The Revisionists

  • Thomas Mullen
  • Mulholland Books
  • 448 pp.

The gripping tale of four Washington D.C., citizens in a dystopic world struggling to preserve mankind’s true past — even those events that have torn us apart.

Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark

If you lie, cheat, steal and murder in support of a good cause, does that make it right? Let’s say human beings have developed a capacity for time travel, and some do-gooders want to go back and prevent some of the greatest tragedies. Let’s say further that you and your government believe that those tragedies must be allowed to happen, or there will be no Great Conflagration leading to the Perfect Present, and you are a Protector who must make sure the great tragedies happen.

The setting for this dystopic thriller is not some artificial world that the author created; it’s Washington, D.C., right about now. The choice of setting, and the fact that Thomas Mullen paints it so well, give the book a real-life grounding and an immediacy a created world would likely lack. The story is told from the points of view of four main characters: Zed, a Protector sent back in time to make sure certain horrible things happen; Tasha, a young lawyer working in a prestigious firm; Leo, an intelligence analyst pushed from his government job into the world of contracting; and Sari, an Indonesian woman held in virtual slavery by a South Korean diplomatic couple. Interwoven in this fabric are historical agitators, or “hags” — as wonderful a bit of jargon as ever emerged in a novel — people who have traveled back to try to prevent tragedies and disasters. They are Zed’s enemies, and he eradicates many of them in the course of the book.

Tasha’s brother has been killed in Iraq, and she discovers in a client’s e-mail information that they delayed shipment of a large quantity of safety equipment to soldiers in Iraq so they could save money. She leaks it to The New York Times, in a violation of lawyer-client confidentiality. Zed meets her and starts to fall in love with her; Leo finds out her secret and tries to blackmail her so that she will hoodwink and betray an activist friend of hers. Zed is supposed to ensure that the activist friend is killed — and maybe he’s supposed to ensure that Tasha is killed as well. Leo meets Sari by chance at a grocery store, and strikes up a conversation with her in Indonesian. He sets up an elaborate plot to incriminate her employers and so free her, but Zed interferes because he needs the employers for reasons of his own.

The Revisionists is a fast and fascinating read. Mullen’s writing drives the reader forward, without the muddiness that sometimes mars thrillers. His descriptions of Washington place the action firmly in the present; the people he observes on the Metro, spying on others in the window reflections, leaning obliviously into their cell phones, are people any of us could see any day. Zed marvels at the city’s beauty: “The perfect geometric layout, the wide avenues and clean sidewalks, all the monuments bathed in celestial light. The contemps around me have no idea how long it will take them to rebuild something like this.” “Contemps” are the people who belong in that time, and Zed drops other hints about the future in store for them, saying that contemps have no appreciation for the trees that are everywhere, or for the marvelous purity of the air they breathe.

There are other indications that the “Perfect Present” may not be so perfect. In the interest of preventing any ethnic strife, the study of history has been severely restricted, so much so that Zed’s father-in-law is imprisoned, tortured and possibly executed for being part of “a conspiracy to circulate historical information.” There is one clear advance of the current technology to track people: the system is called Enhanced Awareness, which allows people who track e-mails and tap phones to keep up with all the information they get. Mullen has a character talk about how difficult it is to differentiate all the important from the unimportant without having ten thousand bored-to-tears analysts combing through meaningless babble, and, “[w]hen Orwell invented Big Brother, he must have imagined the guy was an amazingly fast reader with infinite patience.” There may be many readers who think anyone who monitors their every word and action would end up screaming with boredom, and many who may smile at this passage.

Thomas Mullen has applied his considerable imagination to history in his previous novels, The Last Town on Earth, which won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction in 2007, and The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. Although the big moral questions in this novel are ones that have engaged thinkers over time, and particularly engaged Americans in the last decade, they have rarely been given such fascinating treatment as they are in this novel. It is not a cozy or comforting read, but it is fast and thought-provoking, and with characters that will remain vivid in the reader’s mind long after the book has been put down.

Susan Storer Clark, a former broadcast journalist and civil servant, has been a member of the Holey Road Writers in Silver Spring, Md., for more than 10 years and contributes frequently to The Independent. She recently completed a historical novel set in 19th-century America.

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