The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen (New York: Mulholland Books, 2011. 448 pp)

Born in Rhode Island, Thomas Mullen graduated from Oberlin College. His first novel, The Last Town on Earth received the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction, Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune best book of the year. Mullen currently resides in Atlanta with his wife and two sons.

The Plot

Thomas Mullen

In The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen, Zed is an agent from the future. He is sent back in time to Washington D.C. to make sure the world’s problems continue in order that the future he lives in is preserved. It is his goal to make sure that every catastrophe throughout history runs it course, especially The Great Conflagration.

To realize this perfect present, the Government savagely protects history. It refuses to teach its citizens about the past, for fear of inciting a movement to fix the many past injustices that occurred before the perfect present.

There is, however, a rebel minority. With time travel capabilities developed in this future state, Zed must travel back to protect critical events in history from “hags”—rebels from the future attempting to alter history by ensuring the avoidance of mass atrocities. They try to kill Hitler; they attempt to thwart 9-11; they are currently targeting Washington D.C. , hoping to halt the Great Conflagration—an unknown event (to the reader at least) involving worldwide nuclear holocaust.

Zed makes sure violence happens.

Let’s Discuss

Donovan: Andrew, what were your general thoughts on the book?

Andrew: While I liked the premise of the book in general, I felt the execution fell short. The idea of an agent from the future trying to preserve the past is certainly a tried and true theme (take The Terminator as an example). However, the execution of the theme by Mullen just didn’t work. He tried to take cues from dystopian classics like Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But, in the end, the dystopia which Mullen was trying to project didn’t come through.

Andrew: And you, Donovan? Your thoughts?

Donovan: The Revisionists is a stark and, honestly, a disappointing departure from Mullen’s previous work. While Mullen has found success diving into the past with historical fiction, The Revisionists moves into the present and beyond. Something of note, however, is that Zed is a protector, much like in the dystopian classics Andrew mentioned.

“I protect the Events.
That’s the most accurate way of putting it, and that’s how my superiors at the Department first explained it to me. I used to know as little about these particular Events as anyone else did, but now I’m an expert on this era. I know why these people are fighting each other, why they hate those they hate, what they most fear” (6).

Donovan: Andrew, what did you think of Zed as a character?

Andrew: Well, I agree that Zed is a protector. But, perhaps more to the point, he’s simply a violent man. Zed protects, but in the end, he has a tendency towards violence that makes his actions seem unsavory at times. He is sent to protect, but I think he likes violence more than anything.

“Yes, Mr. Chaudhry, you are important indeed. You have no friends and no lover, but you have me, your guardian angel. Well, not really that—indeed, the furthest thing from it. But you do have me, as well as a few others—we’re all intertwined like strands of DNA, like subject and object, unspooling into the future, the generations and sentences extending endlessly.
Again, not really. The end for you, I’m afraid, is quite near” (5-6).

Andrew: Was there a part of the book that you really enjoyed?

Donovan: For me, the most interesting aspect of the book was not the characters or narrative, but the setting. By chance, I read The

Photo by Wally Goetz

Revisionists while my wife and I vacationed in Washington D.C. I constantly encountered creepy situations where Mullen depicted a setting my wife and I encountered during the day. Perhaps most ironically, Mullen mentions the hotel where we stayed:

“After finishing their drinks, they paid and split up—Leo would have been insulted at how hastily Gail had made her retreat if he hadn’t been so busy running through his mental files of the past few days. He walked half a block, then stood at the foot of the wide stone staircase that led into the Hotel Monaco” (337).

In describing this setting, Mullen shines. Much like the minute details he provides in his historical fiction, his account of D.C. is highly meticulous and worthy of praise.

Donovan: And you, Andrew? Was there a part of the book you enjoyed?

Andrew: As previously mentioned, I loved the idea of the novel. It reminds me of the great dystopian classics. However, I felt like Mullen gave up halfway through the book! He started with an agent from the future trying to protect the past, but then he just gave up and made it about Zed’s present.

The Revisionists was a fast-paced novel, sure, but the characters never developed and the plot never really enveloped me as a reader. Mullen could have committed to one concept of the novel to make it work. He could have made a novel about a horrific future in which dissent is crushed and history is altered to fit the present. But, he focused on the present troubles, of a guys life in a new past, of things that really shouldn’t matter in a novel about a future regime with ill-conscience. In addition, the fact that it took me three weeks to slog through what seemed like a page-turner says something about the readability of The Revisionists, too.

Andrew: Donovan, what are your final thoughts?

Donovan: The Revisionists falls short. While it might make a fantastic blockbuster, it is mediocre literature. Mullen’s story encapsulates the narrative of Zed and a few locals entwined in the plot. Despite the fast-paced and engaging plot, the characters never fully form. Without developed characters, I never truly accept them, engage with them, and fight for them throughout the story.

I want to like them more, but Mullen does not provide enough emotional motivation for me to feel for them. With some space for Mullen to provide reasoning behind why the characters tick, this story could have been much better.

If you want a page-turner, The Revisionists is a worthy story. If you’re looking for exceptional literature, try Mullen’s back catalog.

Verdict: 2.5 out of 5

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