I was wary going in to this, mostly because my experience with superheroes is primarily visual (comics, films, TV etc. maybe videogames), and I couldn’t quite imagine how they would work in a medium sans the ocular spectacle that perhaps defines the whole genre. Happily, however, Lavie Tidhar focuses on the emotional and philosophical implications of superhero-ness, using an idiosyncratic prose style to do the jobs usually covered by comics’ bright colours, or cinema’s loud noises and flashy flashes.
The Violent Century has two narrative focus points: the first is a grounded-in-reality presentation of 20th-century history, with the novel roughly covering the whole thing up until 9/11. The second focus is a fantastical superhero element: Dr Vomacht invents something (what he’s invented is never quite explained), turns it on, and in doing so creates hundreds of superheroes (“Ubermenschen” in the vernacular of the novel (with all the Nietzschean stuff that name evokes)), all with various – though on the whole familiar – powers: super speed, super strength, control over the elements etc. Using the conceit that the newly-created Ubermenschen don’t age, the novel tracks the entire century through the eyes of the same characters, chiefly the British heroes Fogg (who can make fog, duh), and Oblivion (who can vanish things within a few feet of his body).
And it’s really, really brilliant.
It’s not technically an alternate-history, as the presence of the Ubermenschen doesn’t change the course of the 20th Century as we know it. This is explained with the slick (if somewhat eye-brow-raising) rationale that the presence of British and German and Russian and American (etc.) superheroes all kinda cancel each other out, historically speaking. There are minor differences played for darkly comedic effect (Stan Lee, who in a world populated by superheroes never becomes a comics writer, is present at the Adolf Eichmann trials, for example), but otherwise this is history as we know it. In this regard the novel reminds me of Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis (not sure if Tidhar would thank me for that comparison, though), which also uses a fantastical narrative framework as a means of writing about horrific historical events.
The Second World War takes up most of the novel’s non-linear narrative, and even after the war is over, its long shadow dominates the lives of our protagonists (if you want to be really twee about it, you could argue for a corollary between the effect the War had on history, and the effect it has on the characters. Meh, maybe.).
Fogg and Oblivion begin with relative wide-eyed optimism, a sense of moral duty and a willingness to serve king and country. As the novel, and time, progress, however, the distinctions between good and evil begin to blur (a critique of the unrealism of the black-and-white morality espoused by traditional superhero narratives, perhaps?); once solid relationships become unstable: endless, endless wars take their toll, and depression, drug addiction, loss and a sense of not-belonging and no-place begins to dominate the lives of the Ubermenschen. In this regard the inner lives of the characters tracks nicely with the philosophical development of the 20th Century, from certain-of-itself formalism, through to an anxious and lost postmodernism.
So rather than being about how history might by changed by superheroes, The Violent Century ponders how superheroes might be changed by history. Perhaps this is a wry dig at the subjectively ahistorical nature of comic books (let’s face it, Captain America would be utterly fucked-up after everything he’s been through). It’s profoundly moving, and Tidhar’s major achievement is to simultaneously discuss violent, shocking historical realities and the fantastical nature of superpowers, without ever letting the superhero element undermine the seriousness of the book’s historical subject, and, for the nerds amongst you, I guess, vice versa.
Indeed, as the notion of the superhero seems to be the major pop-cultural zeitgeist force of the 21st Century, I guess it’s only to be expected that such narratives would eventually yield-up a lens through which we can understand real-world events. Events so horrific (the Holocaust) as to be unspeakable in the literary-realist medium?
Okay so I’m totally not sure about that last paragraph. I just kinda splatted it out. So maybe, if I can risk a cliché, I should just say that it seems apropos of superheroes’ developing maturity that books such as this are now being written. Not that the youthz of today can’t understand history unless it’s filtered through the lens of comics or anything.
Stylistically the book is influenced by hardboiled noir. Short, often verb-less sentences are the grammatical standard, which cleverly functions as both a call-back to the pulp literature that dominated genre writing for most of the century, and the punchy scene-setting text boxes used by comics writers for exposition. Augmenting this parallel is the fact that the whole book is written in the present tense (unusual for historical fic), and with frequent parenthetic asides in the second person “we”. It’s stunning how Tidhar has contrived a narrative style that echoes his book’s thematic convergence of 20th-century history with superhero genre fiction. Proof, if proof were needed, of the old literary-critical maxim that the story a book tells is inseparable from the way it is told.
My friend Thom and I often have this discussion about how difficult it is to invent a new superpower that hasn’t already been done in comics. This discussion usually involves me suggesting stuff, and Thom (who has a truly encyclopaedic knowledge of comics) responding with “nope, that was done in x” and “nope, y already thought of that”. Well, I defy anybody to find a pre-existing version of the character Sommertag’s super power, which I won’t spoil because it’s an incredible idea, equal parts wonderful and heart-rending, and really should be encountered for first time when you actually read the book.
Sommertag’s plot is probably the most divisive aspect of the novel, tbh. Her introduction hails the beginning of a love story which, for me, really works, and is genuinely moving. But I’m aware that for readers of a different caprice, this part of the plot veers dangerously close to the saccharine, with the potential to bathetically undermine the seriousness of the novel’s historical focus.
Either way, you should all read The Violent Century because it’s imaginative and dark and controversial and tragic and beautiful all at once.