Michael Young--petulant, vindictive, petty, and absolutely charming--should be thrilled. His epic dissertation, 200,000 words on Hitler's early childhood, is finally done, printed out and ready to deliver. Then Michael learns his geneticist girlfriend Jane has left him. His thesis spills out of his briefcase and winds through the Cambridge wind. Just to twist the knife, Michael's tweedy mentor dismisses the dissertation, a fiction/nonfiction hybrid, as absolute drivel. Whoops.
But Michael's bad day turns into an interesting year (or 50 years) when he befriends Leo Zuckermann, a somber physicist. Together, with the help of some little orange male infertility pills and some high-tech gadgetry, they set out to alter history. The pair's decision to prevent the birth of Hitler and their subsequent success (or is it failure?) forms the core of Stephen Fry's imaginative Making History. For his first two novels, Fry stuck to the hilarity that earned him renown as a writer and actor on British television. Now, Fry tosses that humor with maturity and ambition, in turn crafting a novel that makes you think while laughing and laugh while thinking. Ostensibly the premise holds as much sophistication as a drunken parlor game, or worse, another Back to the Future movie. Well aware of the traps of "What if?" suppositions, Fry avoids the risks through varying voices. Proposed screenplays joust with dryly written history, academese wrestles with Michael's cheeky speech.
Such narrative leaps work to undercut stodgy conceptions of history and highlight its limitations. As Michael says early in the novel, "A: None of what follows ever happened. B: All of what follows is entirely true." History provides context and molds identity; but only after their time-tinkering do Michael and Leo learn to what extent and understand the haunting, and seemingly inescapable, effects. The pages of Making History cackle with a distinctly British flavor ("Theater is dead but sometimes I like to go watch the corpse decompose."). Much like the novels of Kurt Vonnegut, the humor serves as a glass shield, only temporarily deflecting thoughtful and terrifying implications.
Part academic send-up, part zany screenplay, and part intriguing invented history, the novel dives headfirst into the trashbin of history and roots around with alternating elan and solemnity.
And thanks to Fry's deft hand, Making History emerges smelling sweeter than a rose.