Stephen Fry makes a bit of history

March 29, 1998|By M.G. Lord | M.G. Lord,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Making History," by Stephen Fry. Random House. 382 pages. $23.

No one who has read "The Liar," Stephen Fry's 1991 novel, would accuse Fry of being a sloppy stylist. The book is one long word game, exhausting if somewhat hollow.

"Making History," Fry's new novel, has all the strengths of this earlier work, with a significant addition: substance. Without sacrificing his lightness of touch, Fry takes on weighty issues - guilt, destiny and the problem of evil. He even rewards the reader with something truly unexpected: a sweet, romantic ending.

At the book's center is Michael Young, a Cambridge University graduate student. Though stricken with the same chronic glibness that afflicts Fry, Young feels deeply. Ditched by his girlfriend, who lives for science, and reviled by his history tutor, who rejects his dissertation, Young has reached a crisis. He is ready for his life to take an unexpected turn, as it does when he meets Leo Zuckerman, a legendary physicist, with whom he shares a fixation. Young has written on the early life of Adolf Hitler; Zuckerman is obsessed with Hitler and the Holocaust.

Zuckerman has also created a cunning gadget that opens up a two-way window into the past. Assisted by Young, he masterminds a plot to prevent Hitler's birth. Fry is deliberately vague on the mechanics of time tampering - "Everything I know about physics comes down to gossip," Young explains - but the conspirators do rewrite history. The book's second half takes place at Princeton University, where Young finds himself in a different academic field and a very different world.

"Making History" is not merely a novel, but a comment on the novel. "Books are dead, plays are dead, poems are dead," Young rants. "There's only movies." And for people who value the inner life, this is not good news: In movies, "You are what you do. What's inside your head means nothing until you act. ... The perfect stage hero is Hamlet. The perfect film hero is Lassie."

To contrast fiction with film, Fry renders Young's inward-looking sections in prose and his action sequences as a screenplay. Movies, Fry implies, tell but a shadow of the story; novels tell more - unexpected commentary from a writer who is equally well-known as an actor. (He stars in a soon-to-be-released film on the life of Oscar Wilde.)

Fry has, however, picked up a few useful tricks at his day job, among them, how to pace a narrative. "Making History" tears along like a cinematic thriller, building suspense with each fresh scene. He also has a keen eye for details, evident in this description of Zuckerman - cursed to "senesce prematurely," so he and his ilk begin to "peer and blink and hunch like little library moles well before 40."

For the first few chapters, I could not have cared less about Young. But he grew on me, as did "Making History." Battling bigots in a world far worse than the one that he was born into, Young became likable. Lovable, even. And richly deserving of the book's Hollywood ending, in which, lest Fry be accused of losing all his edge, Ecstasy is a drug, not a state of mind.

M.G. Lord wrote "Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll." Formerly a columnist and syndicated political cartoonist, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She is working on a cultural history of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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