The world has hardly run out of deep, dark secrets; good luck finding out the real truth about the wars we fight, the prescription drugs we take, the food we eat. But as we learn in “The House of Rumour,” British novelist Jake Arnott's thought-provoking puzzle-book of interlocking and overlapping stories, there was nothing like the '40s for impenetrable shadows.
The Nazis and then the Reds were rising, the nuclear age was dawning, and flying saucers were descending; really, just ask all the people who spotted UFOs hovering over farms and forests.
There's a reason the war years were such a golden era for science fiction, as consumed in popular pulp magazines with "astounding," "fantastic" and "thrilling" in their titles. Grave developments primed writers' imaginations, empowering them to speculate on dangerous conspiracies and predict scary things to come. At its best, sci-fi wasn't just about cheap thrills; it was a means to alert people to future threats, and even to dream up ways to defend ourselves from those threats.
He clearly admires many of the writers from the era, including Robert A. Heinlein and Anthony Boucher, as well as the next generation of sci-fi greats they inspired, notably Philip K. Dick. But Arnott doses that nostalgia with sardonic, post-modern irony, playing his own freewheeling game of Kevin Bacon in making seemingly random connections between and among fictional and real-life characters.
Hitler henchman Rudolf Hess, who bizarrely flies to Scotland in the middle of the night with thoughts of staging peace discussions, is tied to a hedonistic pop star in '80s England who converts to Scientology. Real-life rocket scientist Jack Parsons, who preaches the teachings of British occultist Aleister Crowley and dies in a strange accident, is linked to a victim of the Jonestown Massacre. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are in the mix, along with the San Francisco with flowers in its hair.
The central fictional character is sci-fi writer Larry Zagorski, who looks back at his past from 2011. In the early '40s, living in Los Angeles, he drew attention in pulp circles, including future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, with his futuristic novelette "Lords of the Black Sun," in which the Third Reich rules the earth and is looking to expand its domain. He is smitten with one of the few females making her mark in sci-fi, Mary-Lou Gunderson, but she is obsessed with Parsons. Zagorski ends up flying missions over Germany on the way to marrying an actress and writing his futuristic satire "American Gnostic." Mary-Lou becomes an Ida Lupino-like director of film noirs, offering a very different take on the hidden truths that define who we are.
Over in Britain, meanwhile, intelligence agent Ian Fleming is involved in a disinformation campaign on home soil against the Nazis, little knowing he will one day become famous for fictionalizing spycraft as the creator of 007. The Rosebud of "The House of Rumour" is a secret report on Hess written by a fictional colleague of Fleming's, Sir Marius Trevelyan. A onetime black ops agent on the Nazi's trail, he loses the document when a male transvestite prostitute he picks up steals the case it's in.
The report falls into other hands and appropriately ends up in Hollywood.
Though the individual stories in "House of Rumour" were inspired by Tarot cards, and the book takes its title from Ovid's "Metamorphoses" (which features "a tower of sounding bronze that hums and echoes, repeating all it hears, mixing truth with fiction"), Arnott is more indebted to Don DeLillo's and E.L. Doctorow's intertwined narratives and casting of real-life figures; James Ellroy's amphetamine-fueled assaults on clandestine America and "Cloud Atlas" author David Mitchell's epic time flips.
Dualities rule: reality and fiction, good and evil, spies and counter-spies, and in the most revealing scenes, straight and gay. (Arnott's own story would fit right in: Considered one of Britain's most influential gay men, he crossed over into a heterosexual relationship with former lesbian writer Stephanie Theobald.)
Oddly enough, this is the second recent novel to feature Heinlein, Hubbard and other early sci-fi stars as fictional characters in a tale involving Nazism, following Paul Malmont's "The Astounding, The Amazing and the Unknown" (2011). Malmont celebrates science fiction for its ability to bridge "what is known and what is about to be possible."
For Arnott, everything comes down to the adjustments made over time "in what and how people believed." With the advent of computers, jet travel and atomic energy, fantasy became reality. "We all live in a science fiction world now," says one of Arnott's characters, more disappointed than excited.
If you believe, as "The House of Rumour" does but official history does not, that there actually was a female pope who disguised herself as a man — Pope Joan — this novel will be right up your alley.
Lloyd Sachs regularly reviews books for Kirkus Reviews and blogs at jazzespress.com.
"The House of Rumour"
By Jake Arnott, New Harvest, 448 pages, $26