guide, but still has a significant gap in her memory before and after emerging from the woods. One day, she receives a mysterious note addressed to Margaret Täubner, summoning her to an appointment with a Dr. Arabscheilis. Despite the fact that she thinks it's a mistake, Margaret goes, hoping for some clues about her missing memory.

Then, the novel really starts rolling. Margaret soon becomes obsessed with the story of Magda Goebbels, the wife of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. As the Russians were nearing in the final stages of World War II, Magda murdered her six children in Hitler's bunker before she and her husband committed suicide themselves. Margaret, who is haunted by visions of Magda all around Berlin, wants to try to understand why. Was it an act mercy, or an act of evil? In the course of her research, she stumbles across a clipping about a Jewish couple who also killed their three children before being deported to a camp. To Margaret, that seems to be more an act of mercy, when compared with Goebbels'. But when is killing your own children ever morally justifiable?

Intrigued by Dr. Arabscheilis' wisdom after their first meeting, and becoming increasingly unmoored, Margaret returns frequently to the doctor who becomes her spiritual guide/guru. The doctor, an old woman with a giant head, is a wonderful character, imparting advice and constantly speaking in dichotomy (difference between story and memory, difference between anestheticizing memories vs. aesthetizing them). At one point, Dr. Arabscheilis tells her:
"You, my pet, are having an identity crisis that has become moral despair. It is impossible for the human animal to remember his or her own life without cleaving a line, a line of some kind, however capriciously zigzag, lazy, narcissistic, arrogant or, on the other hand, self-blaming and unforgiving, between right and wrong, credit and blame."
The novel's intricate plotting and Margaret's obsession with history allow Hattemer-Higgins to deal with a number of heady moral and philosophical issues, all the while bringing us along at a pretty fast pace as Margaret tries to figure out what happened to her...or what it was that she did. Throughout the book, we're constantly wondering about Margaret's sanity. Are her visions — Berlin's buildings turned to flesh, Magda Goebbels in the form of "hawk-woman," playing a weeks-long game of Hearts with a ghost — a product of her declining mental faculties, or simply beautiful dreams? "And a sense of beauty, my pet, to each his own, is the weir that staunches the flow of madness," the doctor tells Margaret in the later stages of the novel. The degree of Margaret's madness is the riddle Hattemer-Higgins presents her readers, and even at the novel's shocking, stupefying conclusion, that's never really clear.

Sadly, this novel — published in January 2011 — remains obscure to most readers. Most likely, that's attributable to the fact that many readers hear "difficult" and run screaming towards Dan Brown. But this novel isn't difficult in the Gravity's Rainbow or Ulysses sense. In fact, it's not difficult at all — it's just that it does require a fair amount of thought and concentration to get the most return on the reading investment. And even then, it almost certainly requires a second reading to decipher all the symbolism and philosophizing. Still, this is high-concept fiction of the highest order, and therefore, highly, highly recommended!


  1. This sounds really interesting but the "unconventional, postmodern" makes me hesitant. As does the bit about buildings turning to flesh...

  2. This sounds worth running out and buying right now. Second reading-are you really going to? That is book love.

  3. @Brenna - It's worth the hardcover price! ;)

    @Red - Yeah, the unconventional-ness is probably why it's still around 100,000 on Amazon's ranking. Despite the weird parts, there's a pretty straight-forward story that's really, really good.

    @bibliophiliac - You know, I've never been so tempted with a book as I was with this one to turn back to pg. 1 and start over immediately after finishing. I want to give it a bit of time to sink in, and give more people time to read - so as to have more people to discuss it with - before I read it again. But, yes, I really am going to.

  4. I need to read this book. Once I get my hands on a copy and read it, I will stop back to chat with you about it. Thanks for posting this awesome review!

  5. I've gotten a majority of my nonconventional but brilliant reads from Jackie at Farm Lane Books. She is the one that raved about this one awhile back, and I've never forgotten about it. She doesn't suffer mediocre books lightly, so when she raves, it is warranted. The WWII connection caught my attention, but her review and yours settles things.

  6. this is actually one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2011. I bought it as soon as it was released and unfortunately it has remained sadly unread so far! this has definitely given me a push to finally pick it up. I'm not scared by it, I just keep getting distracted by other books.

  7. this sounds great. I think I've heard the title around, but not picked up on it much. I'm the opposite of Red: the bit about buildings turning into flesh will make me remember this when I'm next book-shopping.

  8. I've seen this one all over the place in the Bay Area lately, but haven't been moved to buy it. Yet. This reviews has moved me. Next time I see it at the bookstore, I'm betting on a purchase.

  9. Sir, you did an awesome job at busting this novel out of its black hole. I'm always eager for a reader that will require more effort out of me. Bloggers like you and me have a definite power when it comes to great writers stuck in the midlist. I'll make sure to keep the ball rolling. I have one of those reviews on my blog tomorrow.

  10. @Jenica - Please do - it's a book that screams to be discussed! Can't wait to see what you think of it, too.

    @Sandy - I'd had it since Jan, but I loved Farm Lane Books' review of this, too - we were clearly on the same page! Yeah, there is a lot of fascinating history in the book - especially about the city of Berlin. It made me really nostalgic, since I was there about a year ago this week!

    @Zoe - Make it a priority! ;) I'm not ready to say it's my favorite book of the year yet - but it'll probably be in the Top 5 at the year's end.

    @Ben - Awesome! The flesh-buildings and the other tricks are all so meaningful in the context of what the novel's trying to explain about history and memory. It's certainly not just weird for weird's sake. I couldn't get to all the details here, or the review would've been about 2,500 words.

    @CB - Very glad to hear - this book definitely deserves a wider readership!

    @Ben - Yeah, this goes to back to the discussion about reviewing obscure books - nothing makes me happier than gushing about a novel that's flying under the radar, and trying to convince more people to read it. I hope that happens here - and I'll definitely check your post tomorrow.

  11. Hmm, I don't know how I feel about the characterization of readers that shy away from "difficult" books as running for Dan Brown. That's unfair, don't you think? People read for different reasons. Just because I don't want to work my way through postmodern fiction doesn't mean I have no taste whatsoever - and considering your opinion of Dan Brown, that feels like what you're saying. I like my difficult books in a different way - long, complicated story lines, multiple characters, etc. But not post-modern. Doesn't make me a lazy reader.

  12. @home - Not unfair at all. I did say "many," not all, readers who don't like non-traditional fiction - whether classified as postmodern or not - probably prefer lighter fare. Many readers just want beach reads and not to have to think while reading - which is why fiction like The History of History doesn't sell nearly as well as, say, Dan Brown. That was my point there - trying to explain why such a brilliant book hasn't found a wider readership. If I hadn't classified this as postmodern, but just said it does have a more-complicated-than-average storyline and a less-than-straightforward narrative, would you have been not as turned off? Because, again, this isn't difficult - it's just more involved.

  13. You're right, if you hadn't classified it as post-modern, I might not have been quite so turned off. But you're setting up a dichotomy wherein you either like and appreciate complicated, high-concept fiction like this or you're an idiot who likes your entertainment spoon-fed to you. There's a middle ground and I still don't think its fair to pit Dan Brown against The History of History and make a "you're either with us or you're against us" kind of assertion.

    Maybe I'm being overly sensitive because I'd already mentioned that I wasn't interested in picking this up after you told me a little bit about it. But I don't think you'd characterize me as a lazy reader, would you? And yet, I don't want to have to read a book multiple times to decode it. I might get something entirely different out of my reading, but you have to factor in more when you're talking about readership.

    I agree that some level of difficulty probably has kept this from gaining a broad book-buying audience.

  14. Post-modern fiction is most of the time short, fractured novels/novellas. Long books that goes beyond 400 pages are something for established novelists ans guys dead a hundred years ago. Dan Brown might write long books, but they are not difficult. Teenagers, people that don't read books go through his whole works in a matter of months, weeks sometimes. The man has a light hearted, seamless prose, but he's not difficult. If you want a difficult novel with historical value, plot twists and multiple characters, read Umberto Eco's "Name Of The Rose".

    I'm not calling you a lazy reader, but you sure seem to prefer the highway to the off-road. Nothing bad about that, but please don't feel defensive if Greg reviews a book that requires some of that "off-road" thinking.

  15. My point was not that "long" equals difficult. My point was that there's a middle ground between high-concept, post-modern and Dan Brown. I'm not defensive that he reviewed - I'm defensive because he set up a dichotomy that pits those two types of fiction against each other in the vein of "if you don't like this kind of high-concept fiction, you must only like dumb, pointless crap like Dan Brown."

    The reason I don't like post-modern fiction has nothing to do with the fact that its difficult. I've read Umberto Eco. I've also read a lot of post-modern fiction and I don't like the themes of most of it, not the complicated nature of reading it. I'm not adverse to putting in work to read a book, but I do not like the fundamental nature of post-modernism. It's not that its difficult, but let's be fair about the fact that there are more ways to be an educated, nuanced reader than just being able to like high-concept, post-modern fiction.

    I would hope that Greg understands why I'm jumping on this - and I don't think he would classify me as lazy either, but it's dangerous to make assumptions about me as being a "highway" reader just because I don't like books like The History of History. And your tone does suggest that there is something bad about being a "highway" reader - that I'm somehow less because I don't feel the need to read books that require me to keep notes or re-read something a million ways over to analyze it.

  16. @Home - A couple things. No, I don't think you're a lazy reader. Secondly, I’m also not sure that what I was saying constitutes a strict dichotomy of smart vs. dumb at all. I know several readers who enjoy complicated fiction, but generally prefer male novelists. So in that case, finding out that the author here is a woman would practically send them running to Dan Brown (which, also, I really just meant as a comic exaggeration). Are they lazy readers? Maybe sexist, yes, but not lazy or dumb fiction readers. It’s largely a matter of preference – or, as you say, getting something entirely different out of reading.

    I'd also argue that saying you don't like an entire movement of literature with a simple dismissal of not "liking the themes of most of it" is lots more dangerous than the supposed simplistic thinking of either you like smart fiction or you're dumb if you don't. As we've established, had the dreaded "P" word not been used in this review, you said you might've not been turned off - which I realize means you're not exactly running to B&N to buy it, but you're also not rejecting it out of hand because of a classification.

    But my basic point remains and I stand by it – complicated fiction scares the majority of average readers, no matter why they read or what they expect to get out of their reading. And so we agree – that’s why The History of History hasn’t been more widely read.

  17. You're right, there is a middle ground in between the highway readers and those who love more difficult stuff. I still think you got defensive because I don't think Greg was splitting things up in between "literary readers" and "Dan Brown" readers. I didn't read it as an attempt to polarize the problematic, but as a mere example of someone who sells books using a gimmicky approach.

    Also, I have nothing against highway readers. My own mother reads Daniel Steele and Douglas Kennedy. It comes down to a matter of why you read. If you read to challenge yourself, you'll look for more bulky fiction: Wallace, Gaddis or Ida Hattemer even. But plenty of people challenge themselves in their everyday lives, in their jobs, in sport and they don't want to be challenged by their books. They want to spend a good moment and charge up their batteries for the next day.

    We all read for different reason, Greg tried to dig out a gem here and I got upset because you pulled the debate to this dichotomy because of the Dan Brown comment, which I thought was harmless.

  18. I think we all came to the same basic point - that it's a shame complicated books don't have a wider audience. And I didn't mean to take a great review and focus on one point - which made for comic effect or not, still stung a bit, even if it wasn't meant to.

    And yes, Greg, me making a generalization about post-modern themes might not be fair either, but I do so because I've attempted to read a lot of post-modern fiction. I don't dismiss post-modern fiction completely, but using the term does give me pause. Even if you hadn't used the term, I probably would not be running out to get this. But because you liked it so much, and I respect your opinion, I will be more likely to give it a second look. I'm not rejecting the book outright, I'm just bringing up the point that while it might have been intended as a harmless comment, its not quite that simple.

  19. This is a book that I liked much better after I finished it that I did while reading it. It is complicated and my reading experience was colored by my own history of depression. I found myself doing anything possible to hold on to some semblance of normality while reading it. (It is a book to read in small chunks).

    But afterwards (especially going through my notes) I found myself really admiring and liking the book. It is very worth reading but I did find it a challenge.

  20. Okay, you and Jackie have now both raved about this one. I'm making time for it between my Orange and Booker longlist reading!