BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In three interconnected situations Park creates a fantastical mosaic of history, autobiography, speculation, and confabulated experience stretching from after the Civil War to the near future. At times the connections seem too subtle or enigmatic, but Park creates a work that is fascinating to read.
PROS: Deftly written; intriguing use of SFnal conceits; rich and complex narrative; challenges the reader to make connections and think about how our experiences are shaped by our own narrative.
CONS: Some of the connections are too obscure; pacing a little off in places; last section seems the least plausible as future history AND extrapolated experience.
BOTTOM LINE: A book that provokes reflection about life and how it is shaped by our stories and perceptions.
One sign that I’ve just read something extraordinary is that I simultaneously want to write about it at great length and don’t know where to start. When I finally put down Paul Park’s All Those Vanished Engines I immediately scribbled down several ideas and could not decide which one to start with. By turns dramatic and suggestive, insidious and startling, Park’s novel has layers and intricacies that it demands the reader unpack and figure out amidst shifting historical moments in one (or more?) alternate timelines. But these are not dizzying disjunctures or jarring shifts; Park uses the tools of science fiction to create characters/personae and situations/simulations that feel lived-in but anomalous, familiar yet estranged. There are ambiguities, small gaps and asides, but what emerges is a powerful meditation that asks the reader to reflect on the nature of both experience and speculation.
The book’s story is not straightforward: Park creates three related narratives that contain sub-narratives within them that he strives to make into a larger narrative while also braiding them into a meta-narrative. That’s less confusing than it sounds. Each narrative is coherent on its own, a vignette from Park’s family history or his own (present and future) experience, but has resonance with the other narratives and together form an overarching story that is part family saga, part meditation on estrangement and alienation. Sometimes this is subtle (to the point of the connections not being fully made), but as you keep reading you find both linkages and questions about what is going on in the book as a whole. The three narratives take place in altered historical contexts: a postbellum American South where the Civil War turned out very differently; a present that has hints of strange, secret technology; and a near-future that gradually crystallizes into a rough dystopia. In each story the main character is on a journey to discover more about themselves and in the process interrogate the nature of their reality. Each one builds to a critical moment that provides. . . not answers, but a standpoint for reflection. What I found the book to be about is the way we look backwards, forwards, to each side, and crosswise when we create the story of our lives, and the story of life itself.
For me, this quotation seemed key, coming near the end of the first narrative:
“How can we live, Paulina thought, when memory tells us one thing, reality another, and imagination a third? How can we travel through the world?”
The attempt to understand these questions is what powers the narratives in All Those Vanished Engines. In each one Park’s protagonist (who is an ancestor in the first one, “himself” in the others) is sifting through the memories and imaginings of themselves and others to grasp what is happening in the world, what the key is to grasping their reality. They are also trying to better understand another person, and thus solve the mystery of themselves in the process. In each narrative the protagonists are estranged from that person in some way and – through journals, manuscripts, and others’ memories – are trying to connect anew with them, which in the process makes them see other connections, other relationships, in a new light. The SFnal conceits in each story further enhance the feeling of estrangement in each narrative; sometimes they feel like distractions but they imbue the narratives with a sense of disjuncture (sometimes profound, sometimes absurd) that causes the reader to think carefully about what they think they know about each protagonist’s historical moment, their moment in “reality.” Aliens are prominent in the book, but as figures remembered or written about by someone else. Initially I was perplexed by their presence in the book, but looking back they add another element of estrangement to the mix and become yet another weird mirror that creates reflections back onto the story. And reflections are the heart of the book’s story.
The aliens embody alienation in a way that does not seem as significant as most SF novels that deploy extraterrestrials, but they accentuate the play of estrangement in the book. These and the other SFnal elements are not used for the usual task of speculation or escapism or subversion, but unmoor the narratives from our own reality to create a less comfortable angle for reflection. This play, and the tension between estrangement and alienation in the narratives, is what makes the book so intriguing and, sometimes, frustrating. While “unreal” these aliens exist alongside ancestors, diarists, writers and interviewees as cyphers and metaphors. They are part of the parade of figures that the protagonists access to make sense of the world, and are enmeshed in a web of relations that is itself a product of the struggle of these figures to create, comprehend, and visualize the world. We find our place in the world by alternately ensnaring others and being ensnared by them, make sense of our reality and those who populate it through relationships that are produced in ever-present conditions of estrangement and alienation.
All Those Vanished Engines aptly demonstrates what Douglas Robinson wrote in his study Estrangement and the Somatics of Literature: Tolstoy, Shklovsky, Brecht: that estrangement and alienation are “double, contradictory, dialectical.” Park crafts a novel that artfully shows these qualities, and further show how they might affect our constitution of our reality. The conclusion that the story delivers is that estrangement isn’t just “out there” in some future or alternate present or secondary world; it is integral to how we lives our lives and apprehend our reality. Alienation is not some artificial separation from others; it is a natural part of making, unmaking, and remaking relationships, which are themselves produced by that mixture of memory, imagination, and reality that concerns Pauline. The more I think and write about this novel the more I find in it to admire, which is one of the highest forms of praise I can give a work of art.